Winter came to Comic-Con in the form of 15 black Escalades with a police escort.
Heralded by wailing sirens and stretching for blocks, the entourage sliced through the streets of San Diego like a motorcade for visiting royalty. Which of course it was.
Behind the tinted windows sat a queen, a witch, a knight, a wardeness, a budding maester, a young assassin, a court advisor, a captain, a captive and some of their family and staff.
Or rather 10 fine actors, one director, an executive producer, 20 members of network media and talent relations, 10 groomers, makeup and hair stylists, more than a dozen assorted managers, personal assistants and friends, and, of course, some lovely but very serious security guys.
HBO’s “Game of Thrones” was at the Con.
For new projects of certain (and ever-widening) genres, Comic-Con has become an obligatory marketing stop, a place to make announcements, premiere trailers and pilots and generally build the anticipation often referred to as “buzz.” But for shows like the wildly popular “Game of Thrones,” with its sprawling cast and dire brinkmanship — winter is always coming in Westeros, where, we have been assured, all men must die — it’s mostly a way for the cast and creators to connect with a large number of fans in one fell swoop.
“How many people?” said Carice van Houten (the priestess Melisandre), who gamely slid between two guys in the back seat as the HBO team herded everyone into the Escalades waiting three deep outside the hotel.
This was her first visit to Comic-Con, and she could not believe 7,000 people would come to Hall H — Comic Con’s grandest stage — to see them Friday. “Will they know who we all are?” she asked, as everyone else in the limo laughed.
“You do forget sometimes,” said Gwendoline Christie of the intense devotion that drives “Game of Thrones” fans and so much of popular culture these days. “Making the show is quite an intimate experience, and you’re in Belfast or wherever. You forget that millions of people are going to watch it. And we are so grateful, because without them there is no show.”
Christie became something of a standard-bearer for the group this year. Not only is her character, Brienne of Tarth, a tremendous fan favorite, Christie is friendly, witty and frankly hard to miss, even in a crowd: With a cap of flaxen hair, she stands 6-foot-5 or so in heels. Which she was wearing. The only time she was not the most instantly noticeable person in the room was when she passed Dwight Howard, in full Predator gear for an Entertainment Weekly shoot.
More important, the appreciation of fandom that she and other cast members expressed is precisely what drives Comic-Con, where, for four days, the line between fan and favorite becomes permeable, and sometimes reversible.
The schedules of “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead,” for example, crisscrossed several times during the day, and for 20 minutes preceding the “Thrones” panel, the two casts mingled in the Hall H greenroom.
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Watching “Thrones’” Maisie Williams chat with “Dead’s” Norman Reedus conjured visions of a crossover relationship between their two tough-as-nails characters, Arya and Daryl.
“I just love ‘Game of Thrones,’” Reedus said, not knowing that the “Thrones” cast members had expressed similar respect for his ensemble earlier in the day as they entered a Hard Rock Hotel elevator bedecked with “Walking Dead” imagery (including a bloody floor, which worked well for both shows).
It was one of those moments that could happen only at Comic-Con, where the survivalist themes contrast with the world of stylists and media suites stocked with endless snacks (Pop Chips and Kind Bars were very big this year) and everyone stands a bit in awe of the spectacle that grows bigger and crazier each year.
“David [Nutter] told me that this would be the biggest group of people I would ever stand in front of,” said Hannah Murray (Gilly), right after she had left the stage at Hall H. “Now I know what he meant.”
Nutter, who has directed many episodes of the show, was limping a bit after undergoing knee surgery, but he moved through the crowds with the confidence of a veteran. “It gets crazier every year, but this cast is something special. They take it all in stride.”
A day spent shadowing the “Game of Thrones” crew yields many remarkable moments: the Stark girls (Maisie Williams and Sophie Turner) laughing together over lollipops and Vines; that schemer Varys (Conleth Hill) cracking jokes about being taken for security (“It always happens,” he said) and figuring out what he should take home to his nieces and nephews; poor tortured Theon (Alfie Allen) well and whole and explaining how he ate a bunch of Pop Chips the night before in an effort to fight insomnia.
