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Everything I learned about the movie business I learned at Comic-Con.
Its relevance has been debated since long before I appeared there. Much like the festival circuit in the early ’90s, it is seen as both a hotbed of grass-roots momentum and an irrelevant sampling of the moviegoing public. I went through the fest circuit in my early days, my first real experience being Swingers. Even though that movie gained a tremendous amount of momentum at the festivals, it only made about $5 million in theaters. Festivals had both their success stories and disappointments, and heat there gained rarely served as a predictor of a film’s ultimate success in the marketplace. One thing was certain, however: A lot of movies went from nothing to something because there was a discerning audience that was waiting to discover the next big thing.
As the money people saw an opportunity in the festivals, their growing involvement was felt more and more. Whether their presence was destroying the host is an ongoing topic of conversation. “It ain’t what it used to be” is a constant refrain among people walking the streets of Park City at Sundance carrying overstuffed swag bags from the sponsored parties and events they lined up to attend.
Comic-Con’s evolution bears a certain resemblance to this phenomenon. It started out as something small and, as inarguable success stories broke out of the convention, its importance has been elevated in the eyes of the studios — the same studios that now argue that it might be collapsing under its own weight.
Comic-Con is a gigantic thing. Each year, it threatens to split the seams of the city that defines it, and there are endless whispers that it may have to relocate to accommodate the crowds. Each year, its stay in San Diego is met with both frustration and relief as the infrastructure buckles under the weight of the festival while the city’s charm is what gives the convention its identity and personality.
My earliest exposure to Comic-Con was relatively late in life.
I remember Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner and storied Marvel producer Avi Arad dashing from the set of Daredevil — where I was playing Foggy Nelson — to make their appearance at the convention center. I was curious as to what Comic-Con was and quietly disappointed that I too was not invited to participate when it was explained to me. The best I could tell, it was a collection of hard-core comic nerds who needed to be appeased and placated after they had entrusted one of their most beloved Marvel properties to Fox Studios. It didn’t seem at the time like anything that would make or break the film but instead a way to show respect to the core fans of the books.
2005 Zathura (D.O.A.)
The first time I actually went to San Diego to participate in the convention was a few months before the film Zathura [starring Kristin Stewart] was to be released. I was all by my lonesome onstage in Hall H. I had brought the asteroid scene from the beginning of the film as some footage to show the crowd and mumbled on about practical effects and my collaboration with Stan Winston to a theater quarter-filled with people who were attending, for the most part, to keep their seats for the sexier panels to come. My presentation was met with the level of applause that one might expect after sinking a six-foot putt, and the experience of attending the convention was as disappointing as the box-office returns for the film that year. Nobody cared. To say that Zathura was released is misleading. It escaped. After the highs of the success of Elf, Zathura was sobering and, though it was well-received by the critics and I learned a tremendous amount about visual effects, the grim reality of the movie business hit me like a bucket of cold water.
2006 Iron Man (The Yawn)
Fortunately, in 2006, Arad (whom I’d kept in touch with since Daredevil) hired me to helm the first film from Marvel Studios, which had secured financing and partnered with Paramount to release its slate. Iron Man would define the new studio for better or for worse, and I was pleased and grateful that they took a shot on a director with a spotty record at the box office. This time it was my turn to attend Comic-Con with Avi. We had just begun preproduction; no cast was in place, nor did we have a script, per se. I knew in my bones that I wanted to do something special for the fans, so I reached out to Adi Granov, an artist who had recently redefined the look of Iron Man in the books, to create a collectible poster that we could hand out at the convention. It would be the first look at the design of the suit as it would appear in the film. We arrived at the dais in a much smaller room than Hall H. It held about 2,000, but the place was packed. Borys Kit from The Hollywood Reporter was the moderator, and I shared the spotlight with Edgar Wright and Louis Leterrier, who were slated to direct Ant Man and The Incredible Hulk, respectively. The whole event was a bit of a blur. The only thing I had to announce as it related to the plot of the film was that the Mandarin was set to be the villain. Anyone who has seen Iron Man knows that this was not the case, and I learned a valuable lesson: Do, don’t say. Even the best-intentioned bolus of information is more likely than not to fizzle into nonexistence before anything is ever accomplished. Walk softly and carry a big stick. I’m glad the fans forgave me for that snafu, and I wasn’t about to repeat the mistake.
