07/27/2010 10:50 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Comic-Con Conundrum: How Much Is Too Much?

There has been much rumbling and grumbling in recent years that the annual Comic-Con in San Diego has been getting too corporate. I paid it no mind then, but this year the corporate overlay was impossible to ignore. It didn't compromise my experience, but I did get the feeling that the formidable marketing and promotional campaigns that were in everyone's face at every turn were approaching collective overkill as more entertainment companies than ever before jockeyed for attention inside the convention center and for many blocks surrounding it.

As I walked around taking it all in, it occurred to me that if the Con were to get any bigger -- as it is likely to do with more studios, networks and entertainment media barreling in every year – it might lose some of its appeal, not to mention its effectiveness as the best platform from which to publicize and promote popular entertainment to dedicated and/or potential fans. It's hard to make one's message stand out, especially in an environment in which thousands of messages are simultaneously competing for attention. Heaven forbid the Con move to Las Vegas, Los Angeles or Anaheim – three cities that could accommodate more companies and a much bigger crowd – after Comic-Con International's contract with San Diego expires in 2012, because it will certainly expand to fill any available space (the way work expands to fill available time). I'd like it to stay right where it is, prevented from potentially self-defeating overexpansion by the relative confines of its current host city.

I understand from local cabdrivers, waiters and bartenders – always the best sources of such information -- that San Diego has offered to expand its already massive convention center in an effort to keep the Con right where it is. I'm not so sure I like that idea, either, because I think it's already big enough. But if that's what it takes to keep the Con in San Diego, so be it.

All such concerns aside, Comic-Con remains an extraordinary celebration of popular culture and a dizzying display of contemporary marketing and traditional promotional strategies. It's somewhat similar to the sensory overload of Times Square, but most of what's being advertised falls into the categories of science-fiction or fantasy. I have never seen so many high-rise buildings draped from top to bottom with eye-catching movie campaigns or so many citizen journalists at work gathering and disseminating information. But I have never encountered so many people in funky costumes handing out flyers on street corners, either.

With so much going on it's a wonder anything breaks through, yet somehow much of it does. The impressive marketing efforts on colorful display included a specially constructed outdoor game zone for the movie Scott Pilgrim vs. the World located directly across the street from the convention center, Syfy's meticulous transformation of the nearby Hard Rock Café into Café Diem (from the channel's long-running hit Eureka, every square foot of it utilized to promote a Syfy property), scores of scantily clad warrior men and women displaying their best assets on behalf of Starz' Spartacus on the convention floor (and at the From Dusk to Con party Friday night), two separate teams of mysterious men in black roaming the streets of the city generating interest in NBC's The Event and MGM's upcoming Web series 10,000 Days, and a simple (though mobbed) free fan event in a ratty parking lot promoting the third Jackass movie. (I learned about that one from one of those flyers. It referred to the party as the Jackass Beer Garden of Fun.)

Some media entities really stood out more than others amid the carefully planned chaos, but none more than Warner Bros., which once again all but claimed the Con as its own. Its home base was a huge two-story booth on the floor at which stars from its movies, television series and D.C. Comics properties signed autographs for thousands of thrilled fans. (The signings could be seen dozens of aisles away on jumbo screens positioned high atop the booth.) Marketing and publicity executives at the company really outdid themselves coming up with clever ways to thrill fans at panels for their shows (such as the Barenaked Ladies leading an audience sing-along of their theme song for The Big Bang Theory). In its second year, Warner Bros.' Friday night V.I.P. media party became one of the Con's must-attend events. (More than twice as many people attended this year than last.) Meanwhile, the giant tote bags emblazoned with Warner Bros. franchises that proved so popular in recent years were once again among the most sought after freebies at the Con. Indeed, a number of other companies got into the bag game, as well. The best was the Doctor Who bag from BBC America.)

If Warner Bros. was the studio to beat, Syfy was the network way out in front of the rest. Though it did not have a booth on the massive convention floor, its street teams outside the convention center busily handed out giant tote bags and other promotional items. Giant Syfy balloons dominated the bustling intersection across the street from the convention center, and there was a constant crowd at Café Diem. Despite a noticeable increase in the number of nightly media parties, the annual Saturday night Syfy/Entertainment Weekly extravaganza at the Solamar Hotel remained the most talked about of them all (and the toughest ticket in town).

Lastly, I've got to hand it to Showtime for landing what may be the most coveted Con ad space of all: The lanyards worn around every attendee's neck throughout the entire convention. More than 125,000 people were walking around wearing logos for the network and its signature hit Dexter. Score!