MEDIA EXECS are understandably flummoxed over how to best exploit new distribution methods and who will pay for what. Yet one thing is clear: There’s never been a better time to be geek.
For years, fans of science fiction, comic books and other relatively narrow interests watched beloved projects die on the vine, unable to achieve critical mass on broadcast TV or widespread theatrical appeal at acceptable budgets. Hell, Paramount even rode the durable “Star Trek” cash machine into the ground.
Now, however, content distributors are unearthing riches in niches, creating markets and mini-markets for specialized, highly demanding palates. In addition, special effects have finally reached the stage where the fantastic can be realized in ways once unthinkable — as evidence, compare the “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” movies with cheapo made-for-TV versions of the past.
That improved technology has helped mainstream these franchises, broadening their allure beyond consumers of the source material. Take New York’s inaugural Comic-Con last month, which turned into an overflowing success; and its older brother in San Diego, which has transcended comics to establish itself as the center of the pop culture universe.
What’s more interesting, though, are projects that can aim lower commercially — but often higher artistically — by zeroing in on narrower targets.
THE NEW “Battlestar Galactica,” for example, survived an aggressive campaign by the geekiest of geeks — losers pining for the original quarter-century-old series — to become a popular and critical darling. On Friday, a capacity crowd attended the Museum of Television & Radio’s Paley Festival honoring the show, which has won over the faithful despite what producer Ronald D. Moore euphemistically referred to as their “concerns.”
“Galactica’s” roughly 3 million viewers would have once prompted its cancellation, but those ratings make the program a hit for Sci Fi Channel. The enthusiastic Paley audience constituted a nerd-a-thon reminiscent of Comic-Con before movie studios discovered that event and made it cool.
“Thanks for rockin’ my world,” one grown man gushed to the producers and stars.
This week, the festival similarly recognizes “Family Guy,” the cartoon series that Fox reanimated post-cancellation, emboldened by tune-in for cable reruns and robust DVD sales.
The growing roster of limited pleasures doesn’t end there. Newly out on DVD is “Ultimate Avengers,” a highly entertaining, action-packed animated feature showcasing Marvel Comics heroes. Shot live-action the story would carry a $200 million pricetag, but produced with slightly above Saturday-morning animation values and sold directly to hardcore fans, these films (an “Avengers” sequel and “Iron Man” are in the wings) should turn a tidy profit for Marvel and Lionsgate.
FOR SHEER OBSCURITY, meanwhile, it’s hard to beat the flights of fancy on Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim,” the latest being “Minoriteam,” an assemblage of superheroes consisting of ethnic stereotypes. Premiering March 19 (at midnight, so as to potentially offend only insomniacs and the TiVo-conversant), our intrepid heroes include Jewcano — combining “the powers of the Jewish faith with the destructive force of a volcano” — and El Jefe, wielding a “super-charged leafblower” against such villains as the Standardized Test and Racist Frankenstein.
Both tasteless and riotous, it’s mind-boggling to imagine anyone having the chutzpah (with apologies to Jewcano) merely to pitch this show, even for an audience of stoned young guys. In another sign “Minoriteam” isn’t intended for everyone, the character design is an acknowledged homage to Jack Kirby, the illustrator who with Stan Lee co-created such seminal Marvel titles as Fantastic Four, X-Men and the Hulk.
Finally, some of those aforementioned casualties from days gone by are now available on DVD, such as CBS’ underappreciated, blink-and-you-missed-it 1990 version of DC Comics hero “The Flash,” milking revenue from properties that have spent years collecting dust.
All told, it’s a grand time for geeks and those who love them — or at least, covet their money. Moreover, adult geeks can honestly lecture their children about how much better they have it, thanks not only to the widening appetite for such fare but also heightened sensitivity in schools about fostering self-esteem and discouraging bullying. For kids who can recite minute trivia about ‘Star Wars,” that’s a big deal.
On top of that, only 114 more days until “Superman Returns.”
See, I’m not just a bemused observer of the geeks’ club. I’m also a member.