FoCC SDCC 50 Recap: Lines and Lotteries

by Transmute Jun

Attendees line up on the front stairs of the convention center for the Horton Grand ticket drawings (accessed through Everything Else line).

Anyone who has been to San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) in recent years knows that lines are part of the experience. While there are still panels and booths that do not require any kind of queuing, everyone ends up in at least a couple of lines during their con, some of them longer than others. As SDCC has grown in popularity, a ‘line culture’ has developed, such that many attendees now expect lines, and have adjusted their Con plans to accordingly.

While a line experience can be fun, the truth is that no one really likes lines, and if it were possible, every attendee would like to spend less time lining up. Certainly, Comic Con International (CCI) has been very unhappy with the long lines, particularly the overnight lines, as well as the resulting poor behaviors exhibited by some attendees. For a few years, it seemed as if CCI simply did not know what to do about the lines. In the past, they have made statements discouraging lineups, which were ignored. They have made rules banning camping, which have never been enforced (making such rules essentially useless). CCI has consistently just stood by and helplessly watched the lines grow and grow… until recently. Both last year and this year, CCI has taken big steps to reduce lines. While there are some growing pains along the way as everyone figures out what works and what doesn’t, the overall trend is moving in the right direction.

Lottery winners attend The Orville autograph session.

CCI’s first big move to eliminate lines was the institution of the ‘exclusives’ lotteries in 2018 (note that despite the name ‘exclusives’, these lotteries apply to both exclusive collectibles/merchandise and autograph signings). By moving these lotteries online, and holding them before the convention began, CCI eliminated much of the ‘Everything Else’ line that led up to the Sails in the mornings. While there is still an Everything Else line, it is much shorter and more manageable, and it is clear that CCI is very happy with this result. Attendees can expect to see these exclusives lotteries continuing in future years.

In 2018, attendees could enter as many lotteries as they liked, which essentially meant that most people entered every single one. This resulted in most attendees winning nothing, and those who did win something often found that they were uninterested in their winning property, which lead to its own host of problems. This year, CCI instituted a credits system (first debuted at WonderCon 2019) which was a big improvement from the prior year. Fans had limited credits to allocate to the lotteries, meaning that they only entered lotteries for things that interested them. This significantly reduced many of the problems with the lottery system that occurred last year, and generally, attendees were happy with the change. Based on an unofficial poll conducted by Friends of Comic Con, more than 50% of attendees won at least one lottery, with nearly 20% of them spending most of their credits for each day on their winning property. As to be expected in a random lottery, there were also a number of attendees (approximately 20%) who spread their credits amongst multiple lotteries, and still won something. This was a big improvement over last year, which had fewer happy winners.

Ballroom 20 line (accessed through the Everything Else line)

Lines to pick up wristbands in the Sails each morning were processed quickly, to the point that some attendees who arrived toward the end of the pickup window found that the studio employees handing out wristbands had already left, since they thought that everyone had already been processed! FoCC recommends that attendees who win lotteries at future cons make sure that they arrive by the time the pickup window opens. The pickup lines may look long, but they move swiftly. Overall, the lottery system as it currently stands works well and has done much to eliminate the morning Everything Else lines.

As in 2018, this year CCI also cracked down hard on lines on the Exhibit Floor. This was assisted by the lottery system allocating arrival times for the most popular exclusives booths, as well as the lack of ‘experiential’ booths available on the floor this year, as compared to prior years. Additionally, more booths were handing out return times, meaning that attendees did not have to wait in line and could come back later. Generally, lines on the Exhibit Floor were considered to be ‘manageable’ in 2019.

This year, CCI also decided to tackle the problem of Hall H lines by instituting some new policies. While most of the new rules were good, unfortunately, communication of these new policies ranged from minimal to conflicting to non-existent, and this caused numerous problems for Hall-H-Hopefuls.

Before the con, CCI announced via the Toucan Blog that the location of the Next Day Line for Hall H had changed, and then they showed the location of the new line in the Quick Guide posted online. This was the only information published in any form on any day regarding changes to Hall H line policy. Attendees were surprised when attempting to line up for Thursday Hall H at the tents when security guards broke up the line multiple times and then eventually informed the Thursday people that they would have to line up at the Next Day Line, even though they were the first Hall H line of the con. What made this more confusing for these attendees is that security guards ‘changed’ the line location multiple times over the space of 16 hours.

