Fanboys force studios to take event seriously

It’s easy to dismiss Comic-Con as Nerdapalooza. It’s hard not to, when attendees dress up as Storm Troopers, Spider-Man or Spartans from “300” and geek out over the newest graphic novel, action figure or “Star Trek” poster.

But Hollywood couldn’t be taking the event more seriously.

Studios have become such big fans of the fanboys that the annual four-day showcase for all things comicbook and genre-related in San Diego has become arguably as important as ShoWest, Sundance or Cannes as a promotional vehicle of new movies and TV shows.

Nerds have never been more important for Hollywood — especially this year when “Iron Man” has hauled in more than $300 million in B.O. metal, and the next Batman adventure, “The Dark Knight” is one of the best reviewed films of the year.

“It’s grown over the years into a very important opportunity for promoting your movies,” says Robert Friedman, co-chairman and CEO of Summit Entertainment, which plans to make a big splash at the confab this year with its first slate of pics. “It’s a great launchpad.

“The great thing about Comic-Con is it’s a great audience of movie aficionados and fans. They have a ravenous appetite for new product and have a discriminating eye. They are film lovers and if they like what they see, they’ll talk about it. They’re absolutely not shy how they feel about stuff either on the Web or in person.”

We’re not talking about a couple of bloggers in a small room.

Last year’s event attracted 125,000 attendees to the San Diego Convention Center, selling out for the first time.

That’s especially impressive considering “the Con,” as it’s affectionately known by its attendees, kicked off in 1970, where 300 gathered in a hotel basement. Now, one room alone at the confab, where most of the studio presentations are held, seats 6,500.

In its early years, presentations weren’t as flashy: George Lucas sent a team in 1976 to present photos of “Star Wars.” When Warner Bros. didn’t have a shot of Michael Keaton in the Batman costume in 1988, comics creator Bob Kane drew a cowl over the thesp’s headshot to appease doubters that he’d look acceptable in the suit.

Today, it’s considered a disappointment if actors or filmmakers aren’t present to talk about projects or exclusive footage — even just a trailer — isn’t run for the first time.

Hosting a high-profile presentation has put too much pressure on some studios, however, to the point where some have bailed from showing up with Con-worthy pics.

“There are some people who believe that in order to make a presence at Comic-Con you have to have star power, footage, razzle-dazzle and all that,” says David Glanzer, Comic-Con’s director of marketing. “While those things help, they’re not always necessary. Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that those people sitting in the audience aren’t looking to be marketed to or sold.

“If you say, ‘This project is awesome but we don’t have anything to show yet,’ the audience will understand. It’s better to do that than not come because people will think, ‘What’s wrong with the project? Do they not care about us?’ It’s sometimes more dangerous to say nothing.”

Focus Features topper James Schamus, who is promoting the comedy “Hamlet 2″ there, says studios need to understand how to deal with the instantaneous feedback they’ll get from what they show at the Con. “It’s the start of an ongoing dialog,” he says. “It doesn’t just start and end there. It’s not a thumbs up or thumbs down because some guy didn’t like your poster.”

This year studio panels will push Warner Bros.’ “Watchmen,” “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” “Terminator Salvation,” “RocknRolla,” “Ninja Assassin”; Fox’s “Max Payne,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and “Mirrors”; Universal’s “Death Race,” “Land of the Lost,” “The Wolfman” and “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”; Disney’s “Race to Witch Mountain;” Lionsgate’s “The Spirit,” and Sony’s “Quarantine,” “Pineapple Express” and “Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.”

Thesps on hand will include Seth Rogen, Mark Wahlberg, Keanu Reeves, Jeremy Piven, Jennifer Connelly, Jason Statham, Samuel L. Jackson, Kiefer Sutherland, Steve Coogan, Chris Evans, Dakota Fanning, Eva Mendes, Kristen Stewart, Mila Kunis, Rainn Wilson, Kim Kardashian, Carmen Electra; helmers Zack Snyder, McG, John Moore, Guy Ritchie, James McTeigue; and producer Joel Silver.

Summit Entertainment is making the trek for the first time to tout “Twilight,” “Knowing” and “Push.”

