San Diego's Comic-Con goes Hollywood

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Over the past couple of years, attendees of San Diego's annual Comic-Con International have begun to complain that the convention has "gone Hollywood," but the SDCC's director of marketing, David Glanzer, would like to offer those grumblers a history lesson. He'd remind everyone that in 1972, the con's third year, one of the special guests was Frank Capra. And in 1976, a year before the release of "Star Wars," George Lucas did a presentation about his movie that got the fan community salivating. "He basically started viral marketing before that was even a term," Glanzer says.

Glanzer's two examples of how Hollywood and Comic-Con have intersected from the start might also quiet those who worry that the increased presence of movie studios and TV producers in San Diego has pulled the convention away from its fantasy-superhero roots. Because while it makes sense that George Lucas would make time to prophesy to his sci-fi tribe, what convinced the director of 1939's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" to spend a weekend chatting up guys in Batman T-shirts?

Maybe it's because the Comic-Con organizers have long realized what Hollywood studios have recently begun to learn: that the kind of people who go to Comic-Con reside in a marketing sweet spot. Con-goers are equally devoted to movies, television and toys, and though it's hard to predict exactly what'll turn them on, they're clearly into more than just muscle-bound men in costumes.

This year, for example, the convention, which runs July 26-29, will feature the expected presentations about the second season of NBC's series "Heroes" -- the show's entire cast and creator Tim Kring will be on hand for a panel at the convention on Saturday -- and about science fiction, fantasy and horror films, including Screen Gems' upcoming release "Resident Evil: Extinction."

But Tom Ortenberg, president of theatrical films for Lionsgate, says that alongside genre fare like "Saw IV," "The Forbidden Kingdom" and "War," his company will be making a hard push at its presentation for the Dane Cook-Jessica Alba sex comedy "Good Luck Chuck" -- hardly the kind of project that would leap to mind as a natural for a comic book convention.

"'Good Luck Chuck' is a raunchy, rowdy, edgy R-rated comedy which we think speaks to a lot of the same sensibility as the attendees'," Ortenberg explains. "Not to mention that a lot of Dane Cook's fan base is the same kind of people who attend a Comic-Con, and Jessica needs no introduction to these fans. It may be a tiny bit out of the ordinary at first glance, but I think it fits nicely in with the rest of the show."

If past Comic-Cons are any indication, Ortenberg might be right about how far out of the "comic book" realm the SDCC attendees are willing to stray. Melissa Boag, vp marketing for the DVD/CD label Shout! Factory, says that on her first visit to Comic-Con for a "Freaks and Geeks" DVD panel in 2003, "I walked into a 5,000-person convention room, and I nearly had a heart attack. I thought, 'How are we going to fill this?' And that room filled up from front to back."

Shout! Factory has come back every year since, and while Boag says they focus on SDCC-friendly titles like DVDs by "The Film Crew" (a movie-mocking group comprised of former writers and performers from "Mystery Science Theater 3000"), Boag has found that "people who are passionate about quirky entertainment tend to go fairly deep."

Picturehouse president Bob Berney feels just as passionate about the demographic that turns up for the show year after year. In 2006, Picturehouse broke through with Guillermo del Toro's violent fable "Pan's Labyrinth," and this year, the company will be touting its del Toro-produced ghost story "The Orphanage," the horror film "Amusement" and the video game documentary "The King of Kong."

"Comic-Con is very competitive," Berney says. "You have so many booths and screenings vying for attention that you have to be willing to spend the money to create something interesting. From the marketing side, you really can't afford not to go to San Diego, but from the business side, some people literally can't afford to go there because I don't think it does any good to show up with a card table and a couple of flyers."

To that end, Shout! Factory has its annual prize wheel, which, Boag says, "makes this sound that has people reacting like Pavlov's dog." And even bigger names like Sony Pictures Television and Marvel Studios -- which have partnered on the upcoming Kids WB animated series "The Spectacular Spider-Man," set to air on the CW -- have planned a series of coordinated premiums that they hope will draw attendees to both their booths.

Sony TV's senior vp marketing Alan Daniels says, "You can't put a price on this kind of publicity. You've got the most engaged and most involved viewers in the world attending this convention. If they like something, the next thing you know people are talking about it all over the world."

Marvel Studios' Kevin Feige insists that even though his company has always cast one of the biggest shadows at SDCC, that doesn't mean fans will applaud whatever they do.

"When people are walking that floor, they expect to see and to witness all things Marvel," he says. "The expectations are higher (than they might be for another company). This year we're going to have the biggest booth we've ever had. And as we've done almost every year for the past six or seven years, we'll have big presentations on our films down at Hall H, the 6,500-seat amphitheater."

"The success we've had in years past has always been about bringing the fans something that they can't see anywhere else," he adds. "Rewarding them, frankly, for trekking down there and waiting in line for hours to get a seat. Because even with 6,500 seats in Hall H, there are still 100,000 people at the convention on a Friday or Saturday. So you reward the ones who wait with appearances by the talent, if you can, and you reward them with footage that in most cases nobody's seen before."

This year, Marvel Studios will be emphasizing two big 2008 releases, Paramount Picture's "Iron Man" and Universal Pictures's "The Incredible Hulk," with Thursday and Saturday presentations, respectively. Stars Robert Downey Jr. and Edward Norton are expected to attend.

But there's a trickledown effect to Comic-Con, too. It's not just about major studios, but about smaller companies being able to reach those same fans. Denys Cowan and Reginald Hudlin of BET's animation division will be pushing their new animated sketch comedy series, "Bufu," which features the talents of actor Orlando Jones and the CW's "Everybody Hates Chris" co-creator Ali LeRoi. They hope to catch attendees looking for something different because, Cowan says, "There hasn't been a lot of 'black animation,' and that's all we do."

But Cowan admits it might not be easy. "I started a company called Milestone Media in 1992 with DC Comics, and the sole purpose of that was to introduce multicultural comic books to a landscape that was mostly white," Cowan says. "You would be surprised by the reaction that we got. In a world where everyone says, 'We're geeks, and we're all-inclusive,' it's not always like that. People like what they grew up with and what's around them already. If you do something different, it can make them uncomfortable."

Hudlin counters, "The key is not to suck, right? We're living in the nerd era, from Bill Gates on down. Fortunately, we're nerds. The reality is that we'd be at Comic-Con whether we were with BET or not."

That combination of confidence and wariness is a familiar pose struck by exhibitors because they all know that as loyal as the Comic-Con audience can be to projects they like, they can be just as venomous about projects they hate.

Picturehouse's Berney says, "Before you go there, you need to be fairly sure of your film and the people you're bringing because it can backfire. If you have a film that is not accepted or promotional materials that no one cares about, it can turn on you."

Sony TV's Daniels agrees: "This is a fan base that's really intense. They have high standards, and we work hard to meet those standards."

According to Glanzer, that kind of respect for the Comic-Con audience is not as novel as some might think.

He says, "We've seen an increase in female attendees over the last few years, but in terms of the psychographics of the people who come through the door, it's been pretty much the same. Early adopters. Those who go to movies on opening weekend. Those who know about computer gadgets before they're released. If anything has changed, it's that more people are willing to identify themselves as 'someone who goes to Comic-Con.'"    
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