You can’t picture the typical reader of Variety or the New York Times picking up the latest issue of Superman at the local comics shop. So why is Comic-Con, the annual confab of fans from around the world, gathering so much interest from both mainstream media and the trade press?
The obvious answer is that a growing number of megapictures and TV series are derived from superhero comics and, more broadly, fantasy and science-fiction literature. The chance to see stars and directors on panels, the first look at preview clips–these draw both fans and entertainment reporters.
Recently, the press is suggesting that Hollywood’s presence is becoming dominant at this gathering of self-professed geeks. After going to my first Comic-Con last month, I’m thinking that something else is going on. First, it’s not clear that Hollywood rules the Con. Second, and more interesting, is the question of exactly how Hollywood benefits from being there–or indeed, whether it benefits at all.
Hollywood vs. comics
Michael Cieply’s July 25 article in the New York Times is entitled, “Comic-Con Brings Out the Stars, and Plugs for Movies.” To read it, you would think that Comic-Con is a purely film event. Cieply Refers to Hugh Jackman promoting X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Mark Wahlberg presenting clips from Max Payne, the cast and director of Twilight addressing a squealing crowd of young female fans, and so on. Nary a mention of comics, video games, action figures, collectibles, original artworks, and other items being sold or promoted in the vast exhibition hall, let alone the numerous simultaneous panels going on all day upstairs and the long, sinuous lines of fans awaiting their turn for autographs from artists.
Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Geoff Boucher started his July 28 story, “This is the year they tried to take the comic out of Comic-Con.” The piece is entitled “Comic books overshadowed by the embrace of Hollywood.” A reporter could probably find plenty of people at Comic-Con to deplore the decline of comics’ representation at the event and an equal number to say that the non-Hollywood part of Comic-Con is alive and well.
Boucher quotes two of the former, who tend to be people who have been attending Comic-Con and other such events for decades. Michael Uslan, a comic-book author in the 1970s and now the executive producer of, among others, The Dark Knight, declares, “I think Comic-Con is in danger of having Hollywood co-opt its soul. It’s turning into something new, and you could really see it this year.” Robert Beerbohm, who has sold comics at every Comic-Con since it was first held in 1970, also worries about the trend: “All the Hollywood directors say that they loved comics as a kid, but now they [i.e., the comics] are being pushed off the floor. Where are the next generation of directors going to come from?”
I tend to think that young directors get influenced by such a diverse mix of popular and high cultural works that the putative lack of comics at Comic-Con won’t make much difference. Plus these days the “comics” are often graphic novels, readily available to any future director from big bookstore chains and internet sources.
Avoiding Hall H
Comic-Con has grown hugely over its nearly four decades of existence, and other media have crept in slowly. Hollywood has been prominently represented for years now. Peter Jackson promoted The Lord of the Rings there, and Adrien Brody and Naomi Watts showed up to promote his King Kong. But somehow this year the journalistic zeitgeist seems to have dictated that most writers choose to stress that Hollywood is in danger of taking over the con. Well, it makes for a dramatic story premise.
Admittedly, I’m a Comic-Con newbie. I’m sure to the old hands the creeping presence of films and TV is noticeable and perhaps worrisome. To me the big Hollywood previews were something you had to seek out, and they weren’t that easy to get to. As I mentioned in my first blog on the subject, the ground floor of the enormous, lengthy building is divided into halls A to H. A to G formed one vast open space, and an attendee could trek from one end to the other without going through doors or lobbies. Hall H, where most of the biggest Hollywood previews and panels took place, was entered from a separate door on the outside of the building. The lines to get in snaked in the opposite direction from doors A to G. Entering and exiting the exhibition hall’s lobby through one of those doors, you might not even notice the lines.
The other big “Hollywood” space is Ballroom 20, on the second floor. Anyone going from one part of the building to the other on this level, on the way to the panel rooms or the autograph area, would be likely to pass it.
My sole Hall H experience came when I attended the Terminator Salvation and Pixar previews on Saturday afternoon. The rest of my time at Comic-Con bore no resemblance to what the news stories describe. Apart from Hall H, I moved extensively around the exhibition hall, the various hallways between the panel rooms, through the “sails pavilion” and along the main lobby without having any sense of the big film and television events going on. I occasionally passed Ballroom 20 when there was a long line outside, but even then there was seldom any indication of what the people were waiting for—no banners or posters. (In general, Comic-Con has sold only very limited “signage” outside the exhibition hall. The upstairs hallways outside the panel doors were unadorned apart from small schedule boards.) In the exhibition hall I saw the studio logos hanging above their exhibit spaces and learned to skirt around them to avoid the particularly dense crowds in that area—but it was one area among many in that giant space. I seem to have experienced a different Con from the one widely reported on.
