Comic conventions have long been known for being massive shopping malls for superfans, offering every manner of gear, toy, publication and collectible that geek culture can imagine. But with comic-based and genre content at the center of the multi-billion dollar global entertainment industry, it’s getting difficult to determine whether fans are shopping for merchandise at the shows, or whether big media brands are turning their wallets inside out shopping for fans.
This weekend, hundreds of thousands of pop culture superfans took over New York’s Javits Center for one of the country’s top fan events, New York Comic Con, and many of the premier media and technology brands were there to greet them. This year’s show featured a bunch of deluxe pop-up experiences, or “activations” as they’re known in the trade-show world, designed to get media mavens and influencers jazzed about upcoming shows, services and gadgets.
NYCC has long been the media industry’s preferred launching point for television programming, since the fall timing works well for the traditional start of the new season and TV has less competition from big-budget feature films than at the Hollywood-centric San Diego Comic-Con. As the Streaming Wars heat up, placing TV programming higher on the media agenda, NYCC has become a hugely important destination to win or keep consumer mindshare. The big-budget activations around the show testify to the importance that companies see in reaching this crowd.
Amazon Studios is leaning hard into the upcoming fourth season of its critically regarded science fiction series, The Expanse. At the south entrance of the Javits Center just past the security area, fans were greeted with a walk-through replica of the Rocinante, the spaceship from the series. The attraction included props, detailed show references and a digital photobooth.
Netflix had several exhibits in and around the exhibit hall. One of the show floor entrances was branded with banners, props and logos for the season two debut of Lost in Space, including a full-size version of the show’s robot. This entrance is a popular place for cosplayers and families to pose for photos, so the branding will be part of a lot of people’s social media feeds.
Outside the north entrance of the Javits center, Netflix had a walk-through activation promoting the new original Breaking Bad sequel El Camino. The pop-up dropped a little bit of New Mexican desert grit into Manhattan and featured props, wanted posters, an evidence locker, and other accouterments of the popular crime thriller, paid off with a 3D photo-op in front of the titular El Camino.
Chances are, most attendees of NYCC are already hotly anticipating the new Star Trek: Picard series and the next season of Star Trek: Discovery on CBS All-Access, but just in case, the network was on hand with a prop-filled immersive Star Trek activation in the center of the Javits lobby. The combination of placement and interest guaranteed that this booth was jammed for the duration of the show.
DC Universe, WarnerMedia’s streaming service for fans of superhero media, comics, merchandise and content, were offsite on 36th street a couple of blocks from the convention center with a pop-up exhibit dedicated to fan-favorite Harley Quinn, who will be featured in an upcoming animated series on the channel as well as in various live-action projects. The show displayed artwork tracing Harley’s origins as a one-off villain in 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series to her rise as one of DC’s most popular characters. There was the inevitable green-screen photo opportunity, as well as a lounge stocked with snacks, beverages and programming for DC Universe subscribers.
Google hosted the show’s most technically ambitious attraction, an augmented reality experience called MarkAR, jointly developed by Danish firm SYBO and China-based iDream Sky using Google’s new Cloud Anchor technology. The activation started outside the north entrance of Javits and extended on a walking tour through several blocks offsite.
The app uses physical environments as a creative canvas, allowing users to digitally “tag” walls, sidewalks and structures with digital artwork, stencils, text and freehand drawings. The images are visible to members of your network through the app by scanning the area through the camera and display of an Android smart phone.
MarkAR is a powerful idea and the version of the app that Google was sharing at the show featured a lot of technically-interesting engineering to move the AR concept forward, but some of the features of the experience are still under development.
Some of the other heavyweight media exhibitors at the show like Marvel and AMC’s The Walking Dead used their massive booths on the show floor itself as promotion stages, brand activations, retail spaces and product demonstration areas. In addition, dozens of non-media brands rolled out their own immersive, gamified or interactive experiences around the con, tempting fans with giveaways and other swag in exchange for badge-scans.
The mad scramble for fan attention wasn’t the only thing going on at NYCC this weekend: there were the usual panels, meetups, cosplay and gaming competitions, and a booming commerce in physical merchandise. But it certainly felt like media and technology companies are placing a higher priority than ever on winning the loyalty of the hardcore audience, and sparing no expense to impress us with their digital razzle-dazzle.