Let’s Talk About Conventions and Live Streaming
In April, Star Wars Celebration will return to London, England for the first time in seven years. It’s going to be a big event, with news on the next Star Wars film more than likely, and plenty of footage from upcoming projects like Ahsoka, Skeleton Crew, and who knows what else. These are things every single Star Wars fan wants to see—but most likely, they’ll only be available to the select thousand in attendance.
Even before covid-19, fans everywhere debated and questioned why big conventions like Star Wars Celebration and San Diego Comic-Con don’t live stream their panels. Then, during the pandemic, events like DC Fandome made it clear there was a way for fans everywhere to engage with cool pop culture events. Things have begun to swing back the other way though, and in recent days, it’s a debate I’ve seen raging again on my Twitter feed. A trip to London for Star Wars fans who don’t live in the UK is extremely expensive. Just because someone can’t afford to travel to a convention shouldn’t deny them this excitement. Why can’t the fun just be shared by everyone?
These are valid questions. And in recent years, Star Wars Celebration in particular has made a point to try and appease fans both in attendance and not. Beginning in 2015, Star Wars began broadcasting live coverage from the convention where hosts interviewed guests, discussed news, and explored different parts of the event. In the years since, that virtual presence has grown, and now major stars from the big panels show up there and at any time during the day, you can pop on the feed and see something cool. Some of which is, yes, live-streamed panels available for free, for anyone who wants to watch. It’s become a big part of Star Wars Celebration and, this year in London, we imagine it’ll continue.
But there’s a limit. Not everything is live streamed. Most of the bigger panels, especially the ones where exclusive footage or breaking news happens, are not broadcast for all to see, and that’s where people get confused and mad. Why not show those? Well, it’s a complicated answer that boils down to a not-so-complicated concept: money. Supply and demand.
People go to conventions for a lot of reasons. To celebrate their favorite franchises, to dress up, buy things, get autographs, make friends, all that good stuff. But also people also go to conventions for things they can’t get anywhere else. Sometimes that’s an experience, sometimes it’s merchandise, and sometimes it’s bragging rights. People want to be able to say or tweet “I was among the first people ever to learn this or see that.” And those people pay handsomely for it: airfare, hotel, tickets, meals, you name it. That money then trickles down not just to the convention selling tickets, but the food vendors, toy sellers, taxi companies, hotels, etc. Conventions are a big business not just for people running the conventions, but for the venues and cities where they take place.
So what happens to that model if the biggest, most high-demand panels start live streaming? People will still go, of course. San Diego Comic-Con, for example, is about much more than just what happens in Hall H. But Hall H is the showstopper and if supply and access to something like that increases, the demand is certain to decrease over time. If someone can count on watching exclusive footage at home, even at a cost, why would they spend thousands of dollars to travel to a convention? Again, there’s more to do at a convention than watch footage all day—so while the events won’t cease to exist, the prestige associated with attending them in person could diminish. There are hundreds of conventions all over the world every year, but you don’t hear about most of them because they’re not where studios make major announcements and parade their biggest superstars. If conventions like SDCC make that footage easily accessible, you have to imagine people on the fence about traveling might decide against it. And that takes money out of everyone involved’s pockets. Plain and simple.
Another reason why these big exclusive panels aren’t likely to be live streamed is the footage itself. For a studio or filmmaker to really give fans in attendance something special, more times than not, they have to show footage that’s unfinished. Footage that’s not quite ready to be broken down frame by frame on the internet. So, it screens in a room one or two times, people watch it, get excited, and there’s a certain buzzy mystique about it. For a moment the footage exists only in the audience’s head—a rare scenario in today’s online-obsessed world.
There are several points to be made here. The first is if the footage can play at the convention, why can’t it be released online at the same time? The answer is, sometimes it can and sometimes it can’t. Many studios and filmmakers have shown a trailer in Hall H at Comic-Con and then, minutes later, uploaded it to YouTube. People in the room get that experience of being first and then everyone else can enjoy it too. Win-win!
The issue is that type of footage only comes much later in the filmmaking process. Oftentimes, fans want to see footage from movies or shows that are much further out from release, and that means showing unfinished effects, footage from only select scenes, footage that has temporary music or sound, etc. What’s available at that time in the process is in no way a finished product and shouldn’t be judged as such. It’s ready to exist in your mind but not on your laptop.
But that kind of footage is what it’s all about. If conventions are only showing footage that’s ready to be released in public, it’s simply not as exciting. Exclusivity is key. That’s why Marvel Studios, for example, will show footage from 5-6 movies at a convention and then only release 2-3 trailers. It’s attempting to strike a balance between the people who paid thousands of dollars to sleep on the grass outside the San Diego Convention Center for two nights, and the fan who can’t do that and is back at home.
Maybe then, you’re wondering, what about charging for the live stream? That sounds like a viable option if this is all about money, right? You’d think so but there’s more to it. Where does that money go? How do you split it up? Does it go to the studios or filmmaker whose product you’re watching? What about the streamer facilitating the feed? Shouldn’t the convention that makes it all possible get some? That’s not even beginning to think about how much less everyone else involved with the convention would guess. No need for a hotel room to buy a live stream. No need for you to eat at a local restaurant. Plus, there’s that other thing…
In all of these situations, one thing that can’t be avoided is bootlegs. Inevitably, someone in a room of thousands will take out their phone and film the footage, even with security guards roaming around and strict warnings not to do it. Short of taking everyone’s phones, you simply can’t get around it—which is hugely unfortunate, because it’s so short-sighted. Bootleg footage makes studios and filmmakers less likely to show footage in the future. If a creator doesn’t want their work analyzed in a 4K YouTube file just yet, surely they don’t want fans to see it shot on a phone resting on someone’s lap. On the other hand, some might see this as the ultimate democratization of the system and maybe there’s some truth in that. But to us, more than that, it’s a betrayal—to the fans who are in the room, who have an unwritten agreement to respect the people they’ve come to see, and to those people themselves, who are trusting fans not to steal their content. When someone goes against that, it’s just shitty. There’s no other way to put it.
And in a way, all of this is shitty. This is not a very nice argument to make. It’s classist and exclusionary. It’s putting a dollar sign on fandom which goes against the very idea of fandom. But there’s a very important distinction here. You can’t and shouldn’t put a price on fandom. You aren’t a better fan because you spend more money on it than someone else. What you can put a price on, though, is the product of that fandom and that’s what these conventions are. They aren’t a measure of your fandom, they’re something you’re buying.
Much like you’d buy a Star Wars-themed shirt to express your fandom, conventions are basically just that to an exponential degree. A themed vacation. It takes money, yes, but also a significant effort to attend. San Diego Comic-Con, for example, requires you to buy a ticket months in advance and only offers a limited number of nearby hotels, both of which sell out incredibly quickly. If by some miracle you get by all that and want to see the new Marvel or DC footage, you then have to put in additional time and effort on top of the money you’ve spent to camp out and secure a place in line. Nothing is guaranteed. If you’re willing to go through all that and someone else isn’t, there should be a worthy reward.
Non-streamed, in-the-room-only panels with exclusive footage are that pot of gold at the end of that rainbow. They’re one of the biggest products conventions have to sell. And the better they sell them, the more conventions are going to make in the long run, as is everyone else involved. If companies start just giving their products away by live streaming these panels, it impacts not only them, it impacts the conventions, the people working at the conventions, and all the way down the line. There are solid middle grounds and maybe other solutions to come in the future—but right now, we have a feeling live streaming conventions in full is simply never going to happen.
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