I’m not alone in thinking that Comic-Con is a giant, diverse event that simply has a big Hollywood screening room next door for those who are interested. Marc Graser, who wrote several pieces on this year’s Con for Variety, talked with its PR director, David Glanzer:
“Not every studio has a presentation every year,” Glanzer says. “It’s not an earth-shattering event. Sometimes people read too much into it.”
Yet the irony in all of this is that film- and TV-specific programming makes up less than 25% of the Con’s schedule, Glanzer says. And even on the event’s show floor, studios are overshadowed by comicbook publishers, retailers, videogames and toy companies.
The rest of the panels are educational sessions on how to break into the comicbook biz, for example, that allow Comic-Con to consider itself an educational nonprofit.
In other sources, Glanzer gives the more specific figure for film- and TV-related programming as 22%.
Those educational sessions for budding comic-book creators do make up quite a share of the program. These aren’t just how-to-draw lessons. There was a panel, “Comic Book Law School Afternoon Special: Gone But Not Forgotten!” dealing with intellectual property rights and others on the practicalities of the business. There were also 50-minute “Spotlight” sessions devoted to individual artists like Ralph Bakshi and Lynda Barry. The Eisner Awards ceremony celebrated accomplishment in the comics world.
Camping in Hall H
Why do journalists covering Comic-Con tend to stress Hollywood so much? I assume because the previews and panels are where the big stars are. They and their forthcoming films are the big news, the buzz that makes it worthwhile for magazines, newspapers, and blogs to spend the money to send their reporters or hire free-lancers. Most reporters experience that other “Hall H” con that I only visited once. I saw Anne Thompson at the “Masters of the Web” panel on Thursday morning, and she duly blogged about it. Still, most of the many Comic-Con stories posted on her Variety blog by her and other reporters were on the films and TV shows.
And why not? The big entertainment reporters get access to the major talent for short interviews, and their photographers can get up close for glamorous shots to use as illustrations. That’s no doubt what the largest portion of their readership or viewership is interested in. Attending the Con is an efficient way of generating a lot of copy.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to note that Hall H seats 6500 people, dozens, perhaps hundreds of them the entertainment reporters and bloggers. That’s out of 125,000 attendees who bought passes and probably tens of thousands more who were exhibitors, “booth babes,” or panel presenters. Granted, people circulated in and out of Hall H, though my impression is that some people stayed there much of the time. If sheer numbers of fans were to determine news coverage, the other facets of Comic-Con would get more attention than they do. But it’s the stars.
What’s in it for the studios?
The answer to that question might seem self-evident: publicity, and lots of it. The situation fuels itself. As more reporters from bigger outlets come to Comic-Con, the studios get more valuable publicity at a relatively small cost. (USA Today’s July 28 wrap-up occupied nearly a page and a half of the print edition.) And as more studios send previews and big stars, more news sources will find it worth sending their main reporters. In fact, perhaps this year the situation reached saturation. Hollywood studios filled all the possible slots in the two large halls, and in some cases big news outlets sent teams of reporters. That might be what gave both studio execs and reporters the impression that Hollywood is steamrolling the rest of the Con.
Publicity is all very well, but in the August 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter, Steven Zeitchik questions whether it’s really worth all the fuss to preach to the converted. He notes the growth of the big studios’ efforts to impress fans: “On its face, this shouldn’t be the case. A brand’s cult following isn’t a very large number, and it’s also a group already inclined to like and spend money on a product, which by most marketing logic is exactly the group you should spend the fewest resources on.”
Sure, the Comic-Con previews may impress fans who are assumed to be tastemakers, particularly in the blogosphere. Zeitchik comments, “And if the tastemaker effect doesn’t happen, the strategy loses its teeth. One director who’s had repeated visits to Comic-Con noted just before he went to this year’s convention that ‘The total number of people in the blog world is probably only a few hundred thousand, and as much as they might hate to hear it, for most movies that’s not going to make the difference between a success and a failure.’” Zeitchik points out that the Speed Racer preview at the 2007 Con was cheered, but that didn’t mean that a lot of fans bought tickets to the film itself. The wider public stayed away.
Yet surely the studio suits know all this, and they keep providing glimpses of films and series to come. What other advantages do they perceive?
A Comic-Con preview can be a chance not only to woo fans but to get clues that might help in the general publicity campaign. Focus Features president James Shamus, who previewed Hamlet 2 at Comic-Con this year, views the process as a chance to get instantaneous feedback that might help later in promoting a film: “It’s the start of an ongoing dialog. It doesn’t just start and end there. It’s not a thumbs up or thumbs down because some guy didn’t like your poster.”
