Exclusive! The inside story of Comic-Con’s most coveted collectibles
Several years before I became a regular attendee of San Diego Comic-Con, I asked my friend to pick up a Doctor Who exclusive for me. He graciously declined.
People who don’t attend Comic-Con don’t know that the lines snaking around the outside of the San Diego Convention Center during Comic-Con don’t all lead to the famous Hall H. In fact, many of the lines lead to other lines along the heavily congested exhibit hall floor. Names spray-painted on the concrete walkways and stairs in the back of the convention center help volunteers and security personnel wrangle attendees into the appropriate lines. Some lines lead only to the opportunity to see if you can get into another line. Ultimately, for those patient or selected, these lines end up with the delivery of a precious and prized San Diego Comic-Con exclusive.
My friend didn’t have time to stand in line for an exclusive because he attends Comic-Con for different reasons. But for those who attend for the exclusives, the opportunity to buy a special Funko character is just as important as the Hall H devotee seeing Gal Gadot after sleeping in a tent, head and pillow leaning on the lid of a pop cooler.
On one level, everybody who comes to San Diego Comic-Con comes for an exclusive. Any particular moment of any particular Comic-Con will only come once. Exclusives-seekers come with many expectations, and exclusives come many forms.
Just What Are Exclusives?
The simple answer to: what are exclusives? is anything that can only be purchased at San Diego Comic-Con. Most items come emblazoned with a sticker, stamp or other identifying mark that designates their uniqueness in time and place. Other cons of appreciable size, including Seattle’s own Emerald City Comicon, also offer up their exclusives.
Most exclusives, however, aren’t like famous artist lithographs where printers deface the plates to ensure no more copies can be made. Bigs companies like Lego, Mattel and Hasbro tend to offer up slight variations that require different paint or other options, keeping their mass market and big manufacturing scale intact. As Zach Oat of Diamond Select Toys explained, “some exclusives trade in simple color variations painted on models made from existing molds.”
Sometimes exclusives are posters of artwork by toy, game or collectable artists or designers printed specially for the event. Sometimes they come in the form of unique configurations of toys, variant covers on comic books and magazines, or collections of items made special by being packaged together. In most cases the Comic-Con exclusives arrive numbered as part of a limited run.
Exclusives need not be expensive. Items like the Entertainment Earth Star Trek: TNG NCC-1701D Monitor Mate, with a run of only 350 pieces, ran $10, and the STAR labs ID badges from Factory Entertainment, ran $15. Some exclusives, like signed comic books, are free and the lines relatively short. Hasbro drew a big line, though, as artist Brandon Holt signed a poster from Magic: The Gathering. Holt illustrated the screen print of Nicol Bolas, produced in collaboration with Mondo and part of the brand’s Comic-Con exclusive 2017 Planeswalker Pack.
In some cases, exclusives come in the form of experiences. The poem turned graphic novel penned by Stan Lee published through Factory Entertainment ran $250, but Stan handed the pre-signed books out to the people who preordered them.
Other exclusive experiences, which were inclusive in that they didn’t require a Comic-Con badge, included the Tick Takeover from Amazon with its lounge, robotic antennae and simulated adventure. The Blade Runner 2049 Experience with VR featured a walk through 2049 Los Angeles, a look at costumes and props and a shot of Johnny Walker for those old enough to partake. The Hard Rock Hotel housed the Future of Entertainment Exclusive Fan Experience at San Diego Comic-Con, a mini-CES with the latest in TV, VR and Blu-Ray delivered by Sony and the Blu-ray Disc Association, along with several studios.
And then there are the very unique exclusives: hand-drawn images by an artist, often to fulfill a specific request, a shared moment where the artist and the buyer co-create the exclusive. My niece purchased a drawing of her dog. It will always be associated with the 2017 San Diego Comic-Con. And unlike other exclusives that come in the thousands and end up on Ebay or Amazon, the drawing is, and always will be, one-of-a-kind.
Who Buys Exclusives?
Answering this question proved complex. As the History Channel show Pawn Stars often ruminates, collectors come in all forms. A weapon from the Civil War might be of interest to a gun collector, a Civil War buff or a collector of a particular battle or weapons manufacturer. Similarly, Comic-Con exclusives from Lego might be collected by those who collect unique Lego sets, or by those who collect all things Marvel or DC, or perhaps just by those who collect Wonder Woman or Deadpool. Sometimes people collect just a particular instance of a show or character, or items associated with a particular media type, be it graphic novel, television or film.
Irvine Calif.’s Brian Nguyen stood in line for a friend in New York who really wanted the Factory Entertainment Gotham City 14 Mile sign from the 1966 Batman television series. Although the line wrapped around the booth, Nguyen didn’t need to sleep in his Superman costume to fulfill his friend’s request. Behind him stood JP de Guzman of Los Angeles, an avid Game of Thrones fan waiting to buy a set of three plush dragons.
“You can’t get these at retail. I wait a year to come here and get something special,” de Guzman said.
Lego has perhaps the most dedicated of fans that combine a passion for genre with an affinity for a particular brand of product. Some of the exclusive Lego sets required queuing up overnight for the chance to get a ticket that offered the opportunity to stand in a line to buy. All week a constantly slow-moving yellow sign shouted out, “End of Line, Credit Cards Only” at the Lego pavilion.
