Beware the Comic-Con false positive

Fanboy mentality still rules in San Diego

ANYONE WITH a cursory knowledge of polling knows that researchers go to great lengths to produce statistically significant samples. By contrast, reading unscientific opt-in surveys — say, the poll questions on Billoreilly.com — can easily produce misleading conclusions about why President McCain won the 2008 election by 35 percentage points.

This unrepresentative dynamic can also be seen in the Comic-Con False Positive, a phenomenon worth considering before movie studios and an ever-growing roster of TV shows haul their asses down the freeway (and no matter when you leave, the traffic stinks around Carlsbad) on their annual pilgrimages to San Diego starting July 23.

Surrounded by ardent fans, it’s easy to get sucked into Comic-Con’s vortex of enthusiasm, forgetting that even with 120,000 people descending on the convention center, that’s still a very, very self-selected group. For starters, it takes true commitment for adults to squeeze into Klingon or Stormtrooper costumes in the late-summer heat, and nearly as much for those compelled to stand in line next to them.

Yet after a few days of immersion in the Comic-Con experience, this strange world begins to feel oddly normal. In such a boisterous environment one can readily succumb to the condition known as “Hall H Hysteria” –referring, of course, to the 6,500-seat mega-auditorium where the biggest movies (and now a few TV shows) come to bow before the perceived front lines of the pop-culture universe.

COMICBOOKS have long since become supporting players at Comic-Con, but the fanboy mentality still rules the day. And while those tastes have become increasingly mainstream since “Star Wars,” plenty of projects that produce infectious excitement within the convention hall don’t spill over much beyond it.

Warner Bros., in fact, might be forgiven for turning a particularly jaundiced eye toward the confab, despite all those “Dark Knight”-fueled bonuses. That’s because recent sessions for “Terminator Salvation,” “Superman Returns” and “Watchmen” all created such paroxysms of glee that execs were surely high-fiving each other all the way back to Burbank, only to yield less-ostentatious returns in their theatrical releases.

Immediately after viewing the “Watchmen” trailer, director and beloved geek mascot Kevin Smith suggested that everyone quit their jobs in order to get in line right then. But a dark, apocalyptic vision derived from a graphic novel whose legendary status is primarily confined to comic circles performed about as well, in hindsight, as could be realistically expected — a big opening weekend, followed by a steep dropoff and collective ho-hum. Indeed, my wakeup came when I mentioned previewing “Watchmen” to utterly mystified friends who lack the fan gene.

Similar patterns have been witnessed with TV programs such as “Pushing Daisies,” which made its debut at Comic-Con, only to face (ironically, given the show’s premise) a rather ignominious death. Ditto for “Heroes,” which generated a raucous ovation last summer — after an advance screening of its third-season debut — only to see its ratings continue to slide along a decidedly unheroic path.

How could this happen? After all, the ordinary folks in the room loved it.

WHILE THERE’S much to be said for satisfying the base from movies to politics, doing so can be overestimated — sort of like Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention. Comicbook and sci-fi fans accustomed to disappointments with their most beloved properties aren’t always the best litmus test for gauging wider appetites, which helps explain not only “Watchmen’s” box office trajectory but both versions of “The Hulk” and “Fantastic Four.”

Core fans are surely important, but for all their grousing, they’ll be there. To really take off, however, such projects must also attract those who can’t believe there’s a three-hour “Watchmen” director’s cut, won’t be TiVo-ing ReelzChannel’s new weekly series devoted to “Twilight” and aren’t willing to engage in independent study to stay abreast of sundry “Lost” theories.

Hall H is certainly a fertile haven for hype, but ringmasters of that circus should thus be cautious about becoming too enamored with in-person exposure that’s essentially equivalent to fan mail. Understandably, all the heat and love in the room can leave studios and networks feeling giddy and light-headed. Or maybe it’s just the aroma wafting off of those Klingon costumes.

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