Many studio executives also still believe in the viral quality of fan buzz on the internet. Lisa Greogorian, the executive vice-president of marketing for Warner Bros. Television, assesses past years’ previews of Chuck, Pushing Daisies, and The Sarah Connor Chronicles: “We saw an immediate impact online. Word of mouth is now one individual impacting a couple hundred individuals who can impact thousands. Social networking has allowed us to empower one fan to impact thousands of potential viewers.” (Both executives spoke to Marc Graser for a July 11 Comic-Con preview in Variety.)
I emailed James, who is an old friend of ours, about the subject. He pointed out that while the blockbusters may have a pre-sold audience, smaller films like Shaun of the Dead can create momentum at Comic-Con. Moreover, there are a lot of blogs out there now, and studios monitor the more important ones to help shape their own publicity efforts.
A Comic-Con presence often, however, is not simply a matter of persuading fans to watch a film or TV series. Sometimes major negative buzz began to surround a film from a few bad online comments based solely on the Con previews. Wooing the fans with stars and footage can be a way to prevent that negativity from getting started—or a big reason for some studios not to preview a film at the Con.
One factor that doesn’t get mentioned in the press coverage of why the Hollywood studios bother with Comic-Con previews is that this event in effect provides them with huge, low-cost press junkets.
The modern press junket for a tentpole film is typically an expensive affair. The studio pays for dozens, maybe hundreds of reporters to travel to a single spot. It may be as bland as a rented hotel conference room, or it may be set in some more picturesque locale. At Cannes in 2001, New Line held a big junket for The Lord of the Rings at a hillside chateau with a spectacular view. Other junkets might be on-set, at a studio where the film is still shooting. The studios have to shell out for the reporters’ hotels, give them a per diem, and supply a reasonably impressive swag-bag. And there isn’t just one junket, but several in the course of publicizing a major release.
With Comic-Con, the studios have a whole bevy of reporters, many of them famous names in their own right, delivered to them at their employers’ expense. There are rows up front in Hall H reserved for them They sit through preview session after preview session for four days and generate a huge amount of publicity. Certainly there are expenses involved for the studios, but cutting together a few scenes or a random collection of finished shots together with a temp music track doesn’t cost a lot, and the actors don’t get paid extra for their publicity appearances. Transportation might be a relatively simple matter of sending whatever stars happen to be in Los Angeles in a limo down to San Diego. James specified to me that Comic-Con is “a very cost-effective” way of bringing the talent from a film together with fans to gauge how they interact.
I suppose for the reporters, the chance to attend what is in effect a whole passel of press junkets in one stretch saves a lot of time on airplanes.
Oh, yes, the comics
Some stories do stress the comics. Not surprisingly, Publisher’s Weekly printed an excellent preview that talked about the comics and graphic-novels companies that would be present. The author also pointed out that the connections between comics and films are getting closer, what with all the adaptations that have been made or are in the pipeline. The article quotes comics author Steve Niles (30 Days of Night) as saying, that the Con is “crawling with producers now, which means some of the up-and-comers have a chance to get someone to notice their book.”
USA Today ran a story that analyzed the recent trend toward comics-based movies quite carefully. Author Scott Bowles discusses the trends toward darker stories and heroes who aren’t conventional heroic, such as Hancock and the Watchmen. The story also discusses whether this trend indicates that the superhero genre is nearly over or just reaching a more imaginative stage.
Bowles also points out that the traditional notion of the Con as largely frequented by fanboys is no longer accurate. This year nearly 40% of the fans were female.
Costumes and the press
Naturally journalists with cameras make a beeline for costumed Comic-Con attendees. They stand out in the crowd, they seem to these journalists to epitomize the fan sensibility, and they are delighted to pose at any length for photos. (Anne Thompson’s blog has a sampling posted.) Many of them have very impressive costumes and put on little skits or tableaux in the hallways. There’s a “masquerade” competition with cash (up to $150) and merchandise prizes on Saturday night.
[Added August 11: David Glanzer kindly emailed me to compliment me on this entry. He informed me that roughly one percent of fans attending Comic-Con come in costume. Not that either he or I have anything against costumed fans. On the contrary, I enjoyed seeing them, and obviously they were having a terrific time. But some journalists adopt a definitely mocking tone, and even those who are respectful tend to mislead the public about the attendees at the Con in general.]
But most attendees are content to declare their interests on their T-shirts, as I did, and their shopping bags. Again, that doesn’t make for good copy or images. The photos at top and bottom show what I saw much of the time in the exhibition hall. These people are not likely to be approached by journalists, though these days they might have a questionnaire thrust into their hands by a sociologist or ethnographer trying to figure out what makes fans tick.
If you have to ask …
For my account of things and event relating to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings at Comic-Con, see here.