Comic-Con Confidential: The Top 10 Gambles of 2013
"Agents of SHIELD" faces off against "Game of Thrones"; the public debut of "The Walking Dead's" third showrunner; a gay boycott of "Ender's Game": Success hangs in the balance for studios bringing movies or TV shows to ravenous -- and sometimes contentious -- fans.
This story first appeared in the July 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
1. AGENTS OF SHIELD
Joss Whedon's Avengers-tinged return to TV is the biggest draw among the plethora of freshman shows premiering at Comic-Con, and its July 19 panel is considered one of the weekend's most anticipated. (Rumors that the pilot episode will be screened remain unconfirmed but tantalizing nonetheless.) The bad news is that the session isn't in the Convention Center's biggest venue (Hall H) but Ballroom 20, eliminating a thousand-plus from getting a peek at Agent Coulson's mysterious return. Further complicating matters is that its 1:45 p.m. Friday time slot overlaps with two other must-see TV sessions -- AMC's The Walking Dead and HBO's Game of Thrones -- creating a Sophie's choice for fans and journalists. ABC has a lot riding on Whedon's shoulders. The Marvel TV-produced series will anchor its new Tuesday night lineup. A big splash at Comic-Con can only increase the strong buzz surrounding SHIELD -- but poor fan response could take a teensy bit of wind out of its very full sails.
2. ENDER'S GAME
No panel will be more politically charged than that for Summit's Ender's Game. Harrison Ford is returning to Comic-Con on July 18, bringing with him fellow castmembers Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld and Abigail Breslin for the adaptation of Orson Scott Card's well-regarded 1985 novel. But Card's anti-gay views -- and support of the National Organization for Marriage -- are nearly all anyone is focusing on. Gay organization Geeks Out is calling for a boycott of the film, and Lionsgate has been on the defensive, saying its premiere will benefit the LGBT community. Card won't actually attend Comic-Con, an unusual move because studios love to bring authors and comics creators to demonstrate that the parties are working in tandem. Instead, Lionsgate likely is preparing the cast for questions about the hot-button issue -- and will try its best to make the panel about the footage, the film and having Han Solo in the house.
3. THE WALKING DEAD
The AMC zombie drama comes to San Diego with its third showrunner in as many years as Scott Gimple meets fans and media for the first time. Five months after taking over for Glen Mazzara, the press-shy Gimple says he's ready to meet the masses July 19 in the cavernous Hall H. "The thing I'm nervous about is Norman Reedus [Daryl] will be talking, and I'll just be sitting there listening to him and forgetting I'm supposed to say something," he tells THR. With the show in production since May, Gimple -- who has been reading Robert Kirkman's Walking Dead comics for 10 years and boarded the series during season two -- says he has no concerns about his public debut or having a short run with the show. "I have a healthy amount of fear in my life. I was freaked out the first script I did here [during season two]. So when they offered me the showrunner job, I was already friends with fear," he reveals. During his first few months atop TV's No. 1 scripted series among the advertiser-coveted adults 18-to-49 demographic, Gimple says the hardest part has been navigating the responsibility and time management that come with the gig. "I've gotten advice from showrunners in the industry" -- including David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Rises), with whom he worked on ABC's short-lived FlashForward -- in addition to learning from his predecessors. "It's my third year now, and I've been able to benefit from the lessons, and I'm just trying to apply them," says Gimple of learning from Mazzara and Frank Darabont. "I've been lucky to see people do it and both the triumphs and pitfalls."
In the wake of Legendary's giant-monster epic Pacific Rim opening poorly at the domestic box office, does anyone really want another expensive tentpole creature feature? That's the question facing Godzilla -- the movie wrapped only days ago, and audiences will get to see the first footage of the atomic lizard in action at the Warner Bros./Legendary panel July 20 in Hall H. Yes, Godzilla has brand awareness Pacific Rim lacks, but the failure of Guillermo del Toro's feature -- which slayed fans at last year's Con -- has got to be giving Legendary (the company has a 75 percent stake in the film) concern about the prospects for its May 16, 2014, release.
5. TALENTLESS PANELS
It's not a new trend, but a handful of high-profile TV series are coming to Comic-Con without their acting talent. Chief among them is TV's No. 1 scripted comedy, CBS' The Big Bang Theory, which will move from Hall H to Ballroom 20 on July 19 for a session taking fans inside the writers room. On July 18, PBS brings Sherlock to Ballroom 20 for its Comic-Con debut with showrunner Steven Moffat -- but without stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, who are filming movies. Much as genre fans respect the creative process, the pilgrimage to San Diego is, in great part, about seeing the stars they love up close. Without those stars … if a showrunner held a panel in the woods, would anyone attend it?
MGM and Columbia will unveil footage from director Jose Padilha's remake of the 1987 cult classic July 19 -- and, for the first time, audiences will see the take by The Killing's Joel Kinnaman on the cyborg cop made famous by Peter Weller. Therein lies the risk: This movie inevitably will be compared with the original, which might have dated special effects but benefited from the pulpy, satirical mania of director Paul Verhoeven, who turned what could have been an exploitation movie into a trenchant commentary on corporate overreach and class warfare. (Plus, updates of Verhoeven hits don't fare that well: The recent Total Recall remake earned less than $60 million domestically.)
Pitch Black, the quiet little sci-fi thriller that introduced audiences to Riddick, Vin Diesel's predatory antihero, was a modest hit when released in 2000. It cost $23 million, made $53.2 million worldwide and did well on video. Then came 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick, a ponderous, big-budget (about $120 million) sequel that pretty much killed the franchise and Diesel's career -- until the Fast & Furious series brought both back to life. The question remains: Does anyone still care about Riddick? Universal is bringing Diesel to Hall H on July 19 to find out.
8. HELIX AND OUTLANDER
Ronald D. Moore, the Battlestar Galactica writer-producer, is back in the series business with two shows: Syfy's arctic thriller Helix and Starz's buzzy adaptation of Diana Gabaldon's best-seller Outlander. While production has yet to begin on either, Syfy is going big for Helix, setting a July 19 session with Moore and producers Steven Maeda and Cameron Porsandeh as well as blanketing a nearby hotel with a wrap-around promoting the show. It's similar to the strategy the cable network used last year for its $100 million bet Defiance, and that early marketing push paid off, with the series earning a quick second-season renewal. But is Moore enough of a draw for a panel about a new series without a cast or a sizzle reel?
9. THE CW'S BIG GENRE PLAY
Going genre continues to pay off for the youth-skewing CW network, which this year will feature panels throughout the weekend for The Vampire Diaries and its spinoff The Originals as well as Arrow, The Tomorrow People, Star-Crossed, Beauty and the Beast, The 100 and Nikita, the latter of which is making its final appearance in San Diego. While seemingly no one was watching, The CW has planted a flag in the sci-fi TV territory and continues to find success (rookies Arrow and Beast were renewed for second seasons in May) where other networks have faltered.
10. ARNOLD AND SLY'S ESCAPE
Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger are master showmen who made their Comic-Con debuts last year during a panel for The Expendables 2. The two are back this year, not with a panel but with a July 18 screening for their Summit prison movie Escape Plan. The screening will no doubt be a sellout, and the stars will have attendees eating out of their hands. But despite their status, customers have been shrugging off the duo's recent movies. Schwarzenegger's previous starring film was the ho-hum actioner The Last Stand, and Stallone's was the little-seen Bullet to the Head. Screening a movie at Comic-Con is nowhere near a surefire path to success -- and the fact that they're relics from a pre-nerd power age doesn't help.