Adi and I sat and signed a huge stack of the posters, but it wasn’t viewed with any particular relish or relevance because it was seen by most fans as simply another piece of comic book art. The jury was out on Iron Man the movie and Jon Favreau as a director — and for Marvel as a studio, for that matter.
2007 Iron Man (The Hook)
What a difference a year makes. We had wrapped principal photography, but the film was nowhere near complete. It wasn’t to come out for another year. The only mentions of Iron Man in the mainstream press were the articles predicting the doom of Marvel Studios as it paraded out its B-list heroes. It was a real question since the primary comic book properties had been promised away in pre-existing studio partnerships. Spider-Man, Daredevil and the X-Men had been spoken for by Sony and Fox, after all.
I was to arrive in San Diego on Thursday for the Paramount film panel. To my dismay, I found myself sandwiched between the new Star Trek film and the latest installment of the Indiana Jones saga. Both of these films were wildly anticipated, while we were barely a blip on the radar. Robert Downey Jr. and Kevin Feige, who had taken over for Arad as the head of Marvel Studios, were to arrive Saturday to appear on the Marvel panel that would feature ourselves as well as the cast and crew of The Incredible Hulk, including stars Edward Norton and Liv Tyler. Saturday in Hall H was to be our coming-out party. I was asked, however, to make some sort of presentation at the Paramount panel two days earlier.
Once again, I got that tingling sense that we had to do something that would make an impression on the crowd. None of the effects was done, but fortunately, with the help of the Paramount marketing team, we were able to sculpt a pretty impressive trailer thanks to a wealth of practical effects and suit work courtesy of Stan Winston Studios. I pressed ILM into service, and they were able to come up with a handful of flying shots as a big closer for the piece. I knew this was probably more than most films were prepared to show this early on, but I also knew that I had to make a splash because there was zero anticipation for the film at the time. To set up the clip, I filmed a piece in the editing room announcing that I could not attend but would be showing some unfinished effects work in progress. This was not uncommon at that time at Comic-Con. The audience is extremely cinema-savvy and very forgiving of unfinished work in progress if it is seen as inspired. The clip that I cut to, however, was Iron Man fighting the Mandarin from the old ’60s Iron Man cartoon. At first the crowd was confused, then they chuckled. That’s when I walked out onto the stage. I was met with polite applause of appreciation. I answered a few questions, and I mentioned that we would be showing some actual footage from the film Saturday at the Marvel panel. After answering a few more questions, I said: “What the hell. Can we roll the sizzle reel we were saving for Saturday?”
The energy hit me in the sternum like a wrecking ball. The feeling in that room created a flood of endorphins that took hours to dissipate from my brainpan. After showing the clip a second time, I ran off the stage, and a year before that movie ever made it into theaters, Iron Man was a hit. Any misgivings about the new studio, the director or the casting of Downey as Tony Stark seemed to evaporate in those few, precious moments. By the time Downey took the stage on Saturday during the Marvel panel, he was welcomed as one of their own. Those experiences are the most vivid memories that I have from the entire production and galvanized a friendship, as there are few who have ever experienced such a thing. I remember Terrence Howard and Gwyneth Paltrow beaming as they watched the footage and heard the applause. It is fair to argue that a favorable response at Comic-Con can be a false positive as often as not, but all I can say anecdotally is that I experienced a sea change there that translated in a very real way to the success of the film. If I were to have any qualm with the film business, it’s that you never have a real-time, one-to-one relationship with the audience as a whole. You could slip into the back of a theater and watch them react in appreciation once the movie is out, but you never actually get to engage your audience head-on as they experience your work. Thanks to Comic-Con, this was no longer the case.
