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You can’t see everything at San Diego Comic-Con.

No matter how many times you hear that, it really doesn’t sink in until you’ve experienced SDCC for the first time. At any given moment, there will be several things happening that you’d like to attend and you’re going to have to make some tough choices.

It’s a safe bet you’re still digesting the list of exclusive items that Comic-Con announced last week. We covered many of the highlights in last week’s column.

And before the rest of panels comes out (Thurs and Fri schedules have just been released) and completely overwhelms you, let’s walk through some strategies for making the most of Comic-Con.

In addition to the many panels that will be announced shortly, there will be so many other things competing for your time: cast signings, booth giveaways, lining up for exclusives, offsite adventures, screenings, after parties. Hell, crossing the street could take you fifteen minutes at peak and just getting into the convention center can slow you down if you go at the wrong time.

Now how do you navigate these treacherous waters? You need to figure out what your can’t-miss items are, whether it’s a panel or something at the Hasbro booth. With only a few exceptions, if you’re willing to put in the time you will most likely get what you want. That means getting up early (or staying out all night) and securing a spot in the appropriate line. Some events, like A-list cast signings or buying Lego exclusives require not only lining up, but winning a drawing.

BUILDING A SCHEDULE

So first things first. Make a prioritized list and keep it updated. This is wishlist time. Dig through the panels and find 2-3 for each hour. Make sure to note both the time AND the room. Discovering you’ve got back-to-back panels in a single location might help you break some ties when you have conflicts. Load up your list even if you already know you can’t possibly make it from the Indigo Ballroom to Ballroom 20 in thirty minutes. The trick here is to arrive at a starting point.

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The crowd gathers outside Hall H – San Diego International Comic-Con. Good luck getting in.

Next, identify your ABSOLUTE MUST-DO panels. Try to be selective here. This is the stuff you’re building your entire convention around. If you just HAVE to be in Hall H for Game of Thrones or Marvel’s movie panel, you’re probably not going to want to attempt getting through Hasbro‘s toy line that morning. Be warned — 2013 was a game changer for line-waiting. You could always count on some die-hards to camp out for the big rooms, but last year lots of people decided to camp out. It seemed like 6PM was a pretty common time to line up for the next day’s panels in Hall H.

Once you have your must-haves marked, you can carve out appropriate line-waiting time for these panels. Your schedule is falling into place, right? Sort of. Now’s the time to start looking for gaps in your schedule where you can explore the main floor, artist alley, offsite events, grab lunch or find some place to relax. But things happen. Rooms fill up causing you to miss a panel you were aiming for, a last minute signing is announced that catches your eye, or you might just need a break. This is where having backup panels/events on your schedule really comes in handy. As you start to plan your agenda, pay close attention to the mornings and Sunday. How you choose to spend your time in the morning may limit what you’re able to do in the afternoons if you didn’t get into line early enough. And it won’t feel like it, but Sunday is a little less crowded than the other days. However, Sunday offers a bit less programming, artist alley will have a lot of vacancies as creators sleep off the previous nights’ festivities, vendors start packing it in a bit early and offsite programming all but disappears. Sunday’s a great time to score deals with the retailers on the main floor, and the lines for the artist alley folks who do show up tend to be very short.

LAST MINUTE ADDITIONS

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Crowds throng the streets of the San Diego Gaslamp District. 

Speaking of surprise additions, it’s a great idea to keep your eyes peeled as you make your way through both the convention center and the Gaslamp area. Comic-Con itself distributes a printed newsletter every morning that contains last minute additions and cancelations. Be sure to grab one on your way into the convention center each morning.

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Over recent years, Zachary Levi’s The Nerd Machine has put together an alternative con called ‘Nerd HQ’, running concurrent to San Diego Comic-Con

The Nerd Machine knocked it out of the park last year with their NerdHQ panel offerings. These panels do cost around $20 each, but they are intimate and all the money goes to charity. Last year’s panel list included cast from Game of Thrones and Dr. Who, Joss Whedon and many others. Most of these panels were announced via their Twitter account throughout the con. I can’t recommend these panels enough. They are always fun, and you don’t need to camp out overnight to get in. You just need to be quick on the draw when tickets go on sale.

Lastly, as you’re walking around downtown keep an eye out for fun events at local stores, bars and restaurants. Last year Aaron Paul, Vince Gilligan and RJ Mitte from Breaking Bad were on hand for free signings at stores just a couple blocks from the convention center.

WEIGHING PANELS, EXCLUSIVES, SCREENINGS

So we’ve gone over all the things that will be competing for your time at Comic-Con. We’ve got a list of the things we want to do, but we still have our original problem: how do you decide between two or more can’t miss events all happening at once?

It’s key to remember that not all events or panels are once-in-a-lifetime occurrences and not all Comic-Con exclusives need to be purchased at Comic-Con.

Many (most) of the big Hall H and Ballroom 20 panels end up on YouTube soon after they conclude. I know it loses something when you’re not experiencing a panel with 5,000 other fans, but it’s something to consider when many of the other panels are not recorded.

As cool as early screenings might be, a little patience might pay off. Warner Bros. is screening the complete pilots for Constantine, The Flash and iZombie during Preview Night, but that time slot is very valuable if you’re hunting autographs, sketches, or exclusives. And if you are after the exclusives, it’d serve you well to do some research on how last year’s hot items are doing on eBay these days. Not every exclusive holds its value. After the hype wears down, the majority of SDCC exclusives settle down to within $10-$50 of their original price. The usual exceptions being Hasbro’s Marvel/Star Wars/Transformers offerings, Lego minifigures and Mattel’s Monster High dolls. Unless you’re aiming for one of the premium exclusives, a little patience and a few dollars more could free up a lot of your precious time in San Diego.

No matter what you end up deciding to do while at Comic-Con, you’re going to have a much easier time of it if you plan ahead. You can certainly wing it and go with the flow, but some planning a little flexibility will greatly increase your chances of witnessing more than a few of those once in a lifetime encounters that can only happen at Comic-Con.

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