Tuesday, July 14, 2015

We Survived San Diego Comic-Con 2015!

Hey Plympton fans,

I'm away in Oregon for a week following San Diego Comic-Con, so I'm going to put my blog in the hands of my office manager, John Holderried, who ran my booth at SDCC, for a rundown. See you next week!


Well, unlike Bill, I'm back in NYC, here to talk about our crazy time, what went wrong and what went right.  This is about the 12th or 13th year I've gone to San Diego with Bill, and I'd like to think I've learned a few things about running the booth and how to survive the convention - but even still, I try to look for better, more efficient ways of doing things as we go.  I've never been in the military, but I tend to regard the convention as something of a combat zone, and these are my "war stories".

If you've never been out to the Big Daddy of Comic-Cons in San Diego, it's an enormous event that's now grown bigger than the convention center itself.  Panels, screenings and parties now take place in hotels on both sides, and in various restaurants in the Gaslamp Quarter.  It's so big that you have to sort of plan in advance what shows and movies you like in the geek world and try to focus on those, because there's no way you're going to see everything.  I have to start our plans 8 months in advance if we're going to get decent flights + hotels, and then the official SDCC paperwork starts to kick in around March, like requesting a panel and registering with the CA Tax Board, so we'll be cleared to legally sell items in another state.

This year, the hotel where I usually stay wasn't taking reservations, so I tried something new, renting a room on AirBnb.  Since I've stayed in a converted YMCA for the last 5 years, which had very little in the way of services and amenities, I figured I couldn't do much worse.  I arrived to find that my host was out of town, and after getting the key from a neighbor, I had the whole apartment to myself for a few days.  Even though I was far off from downtown, I walked down the hill toward the bus stop on my phone's map, only to see a trolley stop a few blocks further.  Aha, luckily I figured out the San Diego trolley system two years ago when I went down to Chula Vista for a movie (that horrible experience is detailed here:  http://honkysmovieyear.blogspot.com/2013/07/iron-man-3.html ) so I figured I was all set.

I'd shipped 4 boxes of Blu-Rays to the UPS store about three blocks from the convention center (across from my old hotel) and 1 more box of Plympton DVDs and books.  It's a tricky thing each year, trying to predict how much we're going to sell of each item.  If we run out of something, clearly I didn't bring enough of that, and if we have a lot left over, it seems I brought too much.  But we managed to get the CHEATIN' Blu-Ray labelled as a Comic-Con exclusive, which meant it was going to appear in the convention promotions as such, and we figured we'd get more sales that way, so this year we were sort of shooting for the moon.

James Hancock helped me get the 5 boxes, and my suitcase filled with booth supplies, over to the convention center, where we laid out the merchandise on the table and hung up our banner.  James was even there at the convention the day before to receive the A/V equipment we rented - for some reason the convention starts on Wednesday, but they deliver the video rentals on Tuesday, and you MUST have someone there to sign for them.  This is one of those little rules we found out about along the way, that we have to comply with.

When I say the convention is made up of a big bunch of rules, it starts to resemble the sort of organized intelligence you see in a military operation, and after a while a lot of it starts to make no sense.  Imagine a convention center filled with 125,000 people - and the way the aisles are spaced out, it doesn't take a lot to clog up the aisles.  One celebrity does a signing in a booth, people gather around to take pictures, and the aisles get clogged.  Or sometimes it's just some people who decide that they want to stand in an intersection and talk or just look around, and the whole thing grinds to a halt.  People with costumes posing in the aisle, or someone who insists on carrying around an enormous prop hammer, or worse, pushing a baby stroller, and, well, you get the idea.

                            The madness of Comic Con (and this is not on the busiest day!)

But that's not the half of it - Comic-Con has a lot of great panels every year, yet they don't have time or the manpower to clear all the rooms in between the panels.  So someone got smart and realized that if they want to see the "Big Bang Theory" panel at 3 pm, they could go to the previous panel at 2 pm in that same room, and keep their seat, guaranteeing them a spot in the panel they want.  Once word got out that was possible, people started jumping into panels 2 or 3 hours before the one they wanted to see, which then defeats the whole point.  Someone's presence in the wrong panel could easily prevent someone who DOES want to see that panel from getting in.

The same goes for the annual Masquerade on Saturday night - if you want to attend in person, you need a free ticket.  They give out the tickets on Saturday afternoon, but of course there's competition to get them, so people wait all morning in a line to get a ticket for that night's event - and by the time you get the ticket, it's almost time to start lining up to get a good seat.   So they've wasted their whole Saturday at the convention just to make sure they see the event live, when they could also watch it on closed-circuit broadcast up in the Sails Pavilion, and get their Saturday back.

The famous Hall H works the same way - once you're in a seat, you're there as long as you want to be. This is the giant, 6,500-seat theater where the big Hollywood companies put on their presentations.  If you know that a little film called "Star Wars" will be screening footage on Friday night, then you have to get in the hall on Friday morning, which means camping outside overnight on Thursday to hold a spot.  This seems like way too much work for me, plus why would I pay for a hotel room and then sleep outside in a sleeping bag?  By the time the "Star Wars" footage screens in the evening, the fans are probably too exhausted to enjoy it.  I'll see it in theaters in December, right?

