The first superfans began lining up early Thursday morning for an exclusive, once-in-a-lifetime event at Comic-Con: Taco Bell.
This year the hottest fan opportunity at Comic Con wasn't a star-studded panel in Hall H or autographs on the convention hall's main floor. It was entry into the futuristic Taco Bell pop-up at Greystone Prime Steakhouse and Seafood in the Gaslamp Quarter — not just any Taco Bell, but a neon-lit futuristic replica of the one seen in the 1993 Sylvester Stallone sci-fi pic "Demolition Man," recreated in lavish detail for the film's 25th anniversary, complete with bright blue cocktails, robot waiters and Crunchwraps from the "future."
Fans came, ate, marveled and, more important, shared their selfies and excitement on social media.
Batman, Superman and the Avengers still rule supreme at the massive fan confab held annually over four days in July, of course. Hundreds of thousands of obsessive fanatics still flood the streets of San Diego sporting geek T-shirts and superhero costumes to be among the first to catch exclusive glimpses of their favorite (and soon-to-be-favorite) TV shows and movies.
But thanks to the explosion of fandom culture, the rise of social media and the hunger of marketing executives to launch brands of all kinds at the biggest pop culture marketing event of the year, the times are a-changing across this multimillion-dollar nexus of far-flung galaxies and fantastical universes.
Savvy marketing execs are increasingly adding to their traditional media presences on Comic-Con panels and in official programming — or bypassing them altogether — by staging high-priced promotional campaigns along the streets of downtown San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter, where experiential marketing has become the trend.
Con-goers wandering the Gaslamp this week can visit the worlds of DC Comics, play a "South Park" escape game, run from zombies at AMC's "Walking Dead"-themed DeadZone and feel John Krasinski standing watch over the San Diego Harbor from the towering Omni Hotel, where his face is plastered on the side of the skyscraper in character as Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, the star of his own upcoming Amazon spinoff.
WB and DC's "Aquaman," "Shazam," and "Wonder Woman" are expected to fill the cavernous Hall H in Saturday's high-profile official studio panel, but for the last several years major studios including Disney have sat out Comic-Con. Now it's primarily television networks trying to grow awareness for upcoming products by introducing them to prospective fans here — and they're increasingly thinking outside the traditional geek-culture box to do so.
This year, attendees crossing the trolley tracks into the sprawling San Diego Convention Center must first walk past the eye-catching, cheerily yellow house from NBC's afterlife comedy "The Good Place."
Inside the house, a Comic-Con-exclusive video starring cast members Ted Danson and D'Arcy Carden welcomes fans into a live "experience" involving giant shrimp cocktail carousels, RFID bracelets tracking fans' voluntarily registered personal details, cupcakes and a host of in-world actors.
" 'The Good Place's' audience is very digitally savvy — and coincidentally we've learned over the years that the sci-fi audience overlaps a lot with the audience" of "The Good Place," said NBC's Gerry Logue, executive vice president of digital and print creative, who admits the Kristen Bell series falls outside of what historically has been considered the kind of geek property perfect for Comic-Con. " 'Supernatural,' 'The Walking Dead' — they both index high with our [viewers]. So we felt like it was a natural fit."
An estimated 135,000 fans attended last year's event, which began humbly nearly 50 years ago with just 300 attendees. A four-day pass to the event now costs $235, and those who want to see headlining panels can count on hours of wait time.
Not surprisingly, each year, Comic-Con draws thousands more badgeless visitors to the surrounding downtown streets, where properties such as "Star Trek," "Dragon Ball" and FX's "Sons of Anarchy" spinoff "Mayans M.C." give even unofficial con-goers plenty to gawk at, snap and selfie.
The biggest room in the official Comic-Con program, Hall H, can fit only 6,500 fans. Staging an activation — as the pop-up attractions are called — outside the convention, on the other hand, can reach hundreds of thousands of eyeballs, and giving the fans an experience-driven interaction increases their emotional investment with the products and makes them more likely to share that experience with friends.
This year's largest marketing presence comes courtesy of Amazon's "Jack Ryan." In addition to the Omni building ad, the company built out a sprawling "hyper-reality virtual-reality spy experience" in a massive compound where fans can zip line from a helicopter, run a training course, explore a bazaar and play an in-world escape room.
"It's a big, buzzworthy show and obviously a different type of role for John Krasinski, who's fantastic in it, so we're really excited about it," said Greg Hart, vice president of Amazon Video. "We thought it was a really good way to introduce that to fans, and the activation is all about playing off that and putting the fan in the shoes that Jack Ryan is in in the series: He's making the transition from just an analyst at a desk to all of a sudden, he's in the field. Life gets real. So the goal of the activation is to take that feeling and put fans into exactly that scenario."
