Nets hope to capture fan fervor at confab

At last year’s Comic-Con, the annual confab that has become a showcase for Hollywood’s genre marketing efforts, anticipation centered around “Superman Returns” and “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

Warner Bros. and Fox, respectively, trotted out their stars and filmmakers to assuage fan fears about changes in the franchises, as well as to test reception and build buzz. This summer, the fruits of those efforts paid off with boffo openings for both tentpoles.

As this year’s Comic-Con begins tonight in San Diego, three pricey pics are again directed squarely at the demo: Sony’s “Spider-Man 3″ opens next May, and Fox’s “Fantastic Four” sequel and Paramount’s “Transformers” are slated to open soon afterward. Expectations — and studio investments — are high.

But compared with last year, on the eve of “King Kong” and a new “Harry Potter” installment, stakes at this year’s Comic-Con are small. This year fans will have to settle for a taped message from Peter Jackson in the sneak peek of the “King Kong” DVD, or a snippet from Paramount’s fantasy pic “Stardust.” New Line’s “Snakes on a Plane,” while not derived from a comicbook, will look to tap the fanboy domain to build on its sizable advance buzz ahead of its Aug. 18 release.

This time, it’s TV that is looking to fill the gap and capture fan fervor at Comic-Con. All the major networks have significant plans for the confab, along with cable stalwarts like Sci Fi Channel, USA, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon.

“In the last few years, TV’s participation has stepped up a notch,” Comic-Con marketing director David Glanzer said. “There’s a lot more sci-fi and supernatural — ‘genre product’ — on TV right now.”

NBC is planning a push for its superhero skein “Heroes,” while CBS/Paramount will screen its new series “Jericho.”

Sci Fi will tout competition show “Who Wants to Be a Superhero?,” on which it’s collaborating with Stan Lee, as well as breakout hit “Battlestar Galactica.”

Superhero movies transcend the fanboy genre, but Hollywood is convinced the die-hards are still crucial to opening such films.

“It’s the hardcore audience that is the first to seize on new technology, the first to buy tickets, the first to buy DVDs and will be the first to download pics to cell phones,” said Michael Uslan, exec producer of the current bigscreen “Batman” franchise.

Other pics making a push at Comic-Con are aimed dead center at the demo, such as Kevin Smith’s “Clerks II” and “Grind House,” the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez horror collaboration. Several “Star Trek” panels will no doubt focus on J.J. Abrams’ plans for the next generation of the franchise. And the Sony/Marvel Comics team will test the fan waters with one of the less-famous comicbook properties in “Ghost Rider.” Stars Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes will attend to tout the film.

But as comic enthusiasts and studio execs are quick to point out, the confab isn’t just about superheroes these days. Hence Dean Devlin’s upcoming WWI pic “Flyboys” will try to woo the Comic-Con crowd with its aerial acrobatics and tale of young Americans caught at war.

For the comicbook nation, there’s never been a better time to capture Hollywood’s attention.

Uslan, who started attending comicbook conventions in the 1960s, remembers when things were different.

“When we started in the business, Hollywood thumbed its nose at comicbooks,” he said. “Now the execs are people who grew up reading Stan Lee and Will Eisner. There has been a huge change in attitude.”

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