San Diego Comic-Con kind of sucked this year, didn’t it? Obviously, our “new normal” halted the yearly pilgrimages to San Diego for over 150,000 people, and the panels, though interesting and illuminating in their own ways, just didn’t feel the same because none of us got the chance to wait in a line for three hours with a herd of our sweaty compatriots beforehand. But despite not being able to enjoy the wonderful and maladaptive joys that comes with going to a convention, there was also a distinct lack of, well, stuff happening.
SDCC has been hallowed grounds for giants in the entertainment industry to show their wares. The world first learned of Kevin Feige’s ideations for The Avengers in 2006 when he briefly noted the possibility of a crossover between the characters who received solo movies in what became known as phase 1 of the MCU. Christopher Nolan used a viral marketing scavenger hunt in 2007 to advertise The Dark Knight and its first teaser trailer. Tom Hiddelston, causally, took over Hall-H in full Loki garb to advertise Thor: The Dark World in 2013. And Tom Cruise, Natalie Portman, Mahershala Ali, and Henry Cavill all showed up just last year as surprises to advertise their upcoming projects.
This year? Uhh, well…Kevin Smith showed us all a painting of a scantily clad Skeletor. Hall-H was literally and metaphorically empty.
COVID can’t be to blame for all of this, so why is this happening? Well, Marvel and Lucasfilm are owned by Disney, and are expected to present their most important projects at the D23 Expo, Disney’s corporate sponsored convention. That removes anything Avengers, or Spider-Man, or X-Men, or Star Wars related from independently run conventions. DC, which is owned by WarnerMedia, which is in-turn owned by AT&T, announced that they’d be hosting their own convention, DC Fandome. That eliminated the possibility of any new trailers or information from the impending releases of Wonder Woman: 1984 and The Suicide Squad. This left the world’s largest comic-convention with little comic book properties to present.
Curiously, something similar is happening in the video game industry. E3 was mecca for the video-game industry. Any developer worth their pixels saw to it that their present and future projects were well represented at the convention, but both Sony and Nintendo didn’t show, opting to develop their own means of consumer outreach. And while we’re talking about video games, weren’t we promised cross-platform gaming? Microsoft and Sony have been talking about if for years but only like, five, games have been released that can do so.
It’s strange. Conventions and festivals have been foundations for media marketing for the past decade because they give producers and creators an opportunity to reach a large, captive audience that would be receptive to their project and allowed marketers to typify target consumer populations for future advertising. Conventions, also, promote unity and belonging within fandoms that also help marketers to tailor advertising efforts for future products but, the conventions are being abandoned. Why? Because owning corporate entities of production firms are fragmenting the media market to win the brand wars.
OK, let’s unpack that sentence so it sounds less like a conspiracy theory and more like a socioeconomic one.
The brands wars, traditionally, refers to dueling companies within a given industry jockeying for market share by means of dueling advertising efforts. Whether it’s Pepsi vs. Coke, McDonalds vs. Burger King, Samsung vs. Apple, the brand wars have brought death and victory to many companies, often to the benefit of the consumer. However, the brand wars have evolved. The wars are no longer fought at the industry and product level, but rather at corporate conglomerate level, with the chief goal being brand development. And, most curiously of all, many of these battles are being fought with media ownership and production.
Take AT&T for example. AT&T built their name in telecommunications and has ownership over a large share of distribution and communications channels in the world. Understanding this, the company knew they could distribute media over said channels and acquired DirecTV, Time Warner, and WarnerMedia in 2014, 2016, and 2018 respectively. This allowed them to use their already established communications infrastructure to provide services that they already owned which, in effect, reduced their reliance on third party contracts and gave them significant leverage over other content providers when they sought to distribute their properties by means of AT&T’s distribution channels. AT&T uses their owned media as flanking products to strengthen its telecommunications business.
Apple, similarly, seeks to brandish media to strengthen their core electronics business. Apple doesn’t seek to sell you phones and computers as much as it wants to sell you a trendy lifestyle. Their marketing is focused on how their products can help you evolve with modern style and become your most productive and realized self. Apple TV+ is the natural progression of these efforts as it is a premium streaming service that focuses on original, prestige television series that is only accessible on Apple’s website and Apple developed products and is meant to be an adjunct service that echoes Apple’s brand identity. Apple wants Apple TV+ to be that exclusive nightclub you can’t get into because you had the good sense to not pay more than $400 for a phone.
Amazon, meanwhile, is working towards a much grander endgame. Amazon, without hyperbole, has changed our way of life. They revolutionized e-commerce to the point where traditional brick and mortar stores are endangered species. Their cloud computing and API services are relied upon by heavy hitters including, Facebook, Netflix, BBC, Johnson & Johnson, NASA, NASDAQ, Pfizer, and Twitter. That’s in addition to their owned subsidiaries that focus on development of electronics, home goods, books, and even groceries, all of which are sold at competitive prices. Amazon Prime Video, in this view, is nothing more than an appendage to incentivize subscription to Amazon Prime. Make no mistake, I literally screamed during the season finale of Upload and The Boys is a revelation but, I also realize that Ms. Maisel — in all her charming glory — is there to make sure I paid for Prime shipping.
But, I’m not here to criticize corporate expansion and marketing strategies. The successes of these companies were earned by means of intricate managerial maneuvers, informed by careful analysis of financial, economic, and marketing trends. These companies should be applauded in this regard; however, take note of the role of media in their respective expansion efforts. Take note of how these vastly different companies in vastly different industries uniformly brandish media production, distribution, and ownership to further their corporate infrastructures. Take note of this and you’ll realize that not only has entertainment taken a new form of weaponization within the corporate world.
Corporate conglomerates have always enjoyed and relied upon revenue generated from owned entertainment subsidiaries to support their respective machines but now, these conglomerates are using their owned media to build the machine itself. That is why there is an ongoing arms race for intellectual property and media among corporations as each new show will bring them new subscribers and new revenue streams. Each time you catch up on Westworld, AT&T gets to build new phone lines. Every time Midge and Joel fight, a new delivery drone is built by Amazon. I don’t know what’s on Apple TV+ but, yeah, you’re helping Apple if you watch that stuff. Owned media has, fascinatingly, helped corporate conglomerates realize that generating brand loyalty can be as valuable as selling units and providing services. Thus, the brand wars rage and they’re forcing you to pick a side.
Conventions are dying because corporate conglomerates are fiercely guarding and wielding their intellectual property to enhance their positions in the marketplace. They are the first casualty of the brand wars and several other skirmishes presently ongoing. I mean, it’s no coincidence that Amazon has retracted support of HBO-branded apps on their Fire TVs after AT&T launched HBO Max, but all this leaves us with the question: “what does the war mean for us?”
I don’t know.
I figured the war would benefit consumers in the short run while I was watching Watchmen last night on HBO Max. We are still in the opening stages of the wars and the corporations will use competitive pricing tactics to accumulate subscribers and I was proud of myself for pre-ordering the service to lock my subscription rate at $11 per month instead of $15. But then I switched to Netflix to watch Umbrella Academy and I remembered that they use Amazon web servers. I wondered what would happen if one service reigned supreme.
Anyway, rest in peace comic-con.