Next Day Line

Friday Hall H attendees attempted to line up at the published location of the Next Day Line, being the first group to (traditionally) need ‘next day’ access. At first, security guards told these attendees that they would not be able to line up yet, but then CCI’s Head of Line Management, Josh Weston, came by and told Friday Hall-H-Hopefuls that they were welcome to line up at the Next Day Line, while Thursday Hopefuls should line up at the tents on the Hall H lawn. Only a few hours later, while people were sleeping in the ‘approved’ locations in line, security guards came around to harass attendees, threatening to call the police and ignoring those who told them that Josh Weston had given them permission to be there. Clearly, there was a communications disconnect between what Josh intended and the implementation by the guards. The next morning, after attempting to line up again, Josh Weston came by and told attendees that they were in the right place, and then an hour later security came by to break up the line and told Friday attendees that they would not be allowed to line up for another 24 hours. When the Friday Hopefuls were eventually allowed to line up, there was a near-riot as attendees rushed toward the flag location in a very unsafe fashion. Given the stress and mixed messages that these attendees had received for more than 24 hours, this is not surprising.

Friday Hall H wristbanding between 6:00  and 7:00 pm

The Saturday Next Day Line had an additional complication, in that line management for wristbanding appeared to attendees to be non-existent. Hundreds of attendees rushed the front of the line when wristbanding began, and the line swelled so much that all of the A wristbands (approximately 1,200 wristbands) were handed out in a distance some attendees described as ‘less than 30 feet’ of line space. Hopefully, in future years, CCI can better secure the side of the line that is open to the road.

Hall H security lines

The problems were not over even after wristbands were handed out, as CCI ‘secured’ the Hall H tents by bringing back the metal detectors and bag checks that were problematic in 2018. This created significant delays in processing attendees, causing many to miss morning panels, and preventing those who were lining up overnight from getting in sufficient sleep. Even more frustrating was the fact that such stringent security measures were not required anywhere else in the convention center. This gave attendees the impression that the security was merely ‘for show’ and would not be not truly effective in keeping out any harmful influences.  Attendees were extremely unhappy with what they perceived as ‘security theatre’ and the significant delays caused by these measures.

FoCC Blog staff personally experienced many of these events, and conducted interviews with many other attendees who were subjected to these changing policies and statements. Amongst everyone who endured these problems, there was general agreement (and surprise) that CCI had not communicated these changes in policy beforehand, despite having had the opportunity to do so. Most people agreed that other than the ‘security measures’, the changes that were (eventually) made, other than the Hall H ‘security’, were good ones, effectively limiting the lineup times for everyone. However, the stress and emotional duress implementing these changes was extremely high, given the constantly-changing information and uncertainty, as well as the massive crowds of rushing people once lines were actually allowed to form.

Attendees were even more frustrated when they realized that there was no Talkback panel this year, and as such they were unable to let CCI know of their experiences with these lines. Fortunately, Eddie Ibrahim of CCI has stated that Talkback will return in 2020.

CCI’s ultimate goal is to reduce lines, particularly overnight lines. Enforcing the start time for lines (such as the Next Day Line) is generally a good thing. However, these policies need to be clearly communicated in advance, so that attendees know what to do and don’t lose their line positions/time investment after hours of waiting. Additionally, if a line is set to begin at a specific time, it cannot begin in a specific location, as the risk of injury from attendees rushing to be first is significant. For 2020, if CCI wishes to enforce the start time for the Next Day Line, they should do so at a random location along the waterfront: somewhere between the Marriott Marquis and Hilton Bayfront hotels, changing this location every day of the con. This will force Hall-H-Hopefuls to spread out along the entire waterfront area to find the line, minimizing the initial rush once the line actually begins.

Amazon offsite overnight line

Despite these issues, CCI’s policies did indeed reduce lines at this year’s con, and once again this pushed attendees to other lines instead. The Indigo Ballroom saw increased attention and lines (including overnighting) as did offsites such as Amazon and Brooklyn 99. Until the line culture is diminished at SDCC, FoCC Blog expects that this trend will continue, with longer offsite lines in the future.

What was your experience with exclusives lotteries and line management at SDCC 50? Join the conversation on the FoCC forums!

Transmute Jun

Transmute Jun has an addiction to pop culture conventions, and attends as many as she can each year. When she's not traveling, she likes to stay at home reading a good book, playing a video game, or binge-watching a TV show. She can be bribed with pizza, Coke Zero and Belgian milk chocolate.