                   The convention center - those white tents are where people camp out for Hall H.

Or, let's say you're enjoying the convention, and you want to buy an official Con t-shirt.  There used to be a booth that sold them in the Convention Center, you just went up to the booth, told them your torso size, gave them your money, and you got a shirt.  But I guess one year they ran out of the good sizes on Saturday, which wasn't fair to people who had a one-day pass for Sunday, and someone complained about that, so they figured the fairest thing to do was to take only pre-sales via the internet, and then people could just pick up their shirts at the booth.  But then they realized that the t-shirt booth was taking up valuable real estate, so they moved the pick-up point to a lounge in a nearby hotel.  Bottom line - you can no longer buy a San Diego Comic-Con t-shirt AT the San Diego Comic-Con.  Crazy, right?  (I went to the lounge two years ago and tried to buy a shirt, money in hand, and they said "no dice".  But if you learn how the process works, and remember to order in advance, you might get one.  First-time attendees not in the know, you're out of luck.)

In a larger sense, the whole city of San Diego doesn't run right, either.  It's as if whoever designed the city just wasn't thinking clearly.  Whose bright idea was it to put a convention center on the other side of a highway, trolley tracks AND a set of freight train tracks?  People flood out of the convention center in waves upon waves, and sometimes they're directed across the highway safely, only to have to wait for a trolley and/or train to go by.  Imagine thousands of people trying to get into the Gaslamp Quarter to have dinner, and how frustrating it is for them all NOT to be able to get there.

Someone FINALLY built a pedestrian bridge - but it's about 3 blocks east of where it needs to be.  If your booth is in Hall A or B, or you just happen to be on the west side of the convention center, and you want to cross the street over to your hotel on Third Ave., to use the bridge you'd have to walk the whole length of the convention, two more blocks, then up the ramp, over the bridge, and 5 blocks back on the other side.  Most people are just going to take their chances with the highway, I'm betting.

And if you look at this picture of the pedestrian bridge, you'll see there's a safety fence on the left  over the railroad tracks, but NOT on the part that's over the highway.  Someone could jump from the bridge on to the highway, and this needs to be fixed right away, if not sooner.  This is why I call San Diego "The City That Means Well", because it seems like everything they do to improve things just makes them a lot worse. 

Or consider the San Diego trolley, which is the only mass transit system I've seen anywhere that has to yield to auto traffic.  It takes people straight to the convention center, but as soon as they get off the trolley, they have to stand there and wait for that same trolley to move forward before they can cross the tracks, which is ridiculous.  Why get them almost all the way there, and then make them stand still?  With the exception of the convention center, I found that the trolley never took me directly anywhere, I always had to walk 5 or 10 blocks after getting off the trolley - meaning there are large parts of the city not covered by the trolley lines, so it's essentially useless.  When you add the lack of coverage together with all the delays, I'm guessing it's usually faster to walk where you want to go.  I only took the trolley everywhere this time because my feet were hurting.  In my case, I took the trolley back to my stop every night, and had to walk 10 blocks up a big hill to get to my apartment.  Well, at least I guaranteed I'd be tired and able to sleep once I got there.

San Diego's like a big mission burrito, one with pork and rice and beans and cheese and guacamole, and you really look forward to how all those things are going to taste together, but then the guy making the burrito folds it the wrong way, so nothing mixes right and you have to eat all the rice first before you get to anything else.   Form needs to follow function.

Another example - the city has its share of homeless people, as I'm sure most cities do.  But while a city like New York has chosen to deal with this situation head-on, through a combination of workfare and occasional incarceration (the Giuliani/Bloomberg approach) San Diego has a much more liberal attitude, it seems.  They even built a bunch of free public restrooms a few years back, so the homeless population could have someplace to go, and the city could be a little cleaner, but all this managed to do was make it easier for it to BE homeless, so now there are more people living on the streets than ever.  I passed a couple of shantytowns on the trolley, and even got harassed by some homeless men while waiting for my ride.  I was shocked how quickly "Hey, you here for Comic-Con?" turned into "Well, look at Mr. Fancy Pants, going to Comic-Con!  You think you're too good to talk to me?" and suddenly two guys turned into four guys around me, and I didn't know what to do - if I gave them money, then they'd realize I HAD money, and that if they worked together, they could probably get ALL of my money.  Fortunately, the trolley came and I was able to jump on board and get away. 

We got more bad news when we learned that Bill's flight out of New York got delayed, so he and Sandrine missed their connecting flight in Chicago.  And Comic-Con is so popular now, most of the other flights to San Diego out of Chicago were booked, so instead of arriving on Thursday morning, they came in at 8 pm, and the convention closed at 7.  We missed nearly a whole day of sales without Bill there - people like to buy a DVD or BluRay or a piece of animation art and have Bill autograph it.  We encouraged people to buy things and come back on Friday to get them signed, but some people only go to the convention for one day. 

