Anyone who has spent enough time in Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con is bound to notice a trend.
For those who have never been, Hall H is the 6,500-seat auditorium where all of the biggest comic book movie announcements are made and the biggest stars appear. If you’ve ever watched a shaky YouTube video of a Marvel trailer premiere or watched an interview with a nervous A-lister trying to find common ground with a room full of genre fanatics, it almost certainly happened in Hall H.
If you’re a movie studio, Hall H is why you go to Comic-Con. It’s where your most fervent fans wait with baited breath for each and every tiny morsel you throw their way and cheer every reveal, no matter how insignificant.
What has resulted from that aforementioned trend? The realization that, ultimately, what happens in Hall H has no impact whatsoever on how well your movie does.
Sure, plenty of the movies showcased in that cavernous room become mega-hits. But it’s not because of what occurred here in a one-hour block in July. Plenty of the movies showcased there bomb as well. Yet again, it has nothing to do with whether or not every person in attendance enjoyed what they were given that day.
The lesson that studios have learned (or should have learned) is that Hall H is all about promoting the movie that comes out next year, not the movie that comes out next week. As excited and enthralled as the people in that audience might be, they’ve already made up their mind about whether or not they’re going to pay to see your product. That decision was made long ago. This? This is just masturbatory acknowledgement.
What value Hall H does have is that it’s a launching pad for your far-future project. It’s where you create those first seeds of hype that hopefully sustain interest as it becomes something that catches fire a year-and-a-half later when the film actually hits theaters (and spawns three sequels, three prequels and an ill-conceived TV show). By then, the masses will have caught wind of what you’re doing, latched on to the excitement behind it, and pulled themselves into your sphere of entertainment. Becuase that’s where you truly make bank. With the hoi polloi, not the fans.
In a way, dedicated WWE fans are like the people in Hall H. They’ve already bought in. They’re going to keep buying in. They want their acknowledgement as the hardcore base that buys the merchandise and marks out over their favorite wrestlers. But when push comes to shove, they’re not the ones who are going to give you blockbuster numbers. They’re the foundation. But when WrestleMania comes around and you need to break last year’s seemingly unbreakable records, you need to hook the half-interested, the casual observer, and the bored.
When you do that, everyone wins. WWE gets to tout their big numbers to shareholders and advertisers. The product gets a fresh wave of popularity and consumers. And then your favorite wrestlers get to (in theory) benefit.
When Goldberg squashed Kevin Owens at the Fastlane PPV this past Sunday to win the WWE Universal Title, there was a very predictable sense of disappointment amongst WWE fans. Here was this 50-year-old man, a novelty act from another era, absolutely destroying one of their favorite guys, not to mention a guy who was himself champion for 188 days. With mere weeks to go before the biggest event of the year, Owens is demoted to a feud over a lesser title while Goldberg fights another part-timer for the title in the main event.
Meanwhile, the company continues to dance around the idea of a match between elder statesman The Big Show and retired basketball player Shaquille O’Neal. There is also the yet-to-be-determined obligatory match involving WWE legend and executive Triple H while all signs point to A.J. Styles wasting his talents carrying Shane McMahon around the ring on the biggest stage of them all. To say nothing of the assumed match between WWE fan whipping boy Roman Reigns and The Undertaker, who is getting so old and out of shape that it’s hard not to feel bad for him out there, dead man or not.
Put together, it’s the kind of card that makes longtime, dedicated WWE fans want to bash their head against the ringpost. What they don’t take into account is the same thing the people in Hall H don’t consider.
This is not for you. WrestleMania is not for you.
Since its inception, WrestleMania was never meant to be the “best” version of a WWE event. It was, and continues to be, a spectacle. A big, gaudy, loud spectacle meant to grab the attention of those who would not otherwise care enough to pay money to watch professional wrestling.
What do we remember about WrestleMania I? That Mr. T and Cyndi Lauper, and Muhammed Ali were there. That was the draw. It certainly wasn’t the fact that the main event was a non-title tag-team match. But then again, that’s the point. WrestleMania II involved a Mr. T boxing match and matches in three separate arenas. It’s the event we remember for Pete Rose getting tombstoned by Kane over and over. When Mike Tyson showed up to referee a match. (What were his qualifications!?!) The current President of the United States was even prominently involved a couple times.
Smart wrestling fans can point to dozens of fantastic matches over the years. Ricky Steamboat vs. Randy Savage. The Undertaker vs. Shawn Michaels. The Rock vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin. Bret Hart Vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin. Deservedly so, WrestleMania has a history of great matches throughout.
But that’s not what makes WrestleMania what it is. That’s not why people who don’t watch wrestling all year suddenly decide to tune in. That’s not why the peripheral fans get invested in the big matches and moments to come. What gets them is the spectacle.
So that’s why Goldberg is champion and Kevin Owens is not. Because all of those people know who Goldberg is and the mere utterance of his name triggers all kinds of nostalgic reflexes in them. And they also know who Brock Lesnar is, so the idea of these two monsters going head-to-head intrigues them. Sure, it’s probably going to be a bad match. It’s unlikely it’ll last more than 10 minutes, to be honest. But the match isn’t the point.
Same reason the WWE wants Shaquille O’Neal to take a spot on the card that could have gone to Cesaro or Dolph Ziggler or Shinsuke Nakamura. Because the casual fan doesn’t know who those people are. Doesn’t care. But your Dad knows Shaq, and might get a kick out of seeing him get into a singlet and get bodyslammed.
And here’s the thing. You can put up with it for one night. You can deal with one PPV cycle of this nonsense. Because look at what the previous year gave you. It gave you WWE Champion A.J. Styles, WWE Universal Champion Finn Balor (briefly), and WWE Universal Champion Kevin Owens. There was a time, not very long ago, when all of those things seemed unthinkable. They gave you #BlackExcellence and Nakamura vs. Samoa Joe and the Cruiserweight Classic. It might be hard to appreciate things week-to-week, and we can argue over how some of those title reigns played out, but it was a banner season for WWE fan service.
So if you’re upset with the current status of the WWE, try to think big picture. Right now, the company is focusing on sizzle. It needs to do what it’s gotta do to reach the masses. If that means knocking your favorites down a peg so that yesterday’s icons can supplant them briefly, that’s what has to happen. And then, once WrestleMania is over, there’s a pretty good chance that all of that sizzle will be gone and you’ll be left to enjoy the steak. The returns of Finn Balor, Seth Rollins, and Kurt Angle. The rise of Samoa Joe, Bray Wyatt, and Braun Strowman. The ascensions of Shinsuke Nakamura, Asuka, Tye Dillinger and more.
Fair or not, this is the price WWE fans must pay to be able to get there. Your wants and hopes take a backseat to the bottom line. But it doesn’t mean this is the new status quo. Hardly. It’s just the cost of doing business. And once WrestleMania is over, WWE will get back to the business of wrestling instead of the business of spectacle.
At least that’s the idea.