Hype machine was turned on high at confab

While Hollywood’s hype machine was turned on high at Comic-Con in San Diego last week, the presence of the studios has become as routine as a comic book or costumed character.

Much has been made of the annual presence of the studios at the fanboy fest. But some participants say the program has become so carefully scripted and predictable that it’s begun to lose its sense of surprise.

“Studios are so afraid of messing up at Comic-Con that there’s little room for spontaneity — that magical moment that produces an instant connection between a filmmaker or star and the audience,” said one Warner Bros. executive. “It’s hard to describe but you know it when you see it. I’ve seen that create a fan for life.”

This year’s schedule of film presentations was carefully orchestrated to the point where few films, if any, fell flat in Hall H — the Convention Center’s main venue that packs in 6,000 attendees who want an exclusive look at upcoming projects. An estimated 126,000 attended Comic-Con during its official four-day run.

As expected, the audience once again embraced Disney’s “Tron: Legacy,” which made its third showing this year. The film was essentially born at the Con in 2008, when the Mouse House screened test footage that went over well.

And Marvel’s “Thor,” “Captain America” and “The Avengers” panels — which brought out the men playing the superheroes, including newly confirmed castmembers Mark Ruffalo (as Bruce Banner-the Incredible Hulk) and Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), and helmer Joss Whedon — had the star wattage and new footage to make fanboys happy and close out the Saturday sessions on a rock concert like decibel.

“I have had a dream all my life and it was not this good,” said Whedon on directing “The Avengers.” “I am going to blow it. I’m very nervous and need your love.”

With the reaction he got in Hall H, that wouldn’t appear to be a problem, as long as he delivers the movie that fanboys have been clamoring for. But Marvel is in tune with the Comic-Con crowd and so far has been able to deliver what’s been promised – haul out Robert Downey Jr., for example, and it’s always golden.

It’s unclear just how much coin studios spend to impress fans here. Most bring armies of reps from across all of their divisions, including film, TV, online, videogames and consumer products — which adds up. The buying of more ad space in and around the convention center and sponsoring parties at night also ups the budget, although local hotels are known for giving deals to fill their lodging and meeting rooms.

Getting a positive reaction from Comic-con auds doesn’t necessarily translate to a box office gold, however, with rousing panels for films like New Line’s “Snakes on a Plane” having proved that in recent years.

But Comic-Con is increasingly seen as the start of a film’s marketing efforts which can equal tens of millions of dollars, if not more, from word-of-mouth.

DC Comics, for one, hopes its panel on the “Green Lantern” will help launch a major new film franchise for Warner Bros. and reignite what has already become a lucrative moneymaker for the company’s various divisions. Company’s adaptation of spy action comedy “RED,” to be released by Summit, also hit its mark, with the crowd responding to a charming Helen Mirren.

Even after only a month of production, Comic-Con regular Jon Favreau made Universal and DreamWorks’ “Cowboys & Aliens” a tentpole to keep an eye on after unspooling several scenes that established the film’s feel. Helmer brought Harrison Ford to the Con for the thesp’s first time, even after headlining the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” franchises.

Also of note were WB’s “Sucker Punch,” from Zack Snyder, another Comic-Con pro who launched “300″ and “Watchmen” there; Sony’s “Battle: Los Angeles,” with its videogame-like visuals; Screen Gems’ “Priest,” which seemed to elevate traditional genre fare, and Lionsgate’s “The Expendables,” which united its cast of action icons on stage for perhaps the first and last time.

DreamWorks Animation made its first successful showing with “Megamind.” Disney did not have a toon to tubthump this year, unusual for the Mouse House.

Universal’s “Paul” and Sony’s “The Other Guys” proved that comedies can still play at the Con, after several misfires in years past.

If there were any difficult sells, it was Sony’s “The Green Hornet,” with Seth Rogen appearing defensive during the pic’s panel and struggling to get auds excited for the January release. But new scenes of Rogen’s hero with sidekick Kato made a favorable impression. The studio spent heavily on signage around town.

Meanwhile, Summit’s “Drive Angry,” with Nicolas Cage and Relativity’s “Skyline” struggled to even attract auds to their panels.

Sony was one of several studios to produce a pop-up destination for fans outside of the convention center. It built Britt Reid’s Garage for “Green Hornet,” which housed the property’s notable Black Beauty sedan; Universal set up a nerd-friendly carnival complete with an indie rock band and videogame stations from Electronic Arts for “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World;” Disney created Flynn’s Arcade, from the film “Tron: Legacy,” while Legendary Pictures produced an outdoor collection of activities, including a Greek-themed bouncy castle for the DVD release of “Clash of the Titans.”

The events helped the films stand out from the increasing competish they face from broadcast and cable TV networks, which have a larger presence at the Con each year. Warner Bros. Television, for one, brought 14 shows.

In addition to hosting packed panels inside Ballroom 20, far smaller than Hall H, and screenings of pilots like the CW’s “Nikita,” Showtime plastered shows like “Dexter” and “Nurse Betty” on the sides of the Con’s official shuttle buses; Syfy again transformed the diner inside the Hard Rock Hotel with its purple branding to create Café Diem, and WBTV featured its shows on the oversized bags that attendees haul around and that serve as unavoidable walking billboards.

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