The Answer to Comic-Con Bootlegs is Not More Security

By  · Published on July 12th, 2015

It’s time for some real talk about bootlegged footage from Comic-Con.

Every year, this is a topic of discussion. Usually around Sunday of the convention, as most of the major panels are out of the way and pop culture fans from around the world are left to drool over footage descriptions and live-blogs. Hollywood studios head to San Diego every year to show off footage from films that are still in production, debut very early trailers and get their fanbases riled up. Websites such as the one you are currently reading send writers to San Diego for a weekend without sleep, to endure long lines, so that they can describe these footage debuts to you in written form. This is the equation that has worked for years. But there’s a variable, especially as our personal technology grows smaller and more capable: a lot of this footage will end up online in bootleg form.

The existence of bootlegged footage from Comic-Con is inevitable. That doesn’t make it right. Let’s be clear: recording something after you’ve been told that you’re not allowed to record it (something that happens before every panel) is wrong. The convention asks the audience not to record footage because the studios ask them to do so. Studios want to be able to control the wider release of said footage, both in timing and quality. And in some cases, studios want to give the Comic-Con audience something special, unique and exclusive to their in the moment experience. They want to make the experience worthwhile for those fans who spent the money to come to the Con, then waited in line, sometimes overnight. When you think about it in context, it’s a somewhat noble idea. They want Comic-Con to be special. Yet because there’s a good chance that out of the 6,500 people in the audience, at least one is going to be an ass about it, that idea is often spoiled.

This leads to a lot of talk like we’re seeing today. On Deadline, Mike Fleming asks, Will Comic-Con Leaks Stop Studios From Showing Exclusive Footage? He makes specific references to footage shown by Warner Bros. for Suicide Squad and the Con’s most talked about footage shown by 20th Century Fox for Deadpool. Both panels were major highlights for attendees and both had footage leaked onto the web within 24 hours of the panel. Referencing comments from insiders, Fleming speculates that studios will be increasingly less likely to bring exclusive footage to Comic-Con in the future. And he (and his insiders) place a lot of the onus on the convention itself to beef up security. He even published a statement from Warner Bros. President of Worldwide Marketing and International Distribution, Sue Kroll, which passively chastises the Comic-Con audience:

“We have no plans currently to release the Suicide Squad footage that leaked from Hall H on Saturday. It’s unfortunate and ultimately damaging that one individual broke a long-standing trust we have enjoyed with our fans at the convention by posting early material, which, at this point, was not intended for a wider audience. We are still in production on Suicide Squad, and will have a big campaign launch in the future. Our presentation yesterday was designed to be experienced in that room, on those big screens!”

That’s not an unfair position. What we can’t ignore is that studios work very hard to control the message. The who, what, where and when of the releasing of information is something they take very seriously. This is something that’s often disrupted, whether it’s by leaks of information or the more tangible leaks of actual material from their films. And on their end, it’s frustrating. Imagine working in a job in which you are trying to create something, but halfway through the process someone steals your unfinished work and puts it out into the world. Imagine if someone leaked this article three paragraphs ago. It wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. So I get that, it’s hard out there for a studio. They want to show the audience something cool at Comic-Con, but they still want to control the release of their information.

But here’s where we need to talk as if we live in the real world, not the ideal one. In Comic-Con’s Hall H environment, there are too many variables. There are too many people – over 6,000 in most cases – for security to actively police everything that’s happening. In our real world, there’s no amount of moderately paid convention security that can prevent someone from recording and ultimately leaking this footage. I’m no more a fan of this fact than someone who works at a movie studio, but I’m not naive, either.

There is a solution, however. Consider this about this year’s Comic-Con: what major movie took to Hall H, showed its fans something very cool and unique, and isn’t experiencing a viral spread of leaked footage? Let’s see if I can find some kind of visual aid that will assist us in this thought experiment…

Oh, here we go:

This Star Wars: The Force Awakens footage, which is primarily behind the scenes footage yet it still very cool, was released almost immediately after Friday’s Star Wars panel in Hall H. So you know which studio isn’t showing up in Mike Fleming’s article subtly throwing shade at the Comic-Con audience? Disney, LucasFilm and director J.J. Abrams. The difference is that LucasFilm came into Comic-Con with a clear plan that would not only delight fans inside Hall H, it would be inclusive to fans who were clamoring for everything Star Wars from the comfort of their own homes. They still managed to make the experience very special. There’s no substitute for being in the same room as Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford. There’s also no long-distance substitute for being invited to a Star Wars music concert and given a sweet Lightsaber. The fans who waited in line for Star Wars at Comic-Con got footage and then some. The rest of the world got the footage, online and in high definition. Leak avoided.

It’s understandable that not every studio can come to Comic-Con with this kind of plan. Not everyone is in the same place in their production. Bryan Singer brought a 2-minute sizzle reel from X-Men: Apocalypse after only 5-weeks of shooting. Some of the things that are shown at Comic-Con are unfinished. Studios don’t want their properties judged on a wide scale when they are unfinished.

But you know what’s worse than being judged on unfinished work? Being judged on unfinished work shot with a camera phone from 400-feet away, uploaded over a poor convention center WiFi connection at the lowest possible resolution. If I were a director, that would be the least preferred method for a first look at my insanely anticipated, career-defining project. It makes putting a slightly unpolished sizzle reel on your studio’s YouTube channel sound like a much better option.

The answer to Comic-Con leaks is simple. It’s not about adding security, because that’s not going to stop what happened this year. Studios need to come to Comic-Con with a better plan for how they are going to roll out their footage. They need to bring something they are prepared to roll out immediately to the world at-large. And if they aren’t ready to do so, then frankly they shouldn’t show.

Studios miss Comic-Con all the time and the show manages to remain as popular as ever. People will still show up to see the cast of Game of Thrones even though there’s no new footage or announcements. People would show up to a Star Wars panel that was just J.J. Abrams talking about practical effects for an hour. The Comic-Con audience will be there with bells on just to see their icons on stage. Exclusive footage is fun, but it’s not everything. There is, however, one thing that might drive audiences away from Comic-Con: increased security that makes the experience uncomfortable for everyone.

So there you have it, Hollywood. A simple solution to your terrible, horrible, no good Comic-Con bootlegging issue. You can stop this by coming to Comic-Con with a better plan. Or you can avoid Comic-Con altogether. Both are reasonable solutions, neither of which will hurt Comic-Con or your movie. The only thing you can’t do is to continue to do the same old thing and expect Comic-Con to police you to a different result.

Also, please release that Deadpool footage. It sounds awesome.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)