Monday, July 28, 2008

The Last American Comic Con Virgin...

That's right, I said it, and I'm pretty sure I'm the only one left. Well, I was the only one left until this weekend. Back in March, fresh off my Creation Entertainment event high, I signed up as a member of the press to "cover" this year's Comic Con in San Diego. Though the process was long and intense (I have never had anyone ask me to mail them copies of my bylines before), I was finally accepted into their elite group. I was given a two-page document with my barcode and driving instructions just like anyone who bought a weekend pass on their website, and that was that. Then sometime in early July I was reading yet another entertainment blog, and I stumbled across the complete Comic Con schedule for the first two days of events. I had almost forgotten about it, but right away the excitement began to wash over me, much the way the rumbling waves of people in the San Diego Convention Center consumed me this weekend.

So armed with a highlighted print-out of events and a map of downtown San Diego to help me find parking, I set out uber-early Saturday morning to pack in two full days of rubbing elbows with stars and getting free swag tossed my way (sadly, I am part of the masses who has a day job and could not take off from work early to attend the first two and a half days worth of stuff-- and even more sadly, that means I missed out on Mark Wahlberg, Hugh Jackman's "surprise" appearance, and the Dr. Horrible... panel). The drive down to SD was quick, and since I arrived before the butt-crack of dawn, parking wasn't nearly as hard to find as I thought, though I was extremely glad I wore my Blochs because as I found out early, I would be walking a lot. Already, though, there was a huge line snaked in front of the Convention Center of tee-shirted (and yeah, a few costumed) fans waiting to pick up their tickets. Though I had a press badge waiting for me, I had to wait in line like everyone else, but thankfully it moved pretty quickly once official check-in time hit. People were chatty, and though many raised their eyebrows when I said it was my first time, and I was looking forward to wandering from booth to booth or panel to panel (apparently there's a rhythm to these things that requires anyone attending alone won't get the full experience of), they offered a lot of great advice, such as: never buy any food in the Convention Center unless it's from Starbucks! Not a problem, as that was where I headed right away... and smack into another line of people. This time a guy dressed exactly like The Joker was waiting in front of me, fixing his ultra-red lips with a hand mirror. I didn't ask him if I could take a picture (of or with him) because it was so early in the morning, and I know how I usually feel about photos before my make-up is completely applied, but now I kind of wish I had just gone for it. How often will you see that?? Well, at Comic Con, at least three more times (by my count, anyway).

My original plan was to use Saturday to wander around and collect free stuff-- I had a list from friends and co-workers of things to get them-- but there were actually some really interesting things going on in some of the ballrooms (which only sounds like it's the right term if the Con was held in a hotel... which for the longest time I thought it would be), and I opted to sit in on some instead. Okay, when I say "sit in," I should explain that I ended up in the back of each and every single room. Though my press pass got me into everything and every day, it was up to me to fight the people who were camping out in one chair, in one room, all day watching different panels filter in and out in front of them. My strategy had me flitting in and out a lot of cool stuff for shows with which I wasn't familiar (Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Pushing Daisies, Chuck) but whose panels were inspiring and fun enough to make me want to get into them, but unfortunately my pictures are something to be desired.

For the filmmaker in me, I attended what I thought would be less popular, and therefore less crowded, panels (they didn't have the draw of big name stars, for example), like "Film School 103: Working with Actors and a Crew," "Podcasting Superheroes" (mainly because I want to start a podcast to help promote a web series I'm working on, and "Writing Characters." I was going to attend "TV Guide's Hot List," but by then I was exhausted, sweaty, and starving, having only subsisted on one tall Frappuccino, bottles of water, and a pack of Trident gum. I had also learned that while the fans are really friendly, and the ones in costume act like celebrities themselves and are always willing to stop and pose for a photo with you in the middle of the floor (can't tell you how many times I almost slammed into one!), there is very little time to get from one panel to another if they are far away from each other (let alone stop and interview anyone), so you find yourself weaving through the crowds like you're in high school and racing the late bell. Or maybe I was just a bit overwhelmed.

