Comic-Con Preview: Networks Boost Presence as Film Studios Take a Back Seat

Comic Con TV Pannels Preview
Jasper Rietman for Variety

You need look no further than the sudden surge of Pokémon Go to know that geek is the new chic. With genre TV shows like “Mr. Robot” finally earning Emmy recognition, fan culture has officially gone mainstream. Nowhere is that trend more evident than at San Diego Comic-Con, the annual entertainment confab that celebrates everything from TV and movies to gadgets, games, and, yes, even the occasional comic book.

The “Con,” which takes place every July, has long been viewed as a platform for film and TV studios to tout genre-friendly fare directly to consumers. Over the four-day fest, more than 60 TV shows will present panels on everything from nostalgic classics like “Star Trek” to current juggernauts like “The Walking Dead.”

But this year, the fan-favorite properties aren’t the only draw. Several networks are planning to throw a spotlight on Comic-Con itself, making the event part of the story.

Syfy, Spike, TBS, and AMC will film shows on the ground in San Diego, each hoping to capture the indescribable energy that has made Comic-Con “a Disneyland for pop culture,” according to Jon Slusser, Spike TV’s senior VP of specials and sports.

“We’ve done live shows; we’ve done coverage,” says Slusser. “This year we wanted to do something a little bit different that would share the Comic-Con experience with fans who couldn’t be there.”

Spike is planning an hour-long special, “Anthony Anderson: Lost at Comic-Con” (set to air July 26), that will follow the “Black-ish” star as he gets his first taste of the event’s sensory overload.

“Whenever we bring someone to Comic- Con for the first time, they can’t believe the sights and sounds and costumes and characters,” Slusser says. “Anthony is thrilled to experience a pop-culture phenomenon. He’s such a talented, funny guy that we can’t wait to see what his reactions are.”

AMC will take the opposite approach: Its late-night talk show “Geeking Out” (premiering July 24) will explore the convention from the self-described “fanboy lens” of pop culture icons Kevin Smith and Greg Grunberg.

Syfy has long had a presence at the Con; 2016 marks the cabler’s first attempt at staging a live show direct from San Diego. “Syfy Presents Live from Comic-Con,” hosted by “Lego Batman” star Will Arnett, will air each night between July 21 and July 23 at 8p.m.

“We want to bring the Con to life for those people who don’t have a ticket to San Diego, on top of it being a really entertaining hour of TV for the general Syfy viewer,” says Heather Olander, senior VP of alternative series development and production. She describes the broadcast as a combination of variety show and talk show, utilizing Arnett’s comedic chops for interviews, games, and skits, along with covering the day’s news.

Olander says the live broadcast has been a long time coming. “Comic-Con’s gotten so big — it’s an undeniable event for everybody. And so we wanted to make sure that if we did do this live show, we were doing something different, and serving the audience in a different way,” she says. “We wanted to take our time and get the creative right.”

Last year, TBS’ “Conan” was one of the first to broadcast live from Comic-Con. “I was retro-actively scared last year: ‘What if we hadn’t thought of this?’ ” admits Conan O’Brien. “It was a little like sticking your shovel in the ground and oil comes out. It just felt like, ‘Why didn’t we do this five years ago?’ It was an immediate revelation that this was the perfect place for us to go, because with the Comic-Con fans, there’s a nice crossover with our sense of humor and our sensibility.”

O’Brien isn’t sweating the competition, though. Arnett and Anderson, he says, are “two people I really like, and I’m glad they’re going to be down there as well. If we can interact with them, we may end up doing something with them, and cross-pollinating. So to me it’s all to the good.”

There’s an additional benefit to broadcasting from Comic-Con, he says: the chance to offer counterprogramming to that other convention scheduled for this week. “We’ll be in this completely different alien world,” laughs O’Brien, “and it actually might be the best time to depart Earth — during the Republican National Convention.”

If TV will again be booming at Comic- Con, movie studios remain choosy about their presence there. It wasn’t long ago that anything looking to drum up a pulse would seek to carve out time in front of the geek masses. Some projects in production would even scramble to have something to show, such as in 2010, when Jon Favreau presented 10 polished minutes of footage from Universal’s “Cowboys & Aliens” just a few weeks into shooting.

This year, the DC-Marvel rivalry will continue into the convention center July 23 with “Suicide Squad,” “Wonder Woman,”  “Doctor Strange,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” front and center. Warner Bros. also will be promoting “Kong: Skull Island” and the Harry Potter spin-off “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” while DreamWorks Animation will offer up a look at the fall’s Justin Timberlake ’toon “Trolls.” Beyond that, Hall H, the largest venue at the convention center, with 6,500 seats, will be quiet on the movie front.

Universal is dodging the convention entirely, opting out of showcasing movies like “Fast 8” and Alex Kurtzman’s reboot “The Mummy,” starring Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe, and Javier Bardem.

“The last three or four years, especially in the Marvel age, it has become abundantly clear that there are properties that the Hall H crowd is there for, and those they are not,” says Universal worldwide marketing co-president Michael Moses. “And when you’re trying to establish a new thing, it just becomes a harder prospect.”

Star power from “The Mummy” alone would have been electric, but the intangible is how far the buzz really travels. And Universal ought to know: Execs left the “Cowboys & Aliens” presentation (which featured geek hero Harrison Ford’s first-ever Comic-Con appearance), as well as the film’s world premiere at the convention the following year, sensing they had a hit on their hands. The movie went on to be a box office disappointment.

“Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” also had a major Comic-Con presence for the studio in 2010, but the excitement didn’t translate to the marketplace: Edgar Wright’s $60 million film hit theaters just three weeks later, but netted only $47.6 million at the worldwide box office.

“We’ve had our lessons learned,” Moses concedes, before clarifying that Universal will be back when it makes sense to be. “It really is a year-to-year decision. But where these films [“Fast 8” and “The Mummy”] are in production, we’re not at a place where the effects make sense and it’s worth the investment to accelerate a piece of material.”

Fox will bring James Cameron and the cast of “Aliens” for a 30th-anniversary celebration, but upcoming releases like “Assassin’s Creed,” “War for the Planet of the Apes,” and a new installment in the Wolverine series will be conspicuous in their absence.

Sony will screen Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s animated “Sausage Party” off-site, but no panel time has been earmarked for genre-leaning titles that might have played well to the crowd, like “Passengers,” “The Magnificent Seven,” or “The Dark Tower.”

Over the weekend, Disney stuck to its annual Star Wars Celebration to promote the upcoming “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” However, as of late, the company reserves special presentations of other (non-Marvel) properties for the biennial D23 Expo.

Along with Paramount — which will premiere “Star Trek Beyond” at Comic-Con July 20, but won’t be hyping “Arrival,” “God Particle,” or “Ghost in the Shell” — that’s five major studios largely on the sidelines. But other movies eager for attention will be looking to make a splash in their wake, including Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” and one notable change of pace, Oliver Stone’s “Snowden.”

“ ‘Snowden’ is about the intersection of pop culture, technology, and entertainment, and that’s kind of what Comic-Con is about,” says Open Road marketing president Jonathan Helfgot. “It’s also about heroes and villains, and I don’t think you can find a figure, fictional or real, that personifies the hero and the villain like Snowden. So for us, the movie really does line up psychographically.”