It helps to have a gimmick, a good location and a budget, even if most companies decline to divulge just how much they spend; the best activations have a physical presence passersby want to snap even if they don't have the stamina or time to wait in long lines.
"Everybody wants to show the cool, fun thing that they tried and that they did, and I think that lines up nicely with what we're trying to create — environments and elements that are easily shareable," said Ryan Crosby, vice president of content marketing at Hulu, which this year focused its marketing efforts on promoting the July 25 premiere of its new Stephen King horror series, "Castle Rock."
To introduce fans to the world of the show, which is based on the fictional town familiar to fans of King's novels, Hulu built an elaborate 70,000-square-foot haunted house "bed and breakfast" a few blocks away from the convention center. "We want to remove the glass from in between the fan and the world," Crosby said. "There's an opportunity to let them touch it, feel it and experience it in different ways."
Like NBC's "The Good Place" and Hulu's "Castle Rock," USA Network took a twofold approach to launching its upcoming "The Purge" television series at Comic-Con. In addition to hosting a cast and crew panel in the official convention program accessible only to badge-holders, the network built out a 3,000-square-foot Purge City party store with a space big enough to accommodate up to 100 fans an hour.
Inside, visitors engage with 12 "party planner" actors posing as store employees and can go home with a selection of "Purge" items created just for the Comic-Con activation. The aim is to let fans familiar with the popular "Purge" horror movies know that there's a television adaptation coming to screens this fall.
"You have an engaged audience," said Colleen Mohan, senior vice president of brand marketing for USA Network. "You have 135,000 engaged and avid fans in one place, and I think those are the people that really appreciate the fanatical devotion of detail that goes into an experience like this."
Grandesign is a marketing company that offers an array of branding services including the traditional "Jack Ryan" building wrap it plastered on the side of the Omni Hotel, a job that took a week to complete and required workers to wrap the outside of individual hotel rooms.
"The people who have Jack Ryan's nose just open that sliding glass door and walk out onto their balcony," said Chief Executive Aaron Gaeir.
But Grandesign also saw opportunity in activation-mania. This year, partnering with the San Diego Padres and sponsor Lexus, it has filled a 3-acre blacktop at Petco Park with "experiences" from more than 20 media brands, including a stunt activation for Marvel's "Cloak and Dagger," a 40-foot Discovery Channel "Sharkzilla" and an interactive UFO experience for History Channel's "Project Blue Book." Attendees need no badge to enter the multi-experience activation where food trucks, a beer garden, and a performance stage compliment the one-stop marketing carnival just across from the official convention.
It's a smaller-scale budgetary commitment for brands that desire the exposure of marketing to the Comic-Con crowds without necessarily investing in a full-on activation build, or arranging an official panel or presence inside the convention center. "A lot of brands struggle with it," said Grandesign Chief Operating Officer Robert Ridgeway. "But the younger generations do a lot of transacting and watching and buying and playing through their computers and phones, but the biggest thing they still want to do is to touch and feel and experience things."
As Comic-Con has exploded in size and marketing intensity, so has the definition of what constitutes a relevant fandom.
About eight months ago, Taco Bell, plotting promotions for its Nacho Fries menu item, teamed up with Warner Bros. to pull off a coup of corporate synergy, transforming a multilevel restaurant on busy 5th Avenue in the heart of downtown San Diego into the four-course fine dining establishment straight out of the future as seen a quarter of a century ago on movie screens in "Demolition Man."
The film is set in the year 2032, when Taco Bell is "the only restaurant to survive the franchise wars," Sandra Bullock explains to Sylvester Stallone in a scene from the cult genre flick. "Now all restaurants are Taco Bell."
"Every day we see someone reference Taco Bell in relation to 'Demolition Man,' " said Matt Prince, senior manager for public relations and brand experience, whose team incorporated costumes and props from the film and brought in 5,000 units of ingredients to stage the immersive bar and restaurant — all free to the 1,000 lucky patrons who make it in over the activation's three-day run.
"Being available for those who don't have a [Comic-Con] badge was key, because as we envision for the future, it's open to all and available to all," added Prince, who got into the spirit opening night by donning one of the custom-made futuristic server costumes replicated from the film. Outside, fans lined up down the block for hours to "live mas" 2032-style at the activation, which runs from 6 p.m. to midnight.
"When you look at the movie and people who are fans of the movie, there's a huge overlap with the Comic-Con crowd, and this is the holy grail of sci-fi," he said. "What better place to bring it to life than here? For us, it was a no-brainer to reproduce the movie pop-up in a place where people would probably be able to appreciate it the most."
Times staff writer Chris Barton contributed to this report.