On the first day of San Diego Comic-Con, director David Ayer took the stage before the massive crowd at Hall H. A year prior, he’d been there to promote Suicide Squad for Warner Bros., but this time he was discussing a different project: the $100 million fantasy-action film Bright. “What’s up, Hall H?” he shouted into the microphone. “This is the house of Netflix! This is Netflix right now, we’re here to represent Netflix!”
As Comic-Con winds to a close, it’s hard to argue that Hall H ever truly became the “House of Netflix.” HBO’s Game of Thrones still filled the hall with adoring fans, Warner Bros. and DC thrilled the faithful with footage from Aquaman and Justice League, and Marvel blew the roof off with a parade of announcements and the first trailer for Avengers: Infinity War. The traditional Comic-Con favorites still ruled the day. But it’s also impossible to look at the size and resonance of Netflix’s presence this year and not come to the conclusion that something has shifted. As many studios are pulling back from Comic-Con, Netflix decided to lean in — and pulled off a major strategic victory in the process.
Netflix has become such a respected creator of original television and movies that’s easy to forget just how new the streaming service actually is to this side of the business. The first season of House of Cards only premiered in 2013, and up until very recently the company didn’t have much of a reason to attend events like Comic-Con. (According to Sense8 co-creator J. Michael Straczynski, Netflix actually wouldn’t let cast members attend to support that show back in 2015.) That changed last year with the streaming service’s heavy investment in Marvel shows, with Luke Cage, Iron Fist, and The Defenders touted during a presentation in Ballroom 20 — the second-largest room of the convention.
That was just a prelude. This year, Netflix was everywhere at Comic-Con. An off-site installation promoted its most fan-friendly properties, a screening of Death Note gave fans an early peek at Adam Wingard’s upcoming adaptation, and panels for different projects littered the schedule — including two high-profile Hall H appearances.
The first of those was the Netflix film panel, which covered both Bright and Death Note. Netflix is only now starting to step up its game with bigger-budgeted films, with War Machine and Okja both hitting the service recently. Bringing two films to the biggest stage at Comic-Con was a way to instantly put Netflix on the same playing field as Marvel or Warner Bros. A big-budget Will Smith fantasy-action film is a big-budget Will Smith fantasy-action film no matter who produces it or where it’s released, and the approach underscored the opportunity that an event like Comic-Con provides for the service.
Traditionally, movie studios have used Comic-Con as a way to build intense fan buzz, which they hope will then spread to the mainstream, resulting in greater awareness and bigger opening weekends at the box-office. But Comic-Con hype hasn’t always translated to success, and in some recent years studios have skipped the show (Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Lucasfilm), or saved big announcements for their own events (Disney, with its D23 Expo). Comic-Con’s schedule alone tells the tale: In 2013, 11 different Hall H panels were focused on films. In 2015, that number dropped to nine. This year, only five film panels took the stage at Hall H, with television shows picking up the slack.
Netflix, however, is operating with a completely different set of goals than other studios. With most of its movies foregoing any kind of theatrical release, Netflix doesn’t have to worry about opening weekends that may ultimately disappoint. Granted, a film that nobody watches isn’t of much use — the service has been swinging the axe on underperforming TV shows lately — but its larger concern is cultural awareness and building Netflix’s brand as a viable creator of original films. In that sense, Comic-Con was custom-tailored for its purposes. The Hall H stage legitimized its output, and with both David Ayer and Will Smith taking time to point out the creative freedom they enjoyed while making Bright, Netflix had the chance to appeal to other big-budget filmmakers, as well.
If film represented a new opportunity, then Netflix’s Stranger Things Hall H panel was an impressive display of the cultural cachet it has already attained. The Saturday panel was part of the convention’s most high-profile day, sandwiched between Warner Bros. and D.C., Westworld, and Marvel’s victory lap presentation. It not only held its own; the response the show received seemed more fervent and passionate than even Game of Thrones was able to muster during its Friday presentation. I’ve seen plenty of big films get the Hall H treatment, and the response the Strangers Things season 2 trailer received was up there with the best of them. The online reaction tells a similar story. As of this writing, yesterday’s Stranger Things season 2 trailer has more than twice the views of the Game of Thrones Comic-Con reel in less than half the time.
Driving home just how important Stranger Things and Bright were to the company’s Comic-Con strategy was the Netflix brand activation itself. Marvel shows may have been the focus last year, but across the street from the convention center this year, they were afforded little more than some costume displays and selfie photo ops. Stranger Things, on the other hand, featured a small tent with props, promotional giveaways like Stranger Things hats, a VR encounter with the Demogorgon, and a funereal tribute to Shannon Purser’s Barb. (The company was working the “justice for Barb” angle throughout the convention, with Purser herself popping up as a surprise guest during the audience Q&A; the Hall H crowd booed when told Barb would not be returning for the new season).
Bright received a similar treatment, with costume displays, props, an interactive game, and a temporary tattoo station. The Netflix activation may not have been as innovative as HBO’s Westworld: The Experience or as engaging as the Blade Runner 2049 Experience, but it was nevertheless a big-league presence on par with most of the other promotional events being held around San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.
Every year a slew of stories get written about whether film studios are giving up on Comic-Con. (I’ve written my share.) But Netflix’s impressive performance this year puts the conversation on a different path. It may not be that Comic-Con is no longer the best platform for promoting big genre properties. It may be that Comic-Con’s allure and reach has simply become a bad fit for the needs of major movie studios that live or die by IP-driven projects whose success or failure is often determined by the performance of a single weekend. That’s arguably a Hollywood system problem, not a promotional one, and it’s a knot that no event — not even Comic-Con — can untie on its own.
But for services like Netflix that operate with a different model — one that relies on subscriptions and a broad slate of programming that discretely targets a variety of demographics — it seems to have been a perfect fit. Bright and Death Note may end up getting critically panned and vanishing from the public consciousness when they’re released; the second season of Stranger Things could crash and burn to the ground. (I highly doubt that second one will happen, but go with me for the sake of argument.) Even if those things were to happen, however, they would be failures of the projects themselves, not of a marketing campaign and certainly not of Comic-Con.
Netflix’s Comic-Con presence can already be considered a success because film projects that people may not have been aware of a couple of weeks ago are now firmly planted in people’s minds, and they’re alongside movies from the likes of Marvel and Warner Bros. Will Smith commented during the Bright panel that he did feel that theatrical moviegoing was different; a larger-than-life experience that left more of an impact on audiences than watching at home did. I happen to agree, but that doesn’t change the fact that audiences growing up today see little difference between a movie theater, a TV, a laptop, or a smartphone. They’re all just screens, competing for attention in an increasingly frenetic media landscape.
Netflix’s presence this year proved that it understands exactly that, and when all screens are equal, San Diego Comic-Con can become an extraordinarily effective opportunity to cut through the noise.