The majority of "fan event" experience I have had leading up to this were some much more controlled Days of our Lives fan club weekends in the late nineties, where there were usually one hundred people-- max. So I figured in order to get the most out of the two panels I just absolutely had to see on Sunday, I needed to come up with a better plan. The Supernatural screening and panel, which featured my beloved Jensen Ackles, was set to overlap the Harold & Kumar 2: Escape From Guantanamo Bay one, which featured my beloved Neil Patrick Harris (I'm sorry, it's hard to call him NPH with a straight face) and would probably deliver news about the next installment. And as I learned the first day, they were on practically opposite sides of the facilities; my only hope was that the SN screening would be last so I could duck out early and run downstairs, somehow offloading my hundred-plus photo collage of Jensen's beautiful face so I'd have a blank memory card for Neil Patrick Harris' beautiful face. Did I mention I wasn't really prepared for the magnitude of these events???

After stressing myself out in the morning, I spent the afternoon of Sunday at the Fraggle Rock panel and trying to find the things on my friends' freebie list. It was like a scavenger hunt! Though as I passed many booths, people would thrust stickers and pins and flyers and iron-ons at me left and right, I actually had a hard time finding for what they were asking. Perhaps it was because I waited until the last available moments, and they had run out of stuff-- the four Star Trek posters, for example, were supposed to be handed out one to a fan, but since when you put the four together, they formed one mega poster in the shape of the ship, there's no way fans didn't go back until they had one of each, and there's also no way the guys at the booth would have been able to remember them. Hell, even if they were dressed like a Storm Trooper, they certainly weren't the only ones!

The drive back on Sunday night was insane, but I used the three plus hours to come up with a stronger plan of attack for next year, which brings me (finally!) to the main point of this article: a few words to the wise for any of you thinking of going to Comic Con for the first time next year (basically, I guess I'm talking to all the pre-teens whose parents didn't want to shell out the cash for something they assume is a fleeting interest because everyone else appears to be regulars there!):

1) And this is the most important: BRING FRIENDS! Having a group of people there with you not only ensures a rotating bathroom/snack fetching/saving seats schedule throughout the day, but you can split up at some points and therefore not have to miss out on some free stuff or pictures of a favorite star, even when the panel may overlap another you want to be in. Then you trade stuff at the end of the weekend.

2) Bring your own snacks and bottled water, and lots of them: All of the walking, sitting in close quarters with so many people, the general summer heat, and level of excitement which causes lots of smiling and laughing and animated talking, are things that make you hot, sweaty, thirsty, smelly, and tired really quickly. Keep your energy up so you don't poop out on a later panel.

3) If you're not staying in a hotel in walking distance, be sure to leave extra time to find parking, especially if you don't know the San Diego area. I drove in circles for a few minute on the first day, trying to find an open lot closest to the Convention Center.

4) Be sure to scope out where the bathrooms are ahead of time. I thought it would be fine: I'd just look for a long line, but then I realized everything has a long line! People line up for panels hours before they start sometimes just to guarantee a seat. Some shows have fanatical followings, and the panels aren't always in the best equipped rooms (ahem, Supernatural schedulers!).

5) If you want to do something (see an exhibit like the Movie Memorabilia one or a specific FX booth), do it first. Time gets away from you really quickly, and you don’t want to risk missing it all together.

6) Bring your laptop or an extra memory card or two. You end up taking tons of photos of random signage and other fans just while you're waiting for the stars to arrive, and you want to have plenty of "film" for the actual panelists. Depending on where your seats are, you may have to take half a dozen shots before you get a decent one. Remember: the longer zoom you have to use, the more light you end up cutting down on.

7) HAVE FUN! So many fans are so intensely focused, they look more stressed than like they're enjoying themselves. For the money you’re plunking down, and the insanity you’re dealing with, it’s just not worth it if it’s not fun.

Oh yeah, and if you're picking up a Press badge when you arrive, don't assume anyone will be impressed. Most people are bloggers who are pissed that Comic Con doesn't yet recognize them as legit members of the media, and they will give the shiny plastic rectangle dangling around your neck the stink-eye... especially when they realize how much more prepared they are than you.

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