Additionally, TV will have a strong showing, with presentations for “Lost” and “Heroes” to take place in the confab’s biggest hall. Warner Bros. TV will hype J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi series “Fringe,” which bows on Fox this fall. The studio will also run an extended pilot for the show in the convention center and movie theater in the area.

In previous years, WB TV screened “Chuck,” “Pushing Daisies” and “The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”

“We saw an immediate impact online,” says Lisa Gregorian, exec VP of marketing for Warner Bros. Television Group. “Word of mouth is now one individual impacting a couple hundred individuals who can impact thousands. Social networking has allowed us to empower one fan to impact thousands of potential viewers.”

More screenings will take place than in previous years, with “Tropic Thunder,” “Pineapple Express,” “Hamlet 2,” “Sex Drive” and “The Rocker.”

That’s a group of laffers, with comedy, like last year, dominating the Con.

“It’s cyclical,” says Glanzer, who also works as a casting director. “For a long time we saw a lot of horror movies. Now we’re seeing a comedy cycle. Every year is different. You can have the top film studios, but the movies change. You can have the top comicbook companies, but the projects are different.”

The turnout is impressive considering who runs Comic-Con.

The confab is not owned by a major conglom or conference planner but organized by a 13-person board of directors with few, if any, ties to the entertainment industry. One is a teacher, another a photographer, while others work in the medical or biotech biz. There’s also a ship builder.

The one uniting factor is that “everybody’s a fan of comicbooks,” says Glanzer. “It’s a group effort. It always has been. It’s worked effectively that way. We try to put on an event that we would love to attend.”

Studios have had help, however.

They have long turned to Jeff Walker, who describes himself as a genre marketing consultant and helps Hollywood plan convention presentations.

“Talent and footage,” he says. “Those are the two things that you need. It really comes down to what happens on that stage and the material that is shown. That is what the kids write about. That’s what they respond to.”

There has been some fear among attendees that the event is losing focus — that it’s been taken over by Hollywood through the years and turned into a film fest rather than an event about comicbooks.

But Glanzer says film and TV actually make up 22% of the confab’s programming. The rest is consists of panels on how to break into the comicbook biz, or how to become an animator, filmmaker or scribe, which enables Comic-Con to operate as an educational non-profit.

On the show floor, retailers, toy and books sellers, vidgame makers and comicbook publishers are well represented.

The misconception exists because “Hollywood and the studios have an ability to market their presence at the show more than others,” he says.

Any coin the Con collects is invested into the following year’s show and pays for the rental of office space, the convention center itself, city fees and several full-time salaries.

“It’s not an inexpensive endeavor,” Glanzer says.

Overall, show is said to pump at least $45 million into San Diego’s coffers. But that estimate is said to be conservative since it only tallies attendee spending and not the parties or guerrilla marketing efforts from studios, agencies and publishers. Last year, Warner Bros. rented baseball stadium Petco Park to promote the DVD launch of “300.”

Because of Comic-Con’s growing popularity, the confab has been approached by a number of players with bids to acquire its event in San Diego, as well as its WonderCon and Alternative Press Expo, both in San Francisco.

“Many see it as a revenue- generating opportunity,” Glanzer says. “I suppose it can be.”

But organizers want whoever buys Comic-Con Intl. to also keep the two other events alive. “It’s really important that those shows stick around,” Glanzer says. “They serve a valuable purpose. When we’ve been approached, I don’t think there was a commitment to that.”

Comic-Con’s growth is leading to growing pains, however.

As the convention center grew, so did Comic-Con. But the confab has hit its capacity at the convention center, meaning the org has had to figure ways to generate additional revenue that goes beyond selling tickets. So far, that’s meant selling more signage inside the facility.

“Our income is flat,” Glanzer admits. “We can only allow a certain amount of people through the door and we’ve reached that.”

The show is expected to stay in San Diego until its contract is up in 2012. Already, other cities including Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Denver have been courting organizers with bigger venues.

Wherever it moves, Hollywood will likely keep coming.

“There are few places where you can go that has a targeted demographic,” says producer Peter Safran, who is promoting “Disaster Movie.” “You know you’ll get your hardcore 12- to 24-year-old male demographic. It’s a place to attack them where they live in a concentrated effort.”

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