Some, like Steven Avila from Corona, Calif., pursued the San Diego Comic-Con app looking for exclusives that fit their collections. I found him waiting in line for the Graphitti Designs – Justice League of American #10 silver foil convention exclusive movie variant cover.
Chad Carl of Las Vegas, who waited overnight in the Funko line, buys what he can and then sorts his collectibles by passion. Those he loves he keeps. “The others,” he said, “I sell to finance more purchases.” Chad is also buying for friends, as only two out of his six person Comic-Con posse were lucky enough to get selected for the Funko queue.
While fans make up the majority of those willing to endure the lines to get into lines, others like small toy shop owners and online resellers also stand in line (or pay people to stand in line for them) in order to offer up Comic-Con exclusives to their clientele in the marked-up after-Con market.
For those who buy exclusives, the biggest disappointment often comes after waiting—when they approach the booth to find that the exclusive they wanted is sold out. For the vendors, of course, this just increases the buzz and speaks to the rarity of the items that remain.
Why sell Exclusives?
Outside of the genre-oriented companies like QMX, Entertainment Earth, and Factory Entertainment, big companies like Mattel and Lego would likely not experience a slowing of their business if they stopped the madness of exclusives, but they would lose millions of dollars in earned advertising and PR that comes from one of the most successful and perpetual stunt marketing activities. That television stations broadcast interviews about people standing in line for a toy enhances brand awareness and clout.
Entertainment Earth has been a fixture at San Diego Comic-Con for nineteen years. The company’s affiliate coordinator, Bethany Grenald, like many of the vendors on the show floor, said, “We are dedicated to the fans. They love exclusives. We fill that need.”
The San Diego Comic-Con exclusive machine self-perpetuates. Expectations get set year-after-year. San Diego Comic-Con nurtures an ecosystem of economic co-dependency in its exclusives market. The lines get longer. Toy and collectable makers, it appears, simply must make exclusives as long as Comic-Con persists.
What is the Exclusive Process?
The first step of the process involves research, trend-watching and intuition. Companies that brings exclusives to Comic-Con do so in conjunction with their licensing partners. They know which movies and television shows are going to hit, so they know to coordinate the Wonder Woman exclusive with the likely long-tail of that film. For established franchises, like Batman or Star Trek, current buzz, as well as nostalgia, create near perpetual motion machines that create a steady feed of interest. New properties create some risk for things that won’t fly off shelves if a show slips or fails to attract fans.
Entertainment Earth’s Grenald said, “We are fans ourselves. We target what we believe fans will like.” One of the company’s bundles aims at the Wonder Woman-inspired summer female superhero buying spree with a Marvel Legends Marvel’s A-Force Heroine 6-Pack. Entertainment Earth also appeals to women and girls attending the Con with items like the Fan Girl Black Panther, reflecting who the attendees are, not just what they collect.
Most show attendees don’t know that in some cases their prized exclusive was two years in the planning, sculpting, molding, casting, packaging and shipping. Diamond’s Oat explained that the Star Trek “Final Flight” Enterprise was a year in the making. “We reviewed the 2D concept, list of characters, the unpainted sculpt, the painted sculpt and the packaging with the studio.”
Jordan Schwartz, President and CEO of Factory Entertainment, also likes to offer practical collectibles. “One of our best selling items this year is an HBO Game of Thrones Hand of the Queen bottle opener,” he said.
One thing not exclusive at San Diego Comic-Con: studio licenses. Most manufacturers included a mix of DC and Marvel, along with items for Star Trek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Back to the Future and dozens of other shows and franchises. In a simple case, a collector looking to collect items from sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet would need to visit Diamond Toys for the SDCC 2017 Exclusive Forbidden Planet Robby the Robot with Blaster Vinimate, and then zip over to Factory Entertainment for a tin and set of beach towels. Those looking for Batman or Deadpool would need to stand in almost every line on the floor.
What if the exclusives don’t sell out?
Not all exclusives end up clearing off the shelves. Leftovers end up with distributors who sell them in retail and on the Internet, complete with their exclusive logos. They are, of course, no longer exclusives once the Con is over, but their mint-in-box styling did still breathe the rarified air of San Diego Comic-Con.
And then, some of the exclusives that do sell out end up on the retail shelves of those who spent time in line at the Con. They try to recoup their time through sales and auctions. One $80 SDCC 2017 Mezco Toyz One:12 Collective X-Men Deadpool Comic Con Exclusive sold for $132.50 on Ebay.
Ebay and other retailers offer an alternative to the long lines. Figure in the trip to San Diego and the cost of the Comic-Con weekend, and for collectors just looking for things, marked-up exclusives purchased online after the Con might well be bargains.
Are exclusives worth it?
If you’ve made it to the end of this article, then you probably already have an answer that works for you: yes!
People buy, or buy into, exclusives because of their passion for a show, a character, a book or a particular brand of toy. They tie their quest for an exclusive at Comic-Con to that passion. People tell stories of their wait and purchase, just as Bilbo told stories of Smaug and dwarves. Going to San Diego Comic-Con is an exclusive experience all by itself. For those seeking limited edition bobble heads, figures, T-shirts, Lego sets or signatures, that their quest includes long lines, sleeping under the stars, secret codes, wrist-bands and security teams, and following of people with signs, just makes it all the more exclusive.