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SDCC 2022: Pandemic Edition #1

If you attended SDCC Special Edition, you'll know that was a trial run, to see what could and could not be done and how best to proceed in a COVID-19 reality. The people behind SDCC took what they learned worked and didn't work with the specific schematics of the San Diego Convention Center, and put it all to good use as they reopened SDCC after hosting virtual experiences in 2020 and 2021. Attendees were those with badges rolled over from 2020. No new badges were sold. If you're planning on going next year (2023), you'll want to read this.

SDCC SE had three checkpoints for vaccinations—all situated on the walkway in front of the convention center. That led to long lines and panicked volunteers discarding the tabs for the paper vaccination check bracelets on the ground like pandemic confetti. For SDCC 2022, there were six COVID-19 vaccination checkpoints and not all along the walkway directly in front of the convention center. Three were at hotels, one each at the Marriott Marquis and Marina, the Omni San Diego and the bit more distant Town and Country Hotel (about five miles away). You were diligently checked for that flimsy paper bracelet. I once got checked three times for my vaccination clearance bracelet before I got into the convention center—once crossing the street, once after crossing to the other side, and once just before going through the convention center doors. That was because I wore long sleeves, but that was essential protection from the sun.

Not everything associated with SDCC 2019 was in place, but the activations were. Most of the activations did not require a valid SDCC convention pass, but they did require lining up. Some allowed for reservations online. FX was back in front of the Hilton San Diego Bayfront although this time the activation wasn't a place for crowds to meander and mingle in. Tall walls enclosed it.

FX emphasized photo opportunities, including a red carpet runway with a slightly creepy design. In the middle, there was a tea party worthy of the Mad Hatter if he was a guest of Miss Havisham with two animated "dolls." At the end, you got to spin the wheel for either a bucket hat or "Little Demon" salsa (in a thoughtful range of heat levels). Who doesn't need a bottle of salsa?

If you were expecting their traditional water and sunscreen stations at the FX activation, you were out of luck this time around. There was a water and a sunscreen station inside the activation which was focused on "American Horror Stories," which returned on July 21st. Free water wasn't being handed out as freely as before, but there were many opportunities to buy bottled water from entrepreneurial people all around the convention center.

Petco Park also had activations although entry was restricted to check bags for weapons. There was a time when one could wander in while walking from the station to the convention center. That's not possible any more.

The 4th floor Omni demonstrations of virtual reality games and experiences was gone. Instead, the Grand Ballroom ABC became a place to enjoy live role-playing games and a few panels.

There were some changes that seemed COVID-19 conscious. Netflix's 2022 action thriller "The Gray Man" had a quick spy training course. While waiting in line, you got to see a loop of scenes and commentary on the film and actors. Then you paired off to test your quick-thinking, strength and speed. All required minimal touching of objects and each section was timed. That's very different from Prime Video's Jack Ryan activation, which included a zipline escape, and driving (virtually) through a village. While this experience was short, I loved the heavy base metal medallion, which, to my knowledge, has no storage space for a thumb drive. I did watch the film, enjoying Chris Evans' turn as a sleazy sociopath, and it will have a sequel starring Ryan Gosling as well as a spin-off film.

In the building with the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, Disney had two activations on the Promenade level. On the outside was one for the ABC mockumentary sitcom series, "Abbott Elementary." There were photo opportunities (e.g. the office of principal Ava Coleman) as well as a test to see which faculty character you most resembled (I got Gregory Eddie; my husband got Melissa Schemmenti). There was a short school spirit dance performance, but guests also had a chance to support schools in need through pledges. At the end of your visit, you got a hefty gym bag and a metal water bottle which were useful later on in the day.

In an adjacent indoor space, Disney had the Bundleworks Factory where you listened to a spiel about Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN and got to find a bundling deal that best suited your needs. This was obviously not a game for short people or children, but the other games were easy and fun. You collected tickets for participating and more for doing well. You then turned in the tickets for some cool swag. I have to say that's a total win-win.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade, there's a certain spot where fans have come to expect "The Walking Dead" activation. Instead, that space was given up to a huge castle for the new HBO fantasy series, "House of the Dragon" which is set 200 years before the events that begin "Game of Thrones." The House is that of the Targaryen and everyone who entered got to enter a raffle for some Bose products. You also get a dragon to hatch using a smartphone app after going through and selecting eggs. I hatched my egg and it required much less attention than a Tamagotchi. 

The activation for the CBS sitcom "Ghosts" was the "Summer of Ghosts" at Petco Park. You got your tarot cards and/or palm read, got to participate in some archery and got your photo taken. Doing each activity meant you received patches which could then be exchanged at the "camp" commissary for items ranging from weird (an arrow through the neck which references the show) to practical (a metal cup).

Through word-of-mouth, I heard great things about the "Severance" activation by Apple TV+. The series is about the sinister Lumon Industries, which uses a "severance" medical procedure to separate non-work memories of their employees from their work memories. Our group of 15 was delayed at the entry point when a press person attempted to enter the activation without a face mask. Face masks were required at all SDCC activities unless one was actively eating or drinking. While this activation wasn't an official part of SDCC, its first requirement was wearing a face mask. This person gave three different excuses, but ultimately, the activation crew insisted that a face mask be worn and the person complied. According to the activation crew, the actors have SAG requirements in place.

