The highs and lows of this year's confab

Reporters sometimes can’t help but admire the talented people they cover, but they seldom preface questions with “You rock!” or “You guys are awesome,” which occurred with notable frequency at Comic-Con in San Diego — for four days each July, the center of the pop-culture universe.

Drawing more than 120,000 attendees, this year’s sprawling convention starkly highlighted the changes taking place thanks to studios and networks’ ability to bypass media gatekeepers and communicate directly with fans — a move traditional outlets view with understandable trepidation, grappling as they are with fear of irrelevance and their own shrinking ranks.

Yet if Comic-Con’s sessions previewing movies and TV series underscored anything, it’s that journalists still have a role to play, in part because committed fans lack are so lacking in objectivity that they tend to ask crappy questions. Beyond “You rock!,” the recurring themes from these giddy exchanges with talent were “How did you become so fantastic?,” “Please tell me more about this project that will ruin it for others?” and “What advice can you give a young (actor/writer/filmmaker) like me, who probably doesn’t have a shot in hell of doing what you do?”

As for how this dynamic is affecting the press, ABC unwittingly propelled that tension into public view by mishandling a PR event before the convention began. Entertainment chief Stephen McPherson told critics in town for the summer Television Critics Assn. tour at the Beverly Hilton that announcements regarding “Lost” were being withheld for Comic-Con, prompting indignant scribes to huff about saving such news for “people who have to pay to get into a convention,” as one of the more insufferable ones put it.

Wait, you’re going to cater to actual viewers, not us critics? You ungrateful bastards!

McPherson was too shocked and dismissive to articulate an acceptable answer — that people who pay for Comic-Con do so precisely because they yearn to be ahead of the curve, and that “Lost’s” producers intended to reward those loyal fans, with whom they now enjoy a less-filtered relationship via the web. After that, ABC could have quieted the ruckus by agreeing to release the news simultaneously.

As evidenced by the numerous “exclusives” and “firsts” touted at Comic-Con, studios have grown increasingly savvy about engaging the fan contingent. Through charm and manipulation, showbiz marketers enlist this ragtag army to help generate buzz for upcoming projects.

The truly faithful, bless ‘em, dutifully lined up for packed sessions in San Diego to bask in the projected glory of their heroes. Often, that meant uncomplainingly enduring rude treatment from inept Comic-Con staff clearly overwhelmed by the convention’s steroidal bulking up since becoming a de facto subsidiary of the studios’ marketing apparatus.

For talent, being adored is always fun, as is sharing your work (especially in TV) with live, appreciative audiences. Studios can’t forget, though, that those who schlep to conventions aren’t necessarily representative of the wider world — a reminder delivered when “Pushing Daisies” producer Bryan Fuller elicited whoops and hollers with a passing reference to his very short-lived 2004 Fox series, “Wonderfalls.”

There is also a fine line between enthusiasm and obsession, between those who covet early peeks at new movies and tortured souls that nitpick incessantly and delight in “spoiler”-ing much-anticipated projects for everybody else.

Made even more delusional by Internet chat rooms, that subgroup’s fringe elements are so mercurial any conversation with them cries out for a mediator. So while novelist J.K. Rowling told “Today’s” Meredith Vieira regarding the avidness of “Harry Potter” acolytes, “I’m delighted they feel that way,” the ardor becomes a nuisance or worse once zealots begin plastering pages of the book online prior to publication.

In this context, journalists’ role becomes almost prophylactic — providing a buffer that elevates the discussion, since reporters generally aren’t rendered dumbstruck by occupying the same ballroom as Keanu Reeves or Edward Norton.

Given Hollywood’s fascination with Washington, it’s hardly surprising that studios would mimic a political trend, as campaigns sidestep the press and disseminate messages directly to key constituencies. That strategy has its place, but in exploiting events like Comic-Con the question remains finding the proper balance — and just how heavily studios want their marketing to rely upon adults marching around in Darth Vader masks and Stormtrooper costumes.

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