On the upside, I didn't have a lot on my agenda, I just like to buy my weekly comics, a couple of Star Wars Mimobots, and maybe something funny for the wife and some collectible toys for my niece and nephew.  I was able to get all of this done in the first HOUR of Preview Night, which means I guess I'm some kind of convention shopping expert, and this freed me up to just sell merchandise and take pictures for the next four days.

On Friday, Bill arrived and got his badge, then went straight to Hall H, where Ron Diamond was giving a presentation of animated shorts, and he included Bill's new film, "The Loneliest Stoplight".  Since "Star Wars" was having its presentation in Hall H on Friday evening, the place was packed with people who were planning to stay in there all day.  The upside that about 6,500 people got to see the premiere of Bill's film!  We have to score that as a win. 

                                  James Hancock and Bill Plympton invade the famous Hall H!

                                 Ron Diamond and Bill introduce "The Loneliest Stoplight"

Friday afternoon we had the big panel for "Revengeance", with Jim Lujan and Bill giving fans an update on the new feature's progress.  In addition to trailer for "Revengeance" Bill also screened "The Loneliest Stoplight", and clips from his new mockumentary, "Hitler's Folly", to a packed house. 

                                        Jim Lujan and Bill, writer + director of "Revengeance"

Finally, we got Bill to the booth and put him to work, signing Blu-Rays of CHEATIN' -

And he started drawing caricatures for fans, which has become quite popular.  People love to see what they might look like if they were a Bill Plympton cartoon!

                            David Silverman, director of "The Simpsons Movie", stopped by...

                                                          and so did Matt Groening himself!

                         Bill, Sandrine and Lucas in the booth, where CHEATIN' played on the TV

                            Bill with Christopher Miller (co-director of "The Lego Movie" and
                                "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs") and Rick Farmiloe

                              James got to meet one of his comic-book idols, Grant Morrison
                                     (JLA, New X-Men, Final Crisis, All-Star Superman)

                             Bill with Geoffrey Gilmore, director of the Tribeca Film Festival

                              A rare break between signing DVDs and drawing caricatures

While some things went wrong, most things went right, I got to visit my favorite San Diego restaurants, and James got to attend some great panels - Check out his own blog here:


But eventually it was time to shut things down for another year - I was dreading the load-out because it looked like we were going to have about two boxes of merchandise to ship back, which meant I'd have to take them, along with my suitcase, in a cab back to my flat, and then somehow get them back downtown to the UPS store, by myself, on Monday morning before catching my plane.  (Two years ago I thought I'd allowed myself enough time to do this, but ended up missing my flight.)

Just then, an amazing thing happened.  With an hour to go on Sunday, my developing head-cold (thanks to the shared air in the convention center, no doubt - thanks, nerds) really kicked into high gear, my head was swimming and I figured I needed some medicine and/or caffeine to get me through the last push, so I ducked out to the hotel next door.  I figured every decent hotel has a pharmacy, or at least a gift shop, that has cold medicine available for its guests.  When I asked a restaurant hostess where the gift shop was, she said, "It's right down the hall, past the UPS Store."  Wait, come again?  There's a UPS Store about a 2-minute walk from our booth, in the next building over?  This seemed too good to be true.

Now, I had a bad experience years ago shipping out boxes via the FedEx in the convention center - they didn't do ground shipping, their rates were jacked-up, and they tacked on an extra $100 as a surcharge, just because they could.  I swore to never fall for that trick again, and I figured there had to be a similar catch with this UPS Store.  OK, there was a surcharge, but for a 10-pound box they added on just an additional $6, and for a 15-pound box it was just $12.  I could live with that.  AND they were open until 8 pm on Sunday, AND it didn't seem that crowded.  Suddenly, it seemed like time to update the plan. 

Bill left just before 5 to catch his plane, the exhibit hall closed, and a cheer rang up from the vendors.  James and I started breaking down the booth, and by 5:38 we had the supplies back in my suitcase, and all the unsold merchandise loaded into 2 boxes to ship.  We walked over to UPS, where there was NO line, and we were all done by 6 pm.  That's got to be some kind of record.  Now, I'm not saying exactly where the UPS Store is, because I plan to use this little trick next year, and I don't want it to be all crowded.  But it's there, and it saved my bacon.  The next morning it was much easier for me to get to the downtown UPS (to ship out everything personal I bought, which turned out to weigh more than I thought it would), grab a bagel, and catch the bus to the airport.

So in the end, something went very right - but with Comic-Con, it's always a struggle.  It's a maddening, confusing, crazy place, and we all can't wait to go back next year.  I guess that makes us kind of crazy, too.

Here are some of my photos - for more, please visit:


--John Holderried

                                                   Lucas Plympton, enjoying Comic-Con -
                                                        just wait until I put him to work!

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