At past SDCC weekends, you could get into a screening at SDCC just by walking around the Reading or Horton Plaza. That part of SDCC has been lost. Architect Jon Jerde's Horton Plaza which helped revitalize the Gaslamp district after opening in 1985 was closed down in 2020. That meant another off-site venue, one commonly used for screenings for SDCC was no longer available. 

For this iteration of SDCC, there were free screenings, but you might need a car to attend. On Friday, CinemaBlend and AMC Theatres sponsored a screening of a new horror flick, "Barbarian," at the AMC Mission Valley as part of the AMC Thrills & Chills program. Collider and Hulu had a screening of "Prey" the previous evening. For the surprisingly funny "Barbarian," writer/director Zach Cregger and one of the stars, Justin Long, were at the screening for a short presentation about the film and posters were given to all the attendees. 

While Jerde's Horton Plaza is gone, the family-owned yogurt shop that has kept me alive, fed, and hydrated for every SDCC survived. The Sweet Things Frozen Yogurt shop on the Promenade level of Hilton San Diego Bayfront had to close down during the pandemic. Jake Scornavacco, managing partner, organized a GoFundMe fundraisers with a goal of $50,000 and managed to raise $26,997. The closure was, "really nerve-wracking for our family. The shop has provided for our family for a long time. It is the heart and soul of our family ... Comic-con guests, they feel like family because of their loyal support," Scornavacco said. "From a sales perspective, this is our best comic-con. And it's not all about sales for us." Getting to see their regular comic-con customers, some who might come daily or even twice daily gives the whole whirlwind weekend a family feeling. "So many people were so excited to offer their own support and were so genera to spend their hard earned money to support the local businesses in the area." 

But the pandemic also saw the expansion of some businesses, including collectible manufacturer Funko. The maker of vinyl figures acquired Mondo, the high-end pop culture company known for limited edition screen printed posters for films, television shows and comics, in June of this year and the fashion accessories line Loungefly in May 2019. While some of the usual heavy hitters like LEGO and Marvel didn't have their usual large and impressive booths, Funko Pop had their own little town.

Ilana McBride, Director of Marketing and Social for Loungefly said, "We actually got pretty lucky in the pandemic in that it became a time when fans really loved to collect stuff. We actually had a little uptick during the pandemic because fans were just itching for that product that makes them smile, that product that comes in the mail." 

Funko Pop was the last Hall H presentation and they really ended SDCC in a big way. Funko hosts Brian Mariotti and Mike Becker brought on celebrities from television and films for quick and fun Pop! Talk interviews before introducing their corresponding Funko Pop vinyl figures. William Zabka of Netflix's "Cobra Kai" joked that he collected second place trophies. His favorite films (besides "The Karate Kid") are "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Three Amigos." Gabriel "Fluffy" Iglesias joked about pretty much everything. Rosario Dawson, star of the upcoming "Ahsoka," told a story about a "dead squirrel with its eyes popped out." Simu Liu had tax write-off advice, and said his favorite flicks are "Jurassic Park" and "Star Wars," which helped him learn English. 

That should have been the end of my SDCC experience, but the Monday after the con, my husband was contacted by a friend who was using an app that told her she had been near someone who tested positive for COVID-19. That put us on alert since we had seen her Thursday through Sunday and hugged. I met many people who traveled down from LA, and LA County was on the edge of reinstating the indoor mask mandate. Certain cities such as Beverly Hills, Pasadena and Long Beach had voted against enforcing those mandates. But as of Thursday, with declining hospitalizations, LA County decided not to reinstate the indoor mask mandate.

Luckily, neither our friend nor either of us ended up contracting COVID-19, but it was certainly a wake-up call, our second. So I revised my preparation list for attending SDCC and other conventions:

How to prepare for SDCC:

  1. COVID-19 Vaccination.
  2. Download app for notification of exposure (CaNotify.CA.gov)
  3. Have more than once face mask per day.
  4. Store your extra face mask in a clean container. I carry my extras in a plastic sandwich bag.
  5. Carry a bottle for water
  6. Wear a hat and/or sunscreen
  7. Have more than one pair of shoes to prevent blisters.
  8. Have inserts in those shoes for support and comfort.
  9. Be kind and patient.

Recommendation for Professionals

  1. Have more people than you think you need in case of COVID-19 complications. In the case of one small two-person booth, an accident sent one person to the hospital and another person had to drive him home.
  2. Don't give your fans a ticket to walk two-city blocks to collect an item that could be more easily passed out at your booth or by the volunteers for that room. I felt so bad for someone waiting in line behind me who received a simple circular metal button (and not a cloisonné button of any quality) that I gave him one of my free t-shirts. T-shirts were only in medium or XL men's sizes. "Bob's Burgers" passed out buttons in the shape of their characters (one to a person) at the screening. Legion M had people go to their booth to pick up posters. 
  3. Be a good example and follow pandemic protocol. 

Jana Monji

Jana Monji, made in San Diego, California, lost in Japan several times, has written about theater and movies for the LA Weekly, LA Times, and currently, Examiner.com and the Pasadena Weekly. Her short fiction has been published in the Asian American Literary Review.

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