2009 Iron Man 2 (The Encore)
I returned in 2009 with Downey to show the first footage of Iron Man 2. We brought Don Cheadle, Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell to share in the experience. It was fun to be received as conquering heroes as we had not been there the previous year nor hit Hall H since that fateful day in 2007. The lesson learned through the experience of the Iron Man presentations was to over-deliver. Go big or go home. We made sure we brought the goods. The Comic-Con crowd is a vocal group, both at the event and through social networking. It is a dangerous place to bring footage because they are both discerning and honest. If you think that they are going to be happy with just anything, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. On the positive side, you can enter a dialogue with your audience. You can avoid the staccato communication of the mainstream marketing machine and make a patient and thoughtful presentation to a perceptive crowd. It’s the difference between reporting from a dangerous war zone and writing from the safety of your news desk. For good or bad, you have to put yourself out there. Film is a fluid medium and changes are made all along the way, and it’s no secret that filmmakers take these early reactions into account as they find their way to a locked picture and finalized visual effects. There is nothing like the momentum gained at the halfway point of the two-year process of making an event film to inspire the studio, the filmmakers and the artists in their endeavor to complete the task at hand.
2010 Cowboys & Aliens (The RoundUp)
My most recent experience at Comic-Con was only a few weeks into principal photography on Cowboys & Aliens. When first being hired to direct this film, I impressed upon the studios the importance of having something significant to show at Comic-Con. The property was all but unknown, and our take on it was not what most might assume based upon the title. Our crew worked around the clock both in production and in visual effects to prepare the footage for the festival. The shooting schedule was arranged in a way that wasn’t easy or cheap in an effort to meet these grueling deadlines. Starting production with one of the biggest effects sequences in a film is seen by many as a fool’s errand, but I knew we needed a strong Comic-Con showing to plant our flag a year out. My final goal was to bring both Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig to the convention for the first time, along with Rockwell, Olivia Wilde and Adam Beach. “The only way I would go to that place is if you brought me in handcuffs,” was Harrison’s response during a night shoot in Santa Fe. We had the prop man bring us some handcuffs and he wore them onstage the next day.
The ovation that Harrison received at his first live appearance at Comic-Con was truly moving. This guy had been Han Solo for more than 30 years, but I don’t know if he had ever understood the way the people who grew up watching him truly felt. The footage went over as well as we could’ve hoped, but it was the way they received Harrison that made the biggest impression on me.
Truth be told, I can’t attest to how deeply these appearances, in fact, impact the final box office of a film. I tend to think that the right film presented in the right way will create the right results. I can say, however, with great assurance, that having this direct interface with your audience is invaluable for a filmmaker whose main goal is to connect. The nuanced reaction of a large crowd or of individuals as they share their thoughts in the digital ether somehow personalizes this mass medium. It is hard to fathom the millions of eyes that see these types of movies around the world, and it is reassuring to feel that connection, even if for a fleeting moment.
The dirty little secret of the entertainment industry is that it’s driven by loneliness. As the world grows impersonal and isolating, we yearn through our work to feel a sense of connection. We all have our wounds and our weaknesses that coming together in community seems to overcome. I am very fortunate that I’ve gotten to experience this communion in an unfiltered way. Audiences and filmmakers can now share this moment on a level playing field and, thanks to social networking, a collective opinion is formed. An authentic opinion. Events like Comic-Con mirror a growing trend in music and politics whereby individuals, through technology, form a growing voice.
A voice that shouldn’t be ignored.
Illustrator Kagan McLeod is a Toronto-based commercial artist making his comics debut with Infinite Kung Fu for Top Shelf (you can check it out at booth 1721).
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