On the surface, Comic-Con International 2023 was similar to previous years. So many fans, so many costumes, dozens of stories high on busy intersections beneath glowing advertisements for television shows. Inside the convention center, people wade through the crowded exhibition floor, lining up for exclusive merchandise and collectibles, the work of their favorite artists. Throughout the convention’s many panel sites, experts discussed a variety of pop culture and genre fiction topics. Some participants played tabletop games; Others met for anime viewing sessions. Comic artists and publishers come together for their industry’s most prestigious award, the Eisners.
But a trip to Hall H on Saturday afternoon underscored the strangeness of this year’s convention, which fell two and a half months into the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike and just one week into the Screen Actors Guild’s parallel strike by film and television actors. In a typical year, Hall H’s 6,100 seats would be filled with people waiting literally all day (or night) to get in, and networks and studios would show them exclusive footage with A-list talent on stage—a rare opportunity for fans and the entertainment industry to meet in person. This year, you can walk into a partially empty hall. At the Star Trek presentation, entertainment journalist Scott Mantz stood alone on the dais, queuing up sizzle reels and calling the names of absent cast members to applause. In that room, it became clear that this was a San Diego Comic-Con without Hollywood.
Of course, there have been many SDCCs without Hollywood—the “comic” recalling the origins of its namesake Golden State Comic Book Convention, first attended by hundreds in 1970. The scope of the event has steadily expanded over the decades. That dominance defined the convention’s role in the entertainment industry: a place for trailer drops and major announcements, and for many industry insiders a chance to see “the fans” in physical form, even if only a small slice of fan culture was represented there.
Some of Hollywood’s biggest players have been pulling out of SDCC since corporate saturation peaked in the mid-2010s; For example, Star Wars hasn’t had much of a presence over the years, as Disney has shifted fan-facing activities to their own events like Star Wars Celebration and D23. But this year, with writers already on strike and a SAG-AFTRA strike looming, many studios and networks began canceling their scheduled programming; With the actors’ strike officially underway and SAG-AFTRA members barred from doing any promotional work, the SDCC schedule became a sea of cancellations. Ahead of the convention, there was speculation that Hollywood’s retreat would mean a return to its roots—perhaps comics would once again be the star of the show.
But even in its absence, Hollywood still hung onto a good deal of the convention, which is as much an entertainment-industry event as it is a fan-based event. Many WGA and SAG-AFTRA members spoke of the motivations for this year’s strike as “existential”: feeling that it was a major shift for the entertainment industry specifically and for workers.
That feeling was evident in San Diego, and not just from the actors and writers who attended in a non-promotional capacity. Since the strikes began, the studios seem to be working to pit fans against the people doing what they love, framing the delays as the fault of notable writers rather than the disapproval of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios. Online, this framing was largely dismissed by fans, and that spirit seems to carry over to SDCC. The unusual—yes, disappointing for some—Comic-Con was an absolute necessity, as the future of entertainment media on all sides of the equation is at stake.