Event evolves into celebrity-filled affair

Over the years, superfans have gotten accustomed to seeing their favorite stars at Comic-Con in San Diego, taking for granted the work it takes publicity teams to convince A-listers like Cameron Diaz or Peter Jackson to attend the pop-culture convention for the first time. And who can blame celebs for getting cold feet? Premieres and press junkets seem incredibly predictable when compared with facing the fans directly at Comic-Con, where fielding questions like, “Will you go out with me?” from shut-ins in superhero garb can be the norm.

It’s easy to imagine, then, why Nicolas Cage might seem nervous during his virgin visit in 2005 (though the star loved the experience enough that he came back two years later to hype the graphic novel he wrote with son Weston) or why Tobey Maguire waited until the second “Spider-Man” movie to show his face in Hall H (the San Diego Convention Center’s 6,500-seatshowroom).

Though a few big stars agreed to trek down to Comic-Con during the ’90s, the turning point was 2002, when Angelina Jolie showed up to promote the second “Tomb Raider” film. The Oscar winner had been open to attending, but didn’t want to go unless she could make an “event” out of her appearance. Ideas ranged from having her ride in on a horse to dropping in by helicopter, but the city nixed such stunts, so Jolie decided to stage her chopper arrival at the San Diego airport instead.

“The Monday after Comic-Con, Angelina Jolie’s photo ran on the cover of USA Today. That changed everything,” recalls MGM marketing honcho Mike Vollman, then with DreamWorks. “You can be on every single blog, every single opinion-building site, but when it hits the trades or mainstream media, the old guard are like, ‘Oh, wow. I get it.’ ”

In the years since, “They all want to go,” says one studio marketing exec. “Any actor who is fighting against going to Comic-Con doesn’t have any friends who have been down there. They have no idea how great it is.”

Genre consultant Jeff Walker, who has bridged the gap between the convention and Hollywood for decades, says it’s always an “eye-opening” experience for first-time attendees (this year’s debutantes include Tim Burton, Robert Zemeckis and revered Asian filmmakers Park Chan-wook and Hayao Miyazaki, with rumors swirling about possible appearances by Jim Carrey and Denzel Washington). “Very few have come away saying, ‘That’s the worst experience I’ve ever had,’ ” Walker insists.

Take director Jon Favreau, who was initially reluctant to present “Zathura” to the crowd at Comic-Con, Walker recalls. “He discovered what the stuff was all about, and he’s been gung ho ever since” — so much so that Favreau created a tidal wave of positive buzz two years ago when he surprised his Thursday audience with a sneak peek of “Iron Man” footage that wasn’t scheduled to debut until two days later.

For many showbizzers, the fan experience is so refreshingly positive compared to dealing with mainstream media, talent have to be dragged away from the floor (much to the surprise of their handlers). Last year, the cast of “Twilight” were overwhelmed onstage but so enthralled interacting with the fans at a signing table that they continued for an extra 45 minutes.

Things have changed so much that some stars and filmmakers actually have to be discouraged from attending the convention when they have nothing to show or the timing interferes with the strategic rollout of the film’s publicity campaign. After announcing Zachary Quinto as the new Spock in 2007, J.J. Abrams wanted to tout “Star Trek” the following year, but the studio convinced him the release was too far out. Likewise, Disney sources claim they were contemplating a big debut for Jerry Bruckheimer’s “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” with first-time attendee Jake Gyllenhaal, but decided to follow “Trek’s” example since the swashbuckling adventure doesn’t open until May 2010.

Regardless of the star caliber in attendance, Comic-Con crowds expect to see footage or other assets, and when that material isn’t ready in time, it can potentially damage a film’s reception. And as one veteran publicist notes, “If you can’t ‘eventize’ your panel, why allow the talent to come down anyway? (Dwayne Johnson’s) panel for ‘Witch Mountain’ was half empty last year.”

Still, the prospect of confronting thousands of fans in either of Comic-Con’s two biggest halls can make even some of the most seasoned performers nervous. Regarding Jim Caviezel, who will make his Comic-Con debut for his role in the AMC miniseries “The Prisoner,” Walker observes: “He’s shy, so I think there is a certain, ‘What am I experiencing? What is this?’ sort of reaction.”

Walker adds that “Alice in Wonderland” helmer Burton has always been a little reticent of crowd situations but is finally coming down because, “Reaching this audience and the magic that happens between the fans and the talent during the Q&A portion is really what’s important about the show. It’s not an audience that sits on its hands. They are there to be supportive and be turned on to things.”

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