Confab makes room for comedy, other genres

Superman, Batman and the Hulk have long been welcome at Comic-Con, the annual San Diego confab where comicbook enthusiasts gather to geek out over the latest in genre entertainment (or “the popular arts,” as the event’s organizers call it).

But Hollywood has been relatively slow to realize Comic-Con’s potential as a launching pad for other forms of mainstream entertainment. Expect a major shift this year, as fewer-than-usual superhero pics (“Watchmen,” “The Spirit” and “Punisher”) make room for everything from comedies like “Tropic Thunder” and “Pineapple Express” to such family-friendly fare as “Land of the Lost” and “Race to Witch Mountain.”

“The same audience that likes genre movies likes comedy,” says producer Peter Safran, who will push his Carmen Electra-starring “Disaster Movie” spoof in San Diego. “It’s the right audience. There are few places you can go that have a targeted demographic.”

The hardcore fanboys won’t feel left out, however. For sci-fi enthusiasts, there’s “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” “Terminator Salvation” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” plus horror buffs have the relaunch of “The Wolfman,” Alexandre Aja-helmed “Mirrors” and latest “Saw” installment to look forward to. Even teen girls have “Twilight.”

Comic-Con is fast becoming ShoWest for fans, a place where studios can tout their upcoming slate by teasing exclusive footage and trotting out A-list stars to greet the crowds. It’s an odd mix of tastemakers: Some come dressed as their favorite characters, others bring the entire family or plan their vacations around the event, but all seem eager to tell anyone who will listen what they think about what they’ve seen. That gives studios a one-stop opportunity to reach out to their target demographic and shape the early buzz, especially across the Internet.

“They’re the first people to buy tickets, the first to buy the merchandise, the DVDs, the toys, the videogames,” says Jeff Walker, a longtime consultant to the studios when it comes to planning convention presentations. “They’re the hardcore fans everyone wants on their side.”

And yet, the crowd’s enthusiasm has been broad-ranging since the beginning, says Comic-Con marketing director David Glanzer, who cites an early appearance by Frank Capra as evidence of fans’ ecumenical taste. It was only in subsequent years that marketers pigeonholed the event as a platform for genre film.

George Lucas sent a group to promote the first “Star Wars,” for example. “Our message was always, ‘Genre films are great and deserving of special recognition,’” Glanzer says.

Over the years, the number and variety of films seeking exposure at the Con has expanded steadily. Today, the event draws such A-list stars as Hugh Jackman, Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr. as well as behind-the-camera names such as J.J. Abrams, Zack Snyder and Guillermo del Toro.

While presentations run all day in a massive 6,500-seat exhibition room known as “Hall H,” studios sponsor booths and eye-catching displays on the convention show floor, handing out T-shirts, posters and other freebies. In the past, effective crowdstoppers have included everything from the screen-used “Iron Man” costume to a one-legged model shilling “Grindhouse” DVDs.

“It’s great to give swag away to people who are happy to receive it,” says Lisa Gregorian, exec VP of marketing for Warner Bros. Television Group, which screened “Chuck,” “Pushing Daisies” and “The Sarah Connor Chronicles” last year and is pushing “Fringe” on Fox this year. She calls Comic-Con the “mecca of fans”: “We’re tapping into the psyche of this demographic.”

What happens outside the facility is just as important. Last year, “The Dark Knight” bypassed Hall H, with Warner Bros. kicking off the film’s viral marketing campaign with a downtown scavenger hunt. In the evenings, studios typically hold word of mouth screenings for their pics in nearby theaters.

This year, Walden Media has outfitted a San Diego-bound Amtrak rail car to promote “City of Ember,” and Lionsgate serves as the official sponsor of the Eisner Awards, named after “The Spirit” creator Will Eisner.

Another recent development has been TV’s ability to draw crowds on par with its bigscreen brethren, with shows such as “Battlestar Galactica,” “Lost” and “Heroes” outgrowing their smaller meeting rooms and moving to Hall H this year. Even BBC has jumped on the bandwagon, bringing “Doctor Who” updates to the show’s devoted followers.

“It has evolved spectacularly,” says Focus Features topper James Schamus, who calls Comic-Con “an ongoing empowerment of fan culture.” U’s genre arm will promote “Hamlet 2,” another nontraditional fit. Filmmakers who go are “in direct dialogue with that part of the community that rightfully feels a bit of ownership over the process,” he says.

Hollywood’s presence has become so high-profile at the Con that it’s news if a studio pulls out of the confab. Last year, 20th Century Fox was flogged for deciding not to showcase any of its pics.

“Not every studio has a presentation every year,” Glanzer says. “It’s not an earth-shattering event. Sometimes people read too much into it.”

Yet the irony in all of this is that film- and TV-specific programming makes up less than 25% of the Con’s schedule, Glanzer says. And even on the event’s show floor, studios are overshadowed by comicbook publishers, retailers, videogame and toy companies.

The rest of the panels are educational sessions on how to break into the comicbook biz, for example, which allows Comic-Con to consider itself an educational nonprofit.

“It’s an opportunity for attendees to talk to (their idols) at the height of their professions,” he says.

TIP SHEET

What: Comic-Con Intl.: San Diego

When: Thursday through Sunday

Where: San Diego Convention Center

Featuring: Panels, screenings, portfolio reviews, autograph sessions, Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards

Web: comic-con.org

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