Hollywood marketers descend on 41st confab

This week, nerds rule.

It’s not as if they don’t already, with Hollywood eager to please fanboys with bigscreen adaptations of comicbooks, videogames and toys plus remakes and reboots of genre fare.

But it’s become an annual tradition — this is the 41st year — for the entertainment biz to make the trek to San Diego and actively seek the approval of the nerd herd (about 126,000-strong) for a wide variety of projects at Comic-Con.

This year’s studio panels will hype more traditional genre fare, beginning with Disney’s panel for “Tron: Legacy” on Thursday morning and ending Saturday evening with Marvel’s “Thor,” “Captain America” and “The Avengers.”

Warner Bros.’ “Green Lantern” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Sony’s “Green Hornet,” Lionsgate’s “The Expendables,”

Universal’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “Cowboys and Aliens,” and Summit’s “Red,” based on the DC Comic, also will be prominently featured. DreamWorks Animation is making its first appearance at the Con with “Megamind.”

“I feel like one Comic-Con fan is worth 100 moviegoers,” said director Zack Snyder, who will use the confab to promote “Sucker Punch,” an actioner, described as “Alice in Wonderland” with guns, that Warners will distribute in March.

Snyder has become a regular presenter at Comic-Con, using the show to launch “300” and “Watchmen,” and was an avid attendee before that for eight years, so he understands the type of crowd attending the show, especially after winning last year’s Wrath of Con award. “There’s no dorkier award, but I proudly display it in my office,” he said.

Warner Bros. agreed with Snyder not to show any footage from the film until the studio’s presentation Saturday to build anticipation and make a bigger promotional splash. “Showing footage for me is like going to my buddies and saying, ‘Look what I did!’ ” Snyder said.

If the 6,000 who pack the San Diego convention center’s largest hall like what they see, it will result in strong word-of-mouth that instantaneously spreads across the Web on blogs, social networking sites like Facebook and via Twitter that often — but not always — pays off at the box office.

Not all films belong at Comic-Con. And a presentation that doesn’t wow the crowd there can hurt B.O. WB’s “The Reaping” and “Jonah Hex” both stumbled there in the past.

“Comic-Con is hugely important, not for all movies but certain kinds of films,” said Sue Kroll, Warner Bros.’ president of worldwide marketing. “We’ve experimented in the past with different movies, and with the crowds there you get an immediate sense of what they want and what they liked. With communication the way it is now, word spreads quickly. It’s hard to fix things later. You really have to have something really wonderful and have to be really ready to go there. Everyone’s hyper aware. There’s always a pressure to deliver the goods.”

Added Snyder: “It’s a difficult audience to bullshit. If you don’t have what they want to see, I don’t know what you’re doing there.”

Hollywood has had time to finesse how it talks to the Comic-Con crowd.

Lucasfilm essentially created a playbook for studios in 1976 when it presented a slideshow of photos of actors in costume and concept art from “Star Wars,” as well as distributing a comicbook of the property from Marvel to drum up buzz for the pic’s release the next year.

“People made phone calls back then; they wrote letters and postcards. That’s how word-of-mouth spread,” joked Stephen Sansweet, director of content management and head of fan relations for Lucasfilm. “It’s much different now.”

The attention the film attracted from fans helped Fox figure out how to market it and encouraged theaters to book it. “The tradition continues today,” Sansweet said.

In 1970, Comic-Con had 300 attendees. Today, it’s north of 126,000 and outgrowing its home to the point that San Diego is competing with Anaheim and Los Angeles to keep the confab — and the more than $163 million it pumps into the city annually — through 2015 and beyond, when a new addition to the convention center is skedded to open.

This year, Warner Bros. Television is bringing 14 of its shows, including “The Big Bang Theory,” “Chuck,” “Fringe,” “V,” “The Vampire Diaries,” “Smallville,” “Supernatural,” “Human Target” and newcomer “Nikita” to the Con, a record for the company. Nickelodeon expanded the size of its booth to offer more activities — like photo ops with SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer and the Penguins of Madagascar — and merchandise to sell to attendees.

Of course there will be some properties that may not seem like good fits for the confab.

Last year, ABC used Comic-Con to promote its comedy “The Middle” before its fall bow. But the appearance didn’t hurt; the show became a hit for the Alphabet, landing a second season. The changing face of Comic-Con has become apparent over the last two years with Summit Entertainment’s “Twilight” franchise, which lured a larger number of women who camped out overnight outside the convention center for a chance to get close to the films’ stars.

That kind of fan frenzy benefitted other studios, as Twihards secured their seats in the main hall. Disney, especially, got a boost for “Alice in Wonderland,” when its presentation erupted in ear-piercing shrieks from a surprise appearance by Johnny Depp.

Over the years, the Con also has started to attract more families, to the point where organizers have had to be careful of the footage shown.

A clip the Weinstein Co.’s Dimension banner planned to unveil for “Piranha 3-D” was too graphic, forcing helmer Alexandre Aja to take the footage, which included titillating R-rated scenes of a wet T-shirt contest, to a local movie theater.

The changing demographic has made it even more important to consider the way audiences are treated and spoken to.

“Fans want to be in on something they don’t know,”Sansweet said. “They want to see celebrities; they want to leave with something, experience something.”

Some companies are taking that quite literally:

  • Every major gamemaker will be on hand to let attendees play their upcoming titles.

  • To promote Lionsgate’s thriller “Buried,” the company will shut attendees in a coffin and give them a video of their claustrophobic experience to email or post on Facebook.

  • And Fox Home Entertainment is building hibernation chambers on the Nostromo spaceship from “Alien” that displays virtual reality imagery from the film series to hype its upcoming “Alien” anthology on Blu-ray.

“This will be the biggest year yet for us,” said Mary Daily, executive VP of marketing for Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. “You have a very targeted audience there that lets you do some really out-of-the-box stuff you can’t do in other places.”

The homevideo division will promote more product at the show than ever, and introduce exclusives, like special packaging, to sell “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and other DVDs.

“For home entertainment it’s an increasingy important venue for marketing, showcasing and hopefully being able to sell more exclusives and collectibles there.” Last year, the division ran out of DVDs for the first season of “Dollhouse.” “We couldn’t keep up with demand.”

“It’s been very important to show the fans we’re paying attention to them,” Sansweet adds. That has meant making sure all of “Star Wars'”

fandom is covered, from individuals who like the original trilogy, to the following films, the TV shows, toys, videogames, comibooks and novels. To cover all that, Lucasfilm has operated the largest booth on the show’s floor since 2002.

The real secret is to stay in touch with your fans, Sansweet said, which has meant letting fans have fun with “Star Wars” and take ownership of the franchise through the creation of short films or costume contests, for example, or letting “Family Guy” or “Robot Chicken” create special “Star Wars”-themed episodes. “Sometimes you wince at something but it’s all in good fun,” Sansweet said.

But “dealin
g with your consumer on a daily basis is key,” he adds.

“Once you get them excited you need to continue that and keep them happy year after year. If they’re complaining about something, take it seriously. Alert people in the company that this is a sore point. You need to respond to all of that. The fans see that and become loyal.”

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