Hollywood taking pulse of Comic-Con

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More than 100,000 comic book and movie fans are expected to hit San Diego like a geek tsunami this weekend as part of Comic-Con International. At the annual convention, a sort of pop cultural Woodstock, humans of all stripes will wear Klingon costumes, watch obscure anime, buy comics and attend film and TV panels thrown by Hollywood studios and TV networks.

Last year, two of the biggest stories to emerge out of San Diego were Warner Bros. Pictures' "300" and Dimension Films' "Grindhouse." Thousands of fans cheered and hollered, anointing godlike status to the film's directors when they appeared onstage. 

But in March, only one of the movies was a boxoffice hit. While "300" grossed more than $210 million at the domestic boxoffice, "Grindhouse" stalled at $25 million in its North American release.

Like the half-scarred visage of Batman's nemesis Two-Face, the flip-sided fortunes of those movies are just part of the reason that on the eve of Comic-Con, which gets under way Thursday, insiders and outsiders are debating just how influential this avenging assembly of geekdom is.

"I think it's a myth that geeks drive cultural phenomenon," said Drew McWeeny, who writes under the name of Moriarty on the Web site Ain't It Cool News. "I might be pissing where I eat when I say that, but I think it's the truth. I think what they can do is be a harbinger of something that might cross over."

"300," a movie about soldiers marching to their deaths, clearly resonated with American audiences in a way that "Grindhouse," a two-movie combo about a guy who kills girls with his car and a girl who battles zombies with a machine-gun for a leg, did not. Instead, "Grindhouse" proved to be a niche movie even if it cost far more to produce than any of the niche movies to which it paid homage.

"The core truth is if you want to work for a small amount of money, and aim narrowly at the geek audience, you can do well," McWeeny said. "If you expect to spend $100 million on something, they can't be your primary audience. I think the geek audience is only good for $10 million; I really don't think we're any bigger."

While the exact size of that geek audience can be debated, most filmmakers and executives band together like a Superman-Batman pair-up in their conviction that the geek audience can kick-start early conversations about upcoming productions.

"I feel like the comic book crowd is kind of like a barometer of pop culture in some ways," said Zack Snyder, who directed "300" and is prepping to bring the seminal comic book "Watchmen" to the big screen. "They are the first line of defense in pop culture. It's they that let things through or not. And if it gets bigger or not, that's something else."

Said DC Comics' Gregory Noveck: "The geeks alone don't make a movie a hit. They are the canary in the coal mine. They give you an indication if there is potential for wider enthusiasm."

Comic-Con serves as a kind of ground zero for those first responders as they react to footage from upcoming movies as well as their marketing materials.

"It's not an infallible gauge, but if you're off the mark with that crowd, (your project) will be off the mark with that crowd and the rest (of your audience)," said "Pan's Labyrinth" director Guillermo del Toro, a longtime attendee who is missing this year's convention because he is in Hungary directing Universal Pictures' comic book movie "Hellboy 2: The Golden Army."

Last year, you could hear a collective yawn when the trailer for "The Wicker Man" was shown -- when released, its domestic boxoffice amounted to $24.4 million. Similarly, in 2004, "Catwoman" screenings drew shrugs.

But, del Toro cautioned, Comic Con is "no less or no more fallible than the marketing tools that traditionally come from Madison Avenue."

The fans' enthusiasm also can be misleading.

"When you walk into a hall with 6,000 cheering people, who will cheer as enthusiastically for Marc Singer as they will for Keanu Reeves, there is a false sense that something can be really big," Noveck said.

Of course, what makes the fanboys powerful is not just their passions and obsessions but also their ability to give voice to their likes and dislikes as they take to the Internet. But even as they use the Web to spread the word about upcoming movies, Hollywood is using, reading and watching, searching their postings for whatever intelligence can be learned about how to bring a movie to market.

"Now, we can type in a few Web sites and get more information than we ever could want in terms of what people are looking for, what they are not looking for, what they like or what they don't like," Marvel Studios' Kevin Feige said. "The challenge now is not getting access to them or to their opinions anymore. The challenge is deciphering and knowing when to pay attention to it and when not to pay attention to it."

Huge hullabaloos have been created in the fan community over casting announcements (like the uproar when 6-foot-3 Hugh Jackman was cast as the diminutive Wolverine in X-Men) and story points (like the decision to give Spider-Man organic webshooters instead of mechanical ones). But many times the online debates actually have mirrored the filmmakers' own arguments.

"The discussions they have online are usually the ones the filmmakers have been having for months and month and months," Feige said. "And it's very nice to be able to pull those comments that support your arguments to use against a studio or with someone you're disagreeing with if you're having a healthy discussion."

Most filmmakers find the online chatter useful as long as they don't get too caught up in it, because as del Toro pointed out, "There is a Batman for every guy that has read him, so it's impossible to satisfy all the Batman fans."

"If you start to analyze it, you'd paralyze yourself," Snyder said.

As Feige observed, "The minute you start ignoring the fanboys audience, you're going to fail, and the minute you start catering to the fanboy audience, you're going to fail. Therein lies the challenge."
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