Shows seek fan buzz at Comic-Con

'Heroes,' 'Lost' catch wave of fan interest

SAN DIEGO -- Tim Kring quickly weaved through the labyrinthine San Diego convention center. The "Heroes" creator was a little nervous, and understandably so. The crowd waiting for him was enormous.
For the first time in Comic-Con history, a TV show session was being presented in the cavernous Hall H - the event's largest ballroom. First up Saturday morning was NBC's "Heroes," then ABC's "Lost."
The allocation of the premium space was deserved. Fans camped out overnight to ensure a seat, the line wrapping around the convention center. Thousands more were turned away.
When Kring took the stage before 6,500 fans, he had a surprise ready. He knew the last season of "Heroes" disappointed some viewers and he's intent on proving that the next season will be the show's creative comeback.
"What I have right here is the premiere episode of volume three," Kring said, holding up a DVD to the roaring crowd. "You will see that 'Heroes' is back -- and back in a big way."
A successful full-episode screening at Comic-Con can help jump-start a show's buzz into the fall season better than any marketing campaign. And for "Heroes," the risk seemed to pay off. Though a rowdy screening of hardcore fans is hardly a typical viewing experience, the post-screening blogsphere buzz about the episode was firmly positive.
Fellow Hall H occupant "Lost" also garnered warm reviews for its panel, making playful use of exclusive video clips and prizes for fans (ranging from model polar bears to photos of fan-derided characters Nikki and Paulo).
"Lost" is Comic-Con royalty. The show helped trailblaze the event for the television industry ever since ABC Studios screened the world premiere of the show's pilot at Comic-Con in 2004.
On one panel, "Lost" co-creator Damon Lindelof defended the sci-fi, saying networks shouldn't be afraid to embrace the genre.
"There's this sense that genre is bad, that it will alienate mainstream viewers," he said. "But every year the show that everybody is buzzing about is a genre show and that's also what ends up working. Even if you're not a science fiction fan, Batman is going to out-gross every other movie this summer -- next to Indy and Iron Man, also genre movies -- so why not embrace it?"
Lindelof cited "Heroes," "Pushing Daisies" and "Fringe" as recent examples of such buzz-heavy shows.
But the Comic-Con reception for "Fringe" ended up mixed, with some blogs reporting that a screening of Fox's fall procedural thriller received a lukewarm reception.
The Fox marketing team was certainly out in force at the event, passing out "Fringe" branded notepads and keychains. Riffing off one plot point in the premiere, Fox also set up a corral of cows in a parking lot near the convention center. "Free the animals!" shouted one passerby, which likely isn't the response the studio was going for.
In another on-site marketing stunt, NBC unveiled the new KITT car from "Knight Rider." One fan rushed forward with a piece of etching paper and chalk and created a rubbing of the car's tire tread. A PR representative hesitantly watched, unsure if this is behavior that should be stopped or encouraged.
The response to Comic-Con staple "Battlestar Galactica" certainly wasn't ambiguous. The show's stars and producers easily packed a ballroom for what will likely be their final Comic-Con appearance before the series concludes next year. Sci Fi Channel screened a preview for the "Battlestar" spin-off "Caprica," hoping that fan adoration will shift to the new program.
The value of all these fan responses is tough to gauge. Comic-Con has its own must-see hierarchy, where standard measurements of popularity such as Nielsen ratings do not translate.
Here the modestly rated "Battlestar" and Joss Whedon's as-yet-unseen Fox series "Dollhouse" are the equivalent of top-rated broadcast network shows. Whereas NBC's "Chuck" -- while certainly warmly received - didn't quite fill its ballroom.
The amount of fantasy and sci-fi in a program isn't necessarily a barometer for success, either.
Though Fox's "24" has almost no sci-fi elements, it received a glowing reception. 20th Century Fox screened a scene from the upcoming two-hour movie "Exile" to enthusiastic response. Actors took fan questions such as "when does Jack Bauer take a whiz?" ( "Whenever they cut to the White House, Jack is taking a pee," Kiefer Sutherland said).
Comic-Con is not really about sci-fi, in other words. And it's certainly not about ratings. Or marketing.
Here a writer like Whedon can draw as big of a crowd as a successful veteran series like "Prison Break."
To paraphrase comedian Patton Oswalt complaining about the "Star Wars" prequels, you can't manufacture geek enthusiasm. Fans "just want to love the stuff they love."