HOLLYWOOD — A ballroom full of geeks has never been as attractive to Hollywood as it was last weekend in San Diego.
The studios rolled out the red carpet on July 19 at the 34th annual Comic-Con Intl. trade show, pitching their upcoming pics to thousands of die-hard genre fans who often constitute the bull’s-eye for marketing campaigns.
Comic-Con attendees, for the uninitiated, aren’t just fans. They’re the people who show up dressed as stormtroopers, Klingons and hobbits or who happen to look like Kevin Smith; who want a celeb’s autograph tattooed on their arm; camp outside of the convention center as early as 2:30 a.m.; and see movies like “The Lord of the Rings” five times or more. A vote of confidence from them is the highest form of word of mouth.
One 22-year-old attendee from Santa Barbara, dressed as Rogue from “The X-Men” franchise, was planning to see “Pirates of the Caribbean” for the sixth time.
In recent years, studio marketers have sought to get chic with the geeks, realizing that the fan-centered Comic-Con is as important a marketing event for effects-driven titles as industry confabs Toy Fair or ShoWest.
“The hardcore fans are the first online. They provide the hardcore repeat business and the ancillary revenue,” says Jeff Walker, a marketing consultant who specializes in genre films. “They’re very influential.” And finicky: “Not all ‘Star Trek’ fans go to all ‘Star Trek’ movies.”
As the show has grown — there were more than 60,000 visitors this year — studio presentations haven’t just grown bigger, louder and more star-intensive. Many of them were also carefully calibrated by marketers to influence the geeks’ early buzz on movies still a year away from theaters.
Many visitors to Comic-Con were armed with digital cameras, and within hours, their opinions of what they saw were posted on Web sites like Ain’t It Cool News, C.H.U.D., Superhero Hype, and Dark Horizons.
Thousands of attendees got first looks at trailers or extended clips for upcoming films such as Warner Bros.’ “The Matrix Revolutions” and “Troy,” Paramount’s “Timeline,” New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” Sony’s “Spider-Man 2,” Fox’s “I, Robot,” Disney’s “Haunted Mansion” and Universal’s “Van Helsing.”
Studio marketers will reap any dividends of their efforts when these pics hit theaters later this year and next, but this year’s Comic-Con yielded some early lessons for showbizzers looking to wow the geeks. Among them:
- Don’t underestimate star power: Some producers say films no longer need major stars, but the big draws of the confab were Halle Berry, Hugh Jackman, Angelina Jolie, Kate Beckinsale, Elijah Wood, Robert Englund, Richard Roxburgh (“Van Helsing”) and Scott Speedman (“Underworld”), who took turns pandering to a ballroom full of 5,000 highly opinionated moviegoers.
- Use the convention to kill bad buzz: Negative rumors on the Internet had been knocking, of all things, the look of the CGI and animatronic tentacles on “Spider-Man 2’s” villain Doc Ock (played by Alfred Molina).
But Columbia effectively countered that buzz, enlisting producer Laura Ziskin, Marvel Entertainment topper Avi Arad, Molina and f/x whiz John Dykstra to unveil not only the official poster featuring Doc Ock, but also a two-minute sequence from the film showing the villain and his mechanical squid limbs in violent action.
Days later, the poster and highly favorable descriptions of the “Spider-Man 2” footage hit the Web, drawing positive reactions. As one fan put it on Ain’t It Cool News: “If you look at Molina with the tentacles and you think ‘uncool,’ then you’re just deluding yourself — period.”
- Recruit comicbook creators to endorse your comicbook movie: Revolution Studios hyped its comicbook actioner “Hellboy” by trotting out creator Mike Mignola in place of the rest of the film’s crew (still on location in Prague). The move paid off, considering there’s no better endorsement than a creator who likes the movie adaptation of his own work.
- Hone the sales pitch: Universal focused its pitch on next summer’s “Van Helsing,” Sony keyed on “Spider-Man 2” “Underworld” and “Hellboy,” presenting filmmakers involved with each one. But Warner Bros. opted to tout eight pics, supported by video or celebrity presentations. Many big titles, including “Matrix Revolutions,” seemed, improbably, to have gotten lost in the blitz.