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Fanboys and everyone else

Courting Comic-Con: Better to be safe?

Someone with knowledge of Buddhism was trying to explain the notion of planning weddings or funerals around “auspicious dates.” Asked whether she really believed it, she paused. “Better to be safe,” she said.

Studios and networks have a similar “Why tempt the fates?” approach amid ongoing uncertainty about how to best harness the wilds of social media to tap into the fanbase — especially in the comicbook/fantasy/sci-fi realm — with the latest edition of their awkward Comic-Con dance in the rear-view mirror and another edition of the evolving TV Critics Assn. tour about to begin.

Prior to this year’s San Diego confab, there were mutterings about some studios staying away or at least scaling back their presence. There have been enough false positives in the past — see the orgasmic reactions to box office disappointments like “Watchmen” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” — to cause Hollywood to question how well hosannas within Comic-Con’s cavernous Hall H translate beyond people who own Hobbit costumes or can recite the Green Lantern oath.

The same has held true vis-a-vis television, prompting one network exec to snarkily tweet about the absence of a Comic-Con panel for “The Event,” an NBC series whose enthusiastic reception last summer didn’t stave off cancellation; “FlashForward” or “Pushing Daisies” shared similar fates in previous years.

Yet the convention hardly experienced a shortage of projects whose makers were eager to brave the costumed crowds and hawk their wares to 130,000 attendees.

Never mind “Green Lantern’s” muted glow. There were still “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” and the upcoming revival of “Conan the Barbarian,” oh my.

Securing approval for “Conan” from Comic-Con attendees is “essential,” Lionsgate acquisitions/co-production prexy Jason Constantine told Variety’s Marc Graser, and that’s accurate. Yet while they provide a vital foundation, such fans alone clearly aren’t enough to support big-budget features. Simply put, “X-Men” never would have spawned multiple sequels, prequels and spinoffs relying solely on those familiar with Adamantium before Hugh Jackman ever sprouted indestructible claws.

The parallel between Comic-Con and press tour — in which Web journalists increasing supplant those from traditional newspapers — is the shared faith in social media to virally promote movies or TV shows. The disclaimer is both venues have a way of misleadingly amplifying feedback from vocal minorities.

For years, networks were too cavalier about alienating their best customers by abruptly yanking shows with committed cult followings. As the audience continues to fragment, moreover, there’s tangible value to be extracted from consumers’ passion, particularly with so many ways to pay for content directly, mitigating the critical mass demanded by advertising.

The flip side, however, is the temptation to renew ratings also-rans (see Fox’s “Dollhouse” or NBC’s “Chuck”) in part due to a small community whose voices echo loudly through chat rooms. Adoring tweets are wonderful for the ego, perhaps, but it’s generally unhealthy when they outnumber the actual audience.

Like the networks, the media attending the press tour face their own shifting calculus, with many keeping score based on online clicks — not always the most representative gauge of mass appeal. It’s telling, too, that PR staffs must constantly re-evaluate scribes’ legitimacy these days by seeking to verify who’s actually being paid and published before extending credentials.

On the plus side, there’s no question input from comicbook and fantasy aficionados has helped improve the quality of genre product. One need only watch Marvel’s new “Captain America” — a serious and faithful origin story, anchored by Chris Evans’ square-jawed performance — and compare it to dreadful earlier versions produced in 1979 and 1992, which Syfy opportunistically ran over the weekend.

Nevertheless, the bottom line is social media remains a tool, and a poorly understood one at that. Used properly, it’s another means of spreading the gospel and stoking word of mouth, which becomes more important with traditional media voices diluted. Besides, better to be safe, right?

That said, there’s still lingering danger of misreading what amounts to preaching to a tiny choir. In that regard, heeding the digital siren call can easily lead marketers plunging off a cliff, only to discover — unlike some superheroes — that they can’t fly.

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