Earlier this month, thousands of fanboy voices cried out in terror over the news that Marvel Studios would be skipping San Diego Comic-Con for the first time since 2011. It’s certainly not for lack of content, with Paul Rudd’s “Ant-Man” hitting theaters a week after the convention, and the star-studded “Captain America: Civil War” currently in production. The scuttlebutt is that Marvel will showcase its bigscreen wares at parent company Walt Disney Studios’ biennial D23 Expo in August instead.
Marvel isn’t alone: Sony and Paramount also have decided to forego the trip down to San Diego. Sources say they simply didn’t have enough fanboy material to promote.
“It wasn’t a knock against Comic-Con,” one spokesperson explains. “The film cycles just didn’t allow it.”
Plus, sending a number of movies to Comic-Con can set a studio back a few hundred thousand dollars, so “why force the issue?” asks one exec.
One major film studio, though, will be there in force: Warner Bros., with DC Entertainment, is expected to debut their long-awaited Justice League lineup, which features Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, among others.
But there’s still plenty of prime Con real estate up for grabs, setting the stage for TV to steal the spotlight come July 9-12. The tide has been turning toward television for years, but with shows like AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones” dominating both the ratings and the zeitgeist, blockbusters have ceded their bragging rights to TV.
Executive producer Carlton Cuse has long been a fixture at Comic-Con, thanks to his tenure at the helm of “Lost.” This year, he’ll be returning with “The Strain” and new USA sci-fi drama “Colony,” which reunites him with his former “Lost” star Josh Holloway. He’s had a front-row seat to the TV takeover at the event, and offered a theory on what’s behind the shift.
“With a movie, you make a relationship once on the first couple of weekends that the movie’s out, and that’s it; it’s one and done,” he says. “But in the case of ‘Lost,’ we had fans that followed our saga for six years and 121 episodes, and you feel so inside of something when you connect to it over dozens of episodes.”
While a slot in Hall H (the convention’s largest venue, which can accommodate more than 6,000 rabid fans) used to be reserved solely for movie offerings, hot properties like BBC America’s “Doctor Who” and the CW’s “Arrow” and “The Flash” have now moved in on the turf. Fans happily camp out in line overnight for a chance to bask in the presence of “The Flash” star Grant Gustin and his heroic brethren.
And at this year’s Con, fan-favorite TV properties and theatrical blockbusters are given equal consideration on the schedule, with “The Walking Dead” and Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” both hitting the big stage July 10.
The scheduling of Comic-Con — weeks after the start of May’s summer tentpole season — offers diminishing returns for movie studios, notes Julie Moore, VP of marketing strategy at NBCUniversal, but it hits the sweet spot for television.
“It’s such a critical time for us; it’s the coming-out party for fall launch,” she says. “Networks are putting a stake in the ground. If you bring a show to Comic-Con, it means that show is a big priority for the fall.”
That’s why more series are making the trek to San Diego this year than ever before, from returning favorites like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Once Upon a Time” to new properties hoping to cement their geek credibility like Robert Kirkman’s “Outcast” on Cinemax and FX’s “The Bastard Executioner” from Kurt Sutter.
Even projects based on established brands, like CBS’ “Supergirl” or Starz’s “Ash vs Evil Dead,” recognize the value of getting in front of a genre-friendly crowd months before they premiere.
“The timing’s so perfect,” says Lisa Gregorian, president and chief marketing officer for Warner Bros. Television Group. “We know in May which shows have been picked up for the fall, and we’re able to galvanize the writers’ room; we’re able to get the executive producers and the talent onboard. It’s really, in many cases, the first time they’re presenting either their vision for the new season or their vision for the show overall.”
And with more competition than ever, it’s important to do what it takes to break through, and kickstart the buzz. That’s why new players like Fox’s “Scream Queens” and NBC’s “Blindspot” are debuting their wares with flashy marketing campaigns, including the former’s vertical drop amusement ride that will capture fans’ screams with shareable GIFs, and the latter’s tattooed “Jane Does,” who will serve as a living scavenger hunt, giving fans a chance to win money if they locate a clue hidden in their inked designs.
That exposure is even more pivotal for upstart digital networks looking to compete with their broadcast counterparts. Streaming service Hulu has been a fixture at Comic-Con for three years with its animated superhero show “The Awesomes,” while Amazon Studios is making its convention debut with two upcoming original series, “Hand of God,” starring Ron Perlman, and “The Man in the High Castle,” based on Philip K. Dick’s alternative history novel.
“I think that most people would agree that this is not just for fanboys; this convention is really for everyone,” says Victoria Chew, VP of marketing partnerships for ABC. “I see a big presence for all the entertainment companies, not just in the convention center but outside the convention center — all over San Diego. There seems to be an influx of studios trying to speak to this audience, and a lot of A-level celebrities are coming down in ways that I don’t think I saw 10 years ago.”
While marketing execs are wary of suggesting a direct correlation between Comic-Con presence and a show’s ratings, many believe that the event’s passionate audience is invaluable when it comes to promotional efforts.
“It’s so close to L.A.; there’s so much press down there, that it’s really an opportunity to speak to the key social influencers and consumers who are ultimately going to drive the buzz leading up to fall launch,” says Moore, who describes Comic-Con as “the Super Bowl of television marketing events.”
To launch “Heroes Reborn” — based on a series that burned bright in its first two seasons before falling out of favor with critics and viewers — NBC is relying on a combination of existing fans’ nostalgia and the curiosity of auds who missed the boat the first time around, building a museum of iconic “Heroes” items from the last run of the show, and a first-of-its-kind “4D” interactive experience, where people go inside a booth and realize they have the power of fire, Moore teases.
The hunger for publicity means that more shows are scrambling to get on Comic-Con’s roster than ever before — even if they fall outside the realm of traditional genre fare.
Including Kermit. “When I think of the Comic-Con fan, I think they’re so much broader than what people typically think of,” Chew says of ABC’s decision to hold a panel for “The Muppets.”
“The Con is not just for adults. … You’ll see generations of people come through those doors, and I really do feel that ‘The Muppets’ speaks to everyone who comes to Comic-Con. It is a brand that people are aware of; many people who are going grew up with (them).”
Along with the venerable puppets, this year’s convention will feature some not-quite-typical Comic-Con panels, including Comedy Central’s “Drunk History” and “Another Period”; and TV Land’s “Teachers,” a half-hour comedy revolving around six elementary school teachers, whose tenuous Comic-Con connection appears to be “Community’s” Alison Brie, who serves as an exec producer.
For some, such shows represent a bridge too far for Comic-Con. “I think it has expanded a little too much,” says Cuse with a laugh. “I feel like there should be at least some kind of traditional genre element to your show for you to be at the Con, but maybe I’m old-fashioned. I connect very deeply to all the genre stuff that’s there. But I understand that other people are trying to get their shows seen.”
Stuart Oldham contributed to this report.