But nothing was quite as memorable as the sheer mechanics of the thing.
Launching a siege on Winterfell is nothing compared with moving a dozen cast members and creators of such a high-profile show through a 10-hour day of media events, signings and appearances.
The HBO media and talent relations team, headed by Mara Mikialian, didn’t so much wrangle as nudge, a constantly circling group keeping an eye on wanderers while handing out water, keeping track of badges and anticipating possible needs. “We’re going in for touch-ups now,” Mikialian announced at one point, adding like an efficient parent: “This would be a good time to use the restroom; at the next stop, it will be more difficult.”
The actors, happy to be in each other’s company and excited to begin the next season — they had received the first five scripts a few days before — were unfailingly amiable, quick to respond and happy to sign autographs, answer questions and jump into back seats throughout the day. “We trust HBO,” said Hill. “They take good care of us. They know exactly what they’re doing.”
That wasn’t always quite the case. Seven years ago, HBO decided to send its new vampire drama “True Blood” down to Comic-Con. The hotels, they were surprised to learn, were all booked. So they just put some of the cast members on a bus. A bus.
“We had no idea,” said Mikialian, shuddering at the memory of the bus. “Now we know better.”
They know, for example, that the fans like a little attention. So when Liam Cunningham (Davos) wanted to start his first Comic-Con experience, Mikialian took him down to see those camped out for Hall H. “Delightful people,” he said. “A little mad, to be so excited to see someone like me, but really lovely.”
For the rest of the “Thrones” team, the festivities began at the Entertainment Weekly suite in the Hard Rock Hotel. EW has a large presence at Comic-Con, and its suite has become a veritable factory of convention coverage, moving an endless stream of talent through a multiplatform assembly line of photo shoots, radio interviews, video interviews and a little catered-patio mingling.
Because the cast was so large, “Game of Thrones” had to be broken into two groups to move through the process, rubbing shoulders as they did with the casts of “Sharknado 3" and “The Originals” as well as Josh Holloway.
For HBO, this was actually an easy year compared with previous ones, when both “Game of Thrones” and “True Blood” rocked the Con. But the official schedule, which included some events for the upcoming “Outcast,” still occupied 11 typed pages in three colors.
In addition to the Hall H panel and the stop at EW, the day included a visit to the Warner Bros. booth for multiple interviews, followed by a poster signing for fans on the Exhibit Hall floor, an appearance on Conan O’Brien’s TBS show, which was on location in San Diego, and a trip to the TV Guide yacht for more video and photos.
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Several cast members had other obligations as well. Christie broke away at midday Friday to join the “Star Wars” panel; Natalie Dormer (Queen Margaery) stayed through Saturday for “Patient Zero” and “Mockingjay” duties, Turner (Sansa) for “X-Men"; and Christie and Williams were part of the increasingly popular “Women Who Kick Ass” panel Saturday.
But “Game of Thrones” was the centerpiece, for them and the thousands of devoted fans who began camping out in front of Hall H at 6:30 a.m. Thursday to secure seats for Friday’s 2 p.m. panel. And who lined the sidewalks outside the Hard Rock Hotel, the alley behind the Spreckels Theatre where the cast appeared on “Conan,” and the walkway along the marina where they visited the TV Guide yacht.
Who screamed in two smartphone-hoisting, photo-waving, Westeros-costumed walls of humanity as the cast members made their way through a path carved, like the one Moses created in the Red Sea, by security through the crowds in the Exhibit Hall.
And the fans who filled Hall H to the brim, having waited for hours or even days.
They called the cast members by their names and the names of their characters. “Maisie, Maisie, Arya! Liam, Brienne! Sophie! John! Alfie! Theon! Gilly! Natalie, Natalie, NATALIE!”
Whatever the venue, it was as if the Beatles had entered. “It really is big, isn’t it,” said Cunningham, as he gazed from the Warner Bros. platform over the sea of people.
It really is.