If Experiences Go Virtual, San Diego Comic-Con Promotion Could Become Even More Iffy

Virtual reality offers a chance to bring promotional experiences to more people at a fraction of the cost.

Over at The Hollywood Reporter I wrote about how and why some major movie studios were sitting out this year’s iteration of San Diego Comic-Con, currently underway.

As I said there, it’s not as if the event is completely devoid of major movie marketing efforts, nor is there a severe lack of TV shows being pitched to the entertainment-loving audience in attendance. There are some market forces, though, that are making studios and producers reevaluate the massive spending outlay involved in making an impression at SDCC as well as some scheduling oddities that mean a few major franchises are just not in a place to use the event as part of their publicity cycle.

There’s a long history of entertainment brands creating events and experiences for fans to take part in and enjoy, hopefully sharing their excitement both online and off and creating word-of-mouth for upcoming movies and TV shows. This isn’t unique to SDCC as it’s a tactic that’s been utilized at SXSW and other festivals and conventions. The idea is to immerse attendees in the brand to the extent it occupies a significant amount of their awareness.

Here’s a list of the experiences and activations available. Notably, with just a few exceptions they are almost all outside the San Diego Convention Center as it’s too small and crowded to accommodate them. That means the studios and producers are increasing the level of commitment necessary to find them, before even getting into line.

  • Alita: Battle Angel, with a scavenger hunt that leads those successful in gathering all the clues to an off-site event with cast and crew from the movie.
  • Solo: A Star Wars Story, with a lifesize replica of the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit people can sit in and take pictures of. This one is actually part of the Star Wars booth on the show floor.
  • “The Good Place,” with a whole recreation of the neighborhood from the show.
  • Ready Player One, with a “World of…” VR experience that takes people inside the OASIS as well as 80s trivia contests and props from the movie.
  • “Jack Ryan,” with a “training experience” that allows attendees to see what it’s like to become an elite intelligence agent
  • “The Purge,” with a “Purge City” shop containing everything you need to survive Purge Night as well as information on the political movement that gave rise to The Purge.
  • “Castle Rock,” with a recreation of a street from the titular town including storefronts and clues as to the story and characters encountered in the show
  • “DC Universe,” with a variety of experiences, props and more to promote the original shows like “Harley Quinn,” “Swamp Thing” and others coming to the new OTT service

Cool. Now explain to me how most all of this couldn’t be recreated in virtual reality in a way that would likely be more cost-efficient and reach more people directly than dragging sets, props and legal waivers to San Diego.

I don’t mean to discount the visceral experience or how tactile connections create stronger attachments. There will always be a place for the physical. But a lot of these – especially ones like the “Harley Quinn” room, the “Jack Ryan” training experience and a few others – seem like they would be relatively easy to port over to VR executions as that technology improves. Either it can be something available via personal headsets like Oculus or spread out to theaters and other hubs as was done for movies like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and Justice League.

Also worth noting is that some of these are either the same, or variations on, experiences that were brought to other events earlier. The World of Ready Player One showed up at SXSW a few months ago, as did an immersive experience for Alita: Battle Angel. That and other smaller or more niche events may have better return on investment because the crowds aren’t as big, the space isn’t as crowded and the opportunities to make an impression are greater.

It would be irresponsible of entertainment marketers to not be evaluating how these kinds of executions can be streamlined and broadened. If media companies are indeed reevaluating the ROI of SDCC – and history is littered with properties that went all-in there or elsewhere only to flop in theaters and on TV – this most certainly needs to be part of that thinking.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.