SAN DIEGO — For self-proclaimed geeks, superfans and buffs of the popcorn film, San Diego’s Comic-Con International is an annual pilgrimage. The convention center’s 6,500-seat Hall H is the hallowed ground where Jon Favreau first introduced Robert Downey Jr. as “Iron Man” and where James Cameron’s “Avatar” began to generate the kind of deafening buzz that indicated it would be much more than an expensive 3-D movie about blue people from another planet.
At this year’s sold-out confab, which starts Thursday and runs through Sunday, Steven Spielberg will make his first appearance to discuss his motion-capture movie “The Adventures of Tintin” and Sony Pictures will introduce Andrew Garfield as the new Spider-Man. Yet several Hollywood studios that typically present their upcoming movies are staying home.
Disney and Warner Bros. will not host panels in Hall H. Neither will Marvel Studios, which last year created a stir when it brought out the ensemble cast of its 2012 release “The Avengers.” Absent such big players, Comic-Con will become a showcase for smaller films and big-name television series.
Take “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil,” for example. Eli Craig, the writer-director of the low-budget indie movie, will venture into Hall H on Friday, just hours after Spielberg and Garfield. Craig will bring out the cast of his horror parody to promote a film that he’s been trucking around the indie festival circuit for the last year and landed U.S. distribution only last month.
“It’s just unbelievable to me that we’re in Hall H. It puts us in a spotlight that indie film hasn’t ever been in at Comic-Con,” Craig said. “I’m actually waiting for them to call back and say they are moving us to the nearest IHOP.”
Of course, Comic-Con is still drawing big talent and properties to its beachfront locale. In addition to Spielberg, directors including Guillermo Del Toro (“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”), Steven Soderbergh (“Haywire”), Francis Ford Coppola (“Twixt”) and Favreau (“Cowboys & Aliens”) will be on hand to tout their latest films, as will the cast of “Twilight,” Oscar-winning actors Jeff Bridges and Nicolas Cage and other stars such as Bradley Cooper, Colin Farrell and Justin Timberlake.
But there’s no question that some of the biggest entertainment attractions at this year’s convention will happen in the 4,000-seat Ballroom 20, Comic-Con’s room dedicated to television, where series like HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and “True Blood” and AMC’s “The Walking Dead” will gather cast and crew members for panel presentations.
“There is no year when every studio comes to Comic-Con,” said David Glanzer, director of marketing and public relations for the confab, noting that Twentieth Century Fox was absent last year but will be there this week with footage and cast from Ridley Scott’s “Alien” prequel, “Prometheus,” as well as James Franco-starrer “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and the sci-fi adventure “In Time.”
“It really all depends on the filmmaker,” he said. “Some will cut special reels for the fans, while others are afraid of a half-hearted effort.”
Comic-Con began in 1970 in a hotel basement as a one-day comic-book convention for fans; it first lured movies in 1976 when a representative from Lucasfilm came to show off a then-unknown property called “Star Wars.” Over the decades, the event has grown into an expansive four-day celebration of not just comic books but also film, television, video games and collectible merchandise, drawing more than 120,000 from around the world to Southern California.
In the last 10 years especially, Comic-Con has developed a reputation as the premiere location for Hollywood to communicate directly with the ardent fans most likely to embrace genre entertainment — and most apt to tout what they love online.
Yet in some ways, the event seems to have become a victim of its own success. Fearful of sabotaging upcoming projects, studios have become unwilling to bring early promotional material that might generate bad buzz among the fan community. But even a strongly positive reaction at Comic-Con doesn’t necessarily guarantee a film will be a hit at the box office. Case in point: “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” was a sensation at the convention last year but went on to gross only $31 million.
“It’s a gauge to find out what fanboys like, but I don’t think it has anything to do with box office whatsoever,” said Marc Weinstock, president of Sony Pictures, which will host one of the biggest Hall H presentations Friday afternoon to promote next year’s “The Amazing Spider-Man,” a “Ghost Rider” sequel and a “Total Recall” remake, among other projects.
“It’s more about planting a flag with this audience, telling them this is the tone for the movie,” he said. “Especially for ‘Spider-Man,’ fans have a lot of questions about Andrew Garfield and (director) Marc Webb, and I think they are all going to be answered.”
Unlike “Spider-Man,” many films at Comic-Con have no tie-in to comic-books, graphic novels or video games but appeal to a demographic that typically embraces such things. Relativity Media premiered footage for its Greek mythology action movie “Immortals” at April’s WonderCon in San Francisco and will come to this week’s San Diego gathering to keep explaining to audiences what the swords-and-sandals epic is all about.
(It doesn’t hurt that the film stars Henry Cavill, the British heartthrob who will play Superman in Zack Snyder’s upcoming “Man of Steel.”)
“We are going to let people in deeper with a scene and a new trailer to show them in 3-D,” said Terry Curtin, Relativity’s president of marketing. “We have to introduce our mythology and we need to introduce Henry.”
Stoking fan interest is just as important for new television properties, and several studios are planning to screen pilots at Comic-Con for projects including J.J. Abrams’ “Alcatraz” and “Person of Interest,” and Kevin Williamson’s “The Secret Circle.” Other series — “Terra Nova,” “Once Upon a Time” and “Grimm” — are also hoping to generate buzz before their fall premieres.
As for returning shows, Warner Bros. TV announced its CW series “Supernatural” will be among of one of several series to nab a coveted Hall H presentation, including “Doctor Who,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and “The Cleveland Show.” The latter is one of 13 programs, including the Spielberg-produced “Terra Nova” and musical hit “Glee,” that Fox will promote at Comic-Con.
“The biggest difference is, franchise movies notwithstanding, the TV business can be a decades-long business for a show, whereas movies tend to be one-offs,” said Twentieth Century Fox Television Chairman Gary Newman. “The ability to fuel that annually and to leak out new information and really excite the most enthusiastic fans, it’s an invaluable opportunity.”
“TV audiences are so passionate about their shows,” added Sharon Allen, vice president of marketing and advertising for Showtime, the pay cable network bringing “Dexter” and “Shameless” to San Diego. “Attendees have a relationship with a television show that’s a lot different from a movie or even a comic book. What Comic-Con does — and I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it — is it connects fans to the creators, to the stars, to the show. Engaged fans provide consistent viewers. And they spread the word.”
Of course, just as with films, a presence at Comic-Con doesn’t guarantee a show will find an audience. “The Event” on NBC was unable to sustain the bounce it received from the convention; likewise, 2010 Comic-Con projects “The Cape” on NBC and “No Ordinary Family” on ABC failed to capture the sustained attention of the fanboy crowd.
“Comic-Con is a great way to build a groundswell of support for a pending project,” Glanzer said. “But as is true with anything, you can show eight great minutes of a project, but the rest of it has to deliver.”