Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, national executive director of the actors’ union, SAG-AFTRA, had a message for hobbyist cosplayers at San Diego Comic-Con this weekend: It’s OK to cosplay.

“Figure out a way to … combine your support for the strike with your favorite cosplay,” Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator in its ongoing dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, advised those who love dressing up as their favorite characters during a news conference held Friday by the National Assn. of Voice Actors. “Because then you are actually helping us send the message we’re trying to send, which is that the community at large is united, supporting us in the demands that we’re making.”

As actor and writer Ashly Burch added, one could cosplay as SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher or comedian and labor organizer Adam Conover.

At the standing room-only news conference, even such tongue-in-cheek suggestions pointed to the unavoidable nature of Hollywood’s current labor conflicts. At the annual pop culture confab, which concluded Sunday, the actors’ strike, as well as the simultaneous walkout by members of the Writers Guild of America, were the subjects on everyone’s lips.

The strikes came up at numerous panels, from the screening of Warner Bros.’ newest animated feature, “Justice League: Warworld,” to a conversation about Latino representation, and issues at the crux of the walkouts, such as the use of artificial intelligence in entertainment, loomed large.

“If we do not regulate [AI] or jump in and say as people we want to do something about it, our world will flatten and basically crumble,” writer Nicholas Tana (“eJunky”) said during a Friday panel on “SF [Science Fiction] in Comics.” “Every one of us here has to educate ourselves as to what this means.”

Among those present in solidarity with SAG-AFTRA and the WGA was “nerd-in-chief” U.S. Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Long Beach), a longtime conventiongoer who announced formation of a bipartisan caucus on popular arts that will take on issues such as piracy, artificial intelligence and copyright in Congress. Garcia, who joined a gathering Friday of actors and cosplayers picketing across the street from the San Diego Convetion Center, where Comic-Con is held, admitted that the strikes had changed this year’s event.

But he preferred to look ahead to a resolution “in the weeks and months ahead.” “They’re obviously a big part of the convention,” Garcia said of the writers and actors he was there to support, “and they will be in the future.”

Cosplayer Paz Johnson was not at all “disappointed” at her first Comic-Con.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Cosplayers, an annual highlight of San Diego Comic-Con, are among those who have been seeking guidance as to what’s allowed under SAG-AFTRA‘s strict rules, which forbid promoting work from a struck studio. And with Crabtree-Ireland’s blessing, they were free to relish the costumes and camaraderie of a “back to basics” Comic-Con absent striking film and TV talent.

“While it could be disappointing, I’m not disappointed,” first-time attendee Paz Johnson, dressed as Wednesday Addams, said of the diminished Hollywood presence.

Especially after the COVID-19 pandemic forced Comic-Con to go virtual in 2020 and 2021, Sean Donnelly said being in the thick of the convention again was “a whole lot of fun.”

“All the excitement that we’re not getting from the panels and stuff, we’re putting it towards each other,” said Donnelly, who was in costume as “Ted Lasso’s” Coach Beard. “It’s not that there’s nobody here to talk to and see. It’s really [about] the fans this year.”

 Cosplayers dressed as "Ted Lasso" soccer coaches.

Cosplayers Mark Biddle, left, and Sean Donnelly, dressed as Ted Lasso and Coach Beard, attend the 2023 San Diego Comic-Con.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

In many ways, Comic-Con 2023 resembled any other in-person edition. Numerous buildings in downtown San Diego were wrapped in advertisements, celebrating TV shows such as “Yellowjackets,” “Interview With the Vampire,” “Shōgun,” multiple “Star Trek” spinoffs and Fox’s animation lineup. Cosplayers of all stripes bustled in and around the convention center. And there were lines inside the exhibit hall, outside of panel rooms and for various activations and experiences throughout the city’s Gaslamp Quarter.

Still, those familiar with San Diego Comic-Con at its pre-pandemic height likely noticed small differences. The standby line for Hall H, which can stretch out endlessly for the most in-demand panels, were noticeably short without big-name stars on the schedule. Exploring the floor of the exhibit hall did not feel like getting pulled along a riptide of other attendees. And with most talent at home, more TV and film panels than usual featured clips or full episodes.

Indeed, the sense of uncertainty that now hangs over the entire film and television industry amid a historic dual strike could be perceived even within Comic-Con’s festive atmosphere.

A huge crowd browses the showroom floor at the 2023 San Diego Comic-Con

A huge crowd browses the showroom floor at the 2023 San Diego Comic-Con.

(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

For instance, actor and Her Universe founder Ashley Eckstein cried tears of gratitude and relief Thursday at the end of the “fangirl fashion” company’s annual show, which was in limbo until just days before due to the participation of a number of SAG-AFTRA member contestants. And Mike Georgopoulos, partner at RMD Group, which operates downtown San Diego venues Rustic Root, Johnny Wahoo! Golf Bar, Lumi and Huntress, was prepared for Comic-Con’s traditional economic effect to take a hit. The event typically doubles, and sometimes triples, those establishments’ revenues, compared to a regular week.

“We are not seeing the big buy-outs and special events we normally see,” Georgeopoulous wrote in an email to The Times on the eve of this year’s convention. “And we don’t just rely on the people who have a ticket to the convention, but also the people who come just to hang out and see all the costumes, be in the excitement of it all, and hope to see a celebrity. We will definitely see a decrease there.”

There were some beneficiaries of Hollywood’s reduced footprint. Vendor Tony Sacarello, of Triangle Cards and T-Shirts, surmised that fans without a full schedule of panels had plenty of occasion to shop this year.

“I think people are finding out that maybe they do want to spend a lot more time on the floor, finding things,” he said. “Thursday was gangbusters. It was nuts.”

If the stripped-down Comic-Con of Hollywood’s “hot labor summer” is a boon to traditionalists, however, others wonder what it means for an event buffeted by disruptions in recent years.

“This is only the second year it’s been back since the pandemic,” wrote the RMD Group’s Georgopoulos. “Last year was smaller because there weren’t as many actors or studios participating. This year was supposed to be a big return.”

Nearly 50 years after “Star Wars” descended on Comic-Con and forged a lasting bond between Hollywood and the convention, Worldwide Comics’ Cliff Keirce believes that relationship may be on the wane.

“Hollywood took this place over,” he said. “If you come, there’s hardly any comics left. Collectors can’t even get a ticket anymore to come in.

“[Studios] now do their own conventions, and with all of the online media now, they don’t need the buzz from here for their movie to be successful,” he added. “They’re pulling out, I think. I don’t know what’s going to happen with this convention when the cash cows say, ‘We’re not interested anymore.’”

Staff writer Sonaiya Kelley contributed to this report.

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