Studios, networks play to Comic-Con

Fans out in force, but how much does confab do for biz?

Hard-core geeks, "Twilight"-swooning tweens, "Star Wars" nostalgists, pale-skinned comic book collectors, SpongeBob SquarePants, costumed zombies, Oscar winners including Denzel Washington, Peter Jackson and James Cameron and perennial attendee Kevin Smith are descending on San Diego this weekend for the 40th edition of Comic-Con.

What began in 1970 with 300 comics aficionados gathering at the city's U.S. Grant Hotel has mushroomed into one of the largest promotional bazaars on Hollywood's calendar: For movie distributors eager to sneak genre wares to super-receptive audiences, it eclipses trade events like ShoWest, and this year -- for the first time, as far as TV networks and cablers are concerned -- it will upstage the annual summer Television Critics Assn. press tour show-and-tell, which doesn't take place until next month, by offering a first look at the fall season.

Attracting 125,000 attendees, Comic-Con saw its $75 four-day passes sell out two months ago, earlier than ever before. This week, they were commanding twice that price on Craigslist.

The Hollywood invasion, escalating steadily in recent years, has been greeted with mixed reactions from long-time participants.

As fans began gathering Wednesday night, one man admitted: "A lot of people bemoan all the Hollywood stuff, but I don't care. I love that stuff." Meanwhile, a young woman who has attended the past nine years complained: "I'm sick of the crowds. I used to come for all four days, but now I'm only coming for one."

Is all the attention being paid to movies and TV shows muscling aside Comic-Con's original purpose, described in its mission statement as "creating awareness of, and appreciation for, comics and related popular art forms"?

Organizers of the annual conclave say no.

"Anybody who thinks there's a lack of comics isn't doing a lot of looking," Comic-Con director of marketing and public relations David Glanzer says. Estimating that 20,000-30,000 will attend events in the convention center's cavernous Hall H -- where the big movie presentations hold forth -- during the course of the four days, he adds, "That leaves 100,000 people who have little to do with Hollywood."

On Thursday afternoon, as Cameron unveiled footage from "Avatar" in Hall H, competing events in surrounding rooms included an appearance by Brian Herbert, son of "Dune" author Frank Herbert; DC Comics artist Tom Nguyen, offering a demonstration of how to ink comics; and comic publisher Oni Press, previewing its coming attractions.

Still, the big-ticket film and TV items draw the bulk of the media -- 3,000 are credentialed this year -- whose snap judgments instantly ricochet throughout the Web by blog and tweet.

Eager to promote genre-inspired movies, filmmakers began to discover Comic-Con during the early '90s. Francis Ford Coppola was among the pioneers when he made the trek to promote 1992's "Bram Stoker's Dracula." By 2004, Comic-Con expanded into

Hall H, and the next year the Hollywood contingent ranged from indie stalwarts like Smith to mainstream producers like Joel Silver along with everyone from Bryan Singer to Natalie Portman.

Thursday's kickoff day provided a particularly heavy film lineup with an emphasis on 3D movies. For the first time, Hall H was outfitted with 3D projection equipment so Disney could show eye-popping footage from Robert Zemeckis' "Disney's A Christmas Carol," Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Tron: Legacy," followed by Fox and Cameron unveiling "Avatar." Summit also took the stage to tub-thump its "Twilight" sequel "New Moon" while taking advantage of the hostage audience to focus eyeballs on its animated movie "Astro Boy."

Glanzer insists, though, that the Con didn't purposely frontload movie titles. "We try to program as it comes in," he says. "We look for diversity of programming." It all amounts to a pop culture Rubik's cube because "there are so many variables."

The other hanging question, at least as far as the movie hullabaloo is concerned, is whether any of it really matters.

Last year, when Summit arrived at Comic-Con with a little movie called "Twilight," an army of teenage girls, the likes of which never had been seen there before, showed up en masse to squeal in delight. "Twilight" went on to gross $191 million domestically after its November release, but in that case it appears the Con was the beneficiary of the already-building frenzy surrounding the film, rather than the fuse that ignited the explosion.

Conversely, fans roared their approval last year when director Zack Snyder promised to color faithfully within the lines of celebrated graphic novel "Watchmen" as he adapted it for the big screen. That appeared to translate into a solid first weekend for the movie, which bowed in March to $55.2 million. But the appeal failed to reach much beyond the graphic-novel cognoscenti as its second weekend dropped nearly 68% and the movie stalled at $107.5 million domestically.

While other movies, like "Iron Man 2," also will make a bid for attention during the weekend, the focus quickly will shift to the small screen.

Television's presence at Comic-Con has been building since 2004, when ABC launched "Lost" by previewing its pilot in a large hall that was only half-full. Slam cut to 2007, when NBC's "Heroes," having completed its first season, made its second visit to the convention. Fans lined up early for a look at the show's creators and cast and went crazy when it was announced Smith would direct the first episode of spinoff "Heroes: Origins." (That plan would be scuttled because of the WGA strike.)

As far as TV is concerned, this year's convention has taken on increased importance as broadcasters ramp up for fall with several new and returning genre-driven shows.

With such new series as ABC's "FlashForward," "Eastwick" and midseason show "V," Fox's "Human Target" and the CW's "Vampire Diaries," Comic-Con represents a key marketing opportunity. With ratings sliding for such returning dramas as "Heroes," NBC's "Chuck" and "Lost," it could help recharge fan interest.

There's also a greater range of genres on view than ever before. After last year's successful showcase for CBS' geek-centric sitcom "The Big Bang Theory" (which is returning this year), the ABC family sitcom "The Middle" is being screened, with Warner Bros. promoting the event as "Mom-a-Con," a gambit that has convention veterans rolling their eyes. USA Network, meanwhile, is paneling such procedurals as "Psych" and "Burn Notice."

But how much does Comic-Con really help a show?

Last year, Heroes" hosted a full screening of its premiere episode and fielded most members of the cast. Fan reaction generally was positive, but the show dropped sharply in the ratings when it returned.

This time, NBC Universal hesitated to book a "Heroes" event then added a more modest-sized panel at the Hilton. On the other hand, after "Bang" made its Comic-Con debut last year, the show came back strong and became a full-fledged hit for CBS.

In general, however, the marketing potential -- and peril, should a panel or screening go poorly -- seems more pronounced for new shows seeking to get on fans' radars than for returning series.

The key event this go-round is expected to be the final-season panel for "Lost." Presented in Hall H, Saturday morning's panel is being presented as a produced show, rather than a mere Q&A. Some news announcements are expected.

Indeed, with Comic-Con coming before the TCA press tour, there's a chance the fan event will become a bigger generator of breaking news than ever before, with several networks planning announcements at their panels and fans getting a chance to grill talent before TCA critics do.

In that sense, Comic-Con 2009 is all about turning the pop culture power over to the people.

Borys Kit and Steven Zeitchik contributed to this report.