A New York Times piece has fanboys and fangirls everywhere feeling a bit of worry today, as The San Diego Comic-Con International – an annual mecca for geeks across the world – seems to be at a crossroads right now.
Word is circulating that major movie movie studios – such as Warner Bros., Disney, DreamWorks and The Weinstein Company – are reducing (if not eliminating) their presence at Comic-Con 2011. Even Marvel Entertainment is said to be on the fence regarding how much of a presence they want to have at this year’s convention, leading many to wonder: are we witnessing the beginning of the end of Hollywood’s love affair with Comic-Con?
Now the level of truth to this story is questionable (as often is the case). The NY Times piece claims that Warner Bros.’ “main studio operation” is not going to have a presence at the convention, yet we know that the studio’s tentpole film Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 will still be making a run at the box office (not to mention ending an era). One would think the convention would include some kind of epic send-off for the film series.
WB’s partnership with DC Comics will also be kicking its superhero movie campaign into high gear this year, as a successor to the soon-to-be-finished Potter franchise. Again, Comic-Con ’11 would be a smart place to kick off the next phase in the studio’s career – and it seems that WB agrees, since they have an official Comic-Con ’11 announcement on their official website boasting all sorts of promises. The upcoming DC Comics reboot will likely be a big topic of discussion at the convention, and we would expect that Chris Nolan’s third Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises and Zack Snyder’s Superman movie Man of Steel will at least have some kind of minor presence. Snyder in particular is a longtime Comic-Con veteran, and knows how to massage that crowd.
The same goes for Marvel: with The Avengers due next year, it seems impossible that the studio won’t have some kind of treat in store for fans who have followed this superhero movie team-up event since Iron Man debuted in 2008 (and considering they showed an Avengers teaser last year). Holding out on their primary fanbase now would earn Marvel some serious backlash. Moreover, when trying to sell mainstream audiences on the idea of a frozen super soldier, a thunder god/alien, a man in a metal suit and a Jekyll/Hyde green monster all teaming up to fight (most likely aliens), you want to start building positive buzz anywhere you can. Considering that Marvel was THE focus of Comic-Con 2010 with their Avengers panel – which basically consisted of some well-known actors hugging it out onstage – another big presentation (with a little bit of actual footage) seems likely this year.
But does that mean that all is well at Comic-Con when it comes to blockbuster movies? I wouldn’t bet on it: cracks in the foundation have been starting to show for a few years now.
It’s no secret that Comic-Con (affectionately referred to as “The ‘Con” by longtime attendees) got a serious makeover in the early 2000s. The convention – which started in 1970 – spent most of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s as a modest gathering where thousands of attendees were free to fly their geek flags high. They bought and traded comics, spoke with and heard from top names in the industry – and of course, they got decked out in wild and extravagant costumes based on their favorite comic book, movie and cartoon characters. By the late ’90s, attendance had reached the double-digit thousands – but it wasn’t until the end of the last millennium and the start of the 2000s that one event gave the face of Comic-Con a serious makeover: comic book movies hitting the mainstream.
When the X-Men and Spider-Man became big screen icons, Hollywood found its newest cash cow (comic book superheroes) and with it, the perfect stable in which to market comic book films to the people who were almost guaranteed to support them. And so, by the mid 2000s, Comic-Con had gone from being a modest comic book convention hosting tens of thousands, to a big-money Hollywood marketing pageant hosting hundreds of thousands. In turn, the identity of the ‘Con went from being a humble geek tradition, to a media darling that commanded the attention of both major and minor journalistic outlets all over the world.
But now, some cracks in the foundation have inevitably started to show…
Since starting with Screen Rant, I have personally been to two San Diego Comic-Cons – in 2009 and last year in 2010. (I’ve attended two NYC ‘Cons as well, but that’s a different story.) Ironically enough, my arrival on the scene came just in time to watch the problems start. The issue at hand: Studios were dropping serious bucks to parade their TV and film projects around a convention that was supposed to build groundswell support for said projects – support which would theoretically translate into ratings or box office success. Only that success was getting lost somewhere in translation.
Watchmen, Sucker Punch, TRON: Legacy, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Heroes, Fringe. These are the names of just a few movies and TV shows that had a heavy presence at the ‘Con in the last few years – films and shows that were almost tailored-made for geeks, by geeks. Yet, those same films struggled to find critical and/or box office success when offered to mainstream audiences – even though they were eaten up by the crowds at the ‘Con (Scott Pilgrim is well-chronicled as the most surprising and crushing example of this disconnect). The TV shows mentioned all had big debuts at the convention, only to later flounder in the ratings, despite the perceived support of a loyal geek community. In fact, in the last three years or so, one thing has become increasingly clear: Comic-Con is far from being the slam-dunk marketing investment that many studios hoped it would be.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I will re-state very briefly what I’ve already said in my article, “Should Hollywood Be Courting the Geek Demographic?” Speaking purely from a business-minded standpoint: Comic-Con is not exactly a safe or inexpensive investment for studios. Even when a movie is the belle of the ball at Comic-Con, the overwhelming support from geeks doesn’t guarantee mainstream interest (see: Scott Pilgrim). Niche tastes are what make geeks… well… geeks – they like things a lot of other people don’t. Secondly, just because a movie or a show has many geeky tropes built into it – superheroes, sci-fi, supernatural creatures and/or swords – it doesn’t mean that the crowds at the ‘Con will embrace it. In fact, backlash from the oft-fickle fanboy sector can doom a film before it even has a crack at the mainstream (see: the lukewarm reactions to Priest). Geeks can be merciless when it comes to tearing a film apart all over the Interwebs.
Of course, these assessments presuppose the notion that a studio’s film is even one of the big attractions geeks are (literally) willing to stab each other to see. If a film doesn’t even make a big blip on the Comic-Con radar, a studio can find itself in a half-filled convention room with little press coverage and millions in marketing and promotion already down the drain. When you think about it that way – Comic-Con as a potential high cost, low benefit investment – it makes sense that studios are starting to think twice about how much they want to spend (if anything) parading their films in front of the geek crowd.
Comic-Con will always hold appeal for sites like ours, which were borne of the very same tastes that drive people to go to Comic-Con – and report on those very topics to our fellow superhero and/or sci-fi enthusiasts. The ‘Con is also a great opportunity for fans to get some well-deserved acknowledgement from the powers that be in the comic book and movie industries. After all, it’s largely geeks who have supported these characters and genres throughout the years, through good times, bad, clone wars and profit-driven retcons (DC, looking at you right now).
However, while there are certainly cases to be made for why bloggers and geeks deserve a “proper ‘Con experience,” unless Hollywood can find more effective strategies for turning their Comic-Con marketing and promotional investments into mainstream $uccess $tories, then don’t be surprised if the bright lights, glitz and glamour of the San Diego Comic-Con International start to dim with each passing year. Before too long, Con attendees hoping to see that famous starlet may once again have to settle for a pale girl dressed in a homeade version of that starlet’s iconic (and revealing) costume. Not that we’re complaining ;-) .
The 2011 San Diego Comic-Con International will take place from July 21 – July 24th a the San Diego Convention Center. Be sure to keep up with all our coverage of the ‘Con (this year and years past), by bookmarking our official Comic-Con Coverage Page.
Source: NY Times