[17 August 2011]
Over the past decade Comic-Con International has more than doubled in size, exploding from the largest comic book-related event in North America to a massive pop-culture convention that draws fans of all kinds to the San Diego Convention Center. Back in 2001, the convention set a record when attendance broke the 50,000-person mark for the first time. Hollywood was beginning to take notice and do events related to upcoming movies to get the geek crowd primed and ready to spread the buzz. Now, those days seem like a lifetime away. Comic-Con has capped attendance at around 125,000 people since 2008, and tickets for the 2011 convention sold out in a matter of hours when they finally went on sale online.
The present version of Comic-Con actually has just as much in common with big music festivals as it does with other pop-culture conventions. Coachella or Bonnaroo have something like a dozen different stages in a wide variety of sizes, while Comic-Con has programming in 18 different rooms. The most hardcore music fans are willing to park themselves near the stage early in the day and sit through a half-dozen bands they don’t care about in order to have an awesome spot to see, say, Eminem or Arcade Fire. At Comic-Con, fans go to similar lengths to get great seats for the one panel they really, really want to see. And just like those big music festivals often have the most interesting, crazy stuff at the sparsely-attended smaller stages, some of the coolest panels at Comic-Con are off the beaten path in the small rooms. But the allure of the big and popular is tough to deny, and it often takes an effort of will to step away from the movie and tv events and check out something different. It turns out that music geeks and comic book/ sci-fi/ genre fans aren’t all that different from each other when it comes to their level of passion.
The big difference then, is in venue type. Those music festivals take place in huge, wide-open fields, where the largest stages have room for tens of thousands of people. You might not be anywhere near the stage, but if you want to see Phish or Bruce Springsteen at Bonnaroo, you can do it. Comic-Con’s biggest room, Hall H, holds 6,500 people, and its second-biggest, Ballroom 20, holds 4,000 people. With 125,000 people packing into the Convention Center, people are inevitably left on the outside when the big events fill the rooms to capacity. It’s a problem that the organizers of the show are well aware of, but until San Diego expands the Convention Center, the situation will continue to exist. It doesn’t help that the Hollywood studios who bring the most in-demand movie and television content are often difficult partners who don’t listen particularly well to the Comic-Con people’s advice.
Wednesday is the time when attendees pick up their registration badges and it’s also Preview Night. Preview Night used to be a nice incentive, a reward for folks who purchased a 4-day pass instead of picking and choosing individual days. Since that incentive is no longer needed, Preview Night is now an extra only given out to a limited number of people. For 2012, the night will even cost attendees an extra $25, which is really a pretty fair deal. Over the years, the registration process has, at times, been a morass of slow lines and angry people. Comic-Con seems to have gotten over its growing pains in this area, though. Both the press and regular attendee lines moved quickly and efficiently this year, with dozens of workers and computer terminals available to get badges distributed smoothly.
For a lot of attendees, Preview Night is the perfect opportunity to walk the exhibit floor, pick up merchandise, and see what the convention has to offer. Warner Bros. television had Preview Night programming, though, screening the pilots of its upcoming fall shows like Alcatraz, Person of Interest, The Secret Circle, and even Supernatural: The Anime Series. I personally skipped the tv stuff to check out the floor, since I wasn’t planning to be back down there until Sunday afternoon. The big, flashy booths of the biggest companies are hard to miss, as they generally rise two or even three levels above the floor, drawing crowds like beacons. A regular sight on Preview Night is long lines of people that snake through the floor and around booths. Often, a lonely dude holding up a simple sign that says “End of Line” lets you know that you’ve already missed your chance to get whatever was waiting at the front of that line. The floor also makes for weird, sometimes uncomfortable, juxtapositions, such as the booth for The Disney Channel’s Phineas and Ferb being located right next to the booth for AMC’s hit zombie show The Walking Dead.
Thursday was a day of easy choices. The first thing in Hall H was the panel for The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn. There were hardcore Twilight fans lining up for this panel as early as Monday, and I’m sure the hall was packed with screaming girls eager to see Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, and Taylor Lautner. In a nice gesture, the stars of the movie got up early and visited the line to sign autographs and chat with their fans. But the only way I have ever watched a Twilight movie is with the Rifftrax commentary, so I was not there.
Instead, I headed to the line for Ballroom 20, where the first panel of the day featured Bruce Campbell and Burn Notice creator Matt Nix talking about the Campbell-starring spinoff Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe. I’ve seen Campbell do Q&A’s with fans numerous times, and he tends to be very quick and good-naturedly brusque to his audience. Part of his introduction included the statement “For those sleep-deprived fans out there, don’t worry; the Covert Affairs panel is up next.” But Nix managed to keep the discussion mostly on track and centered around their experience making the tv movie. The liveliest bits involved Nix talking about how he, like many of us in the crowd, first became aware of Campbell in high school when he was introduced to the Evil Dead films. When Burn Notice was in pre-production, he scoffed when it was suggested they ask Campbell to play Sam Axe, thinking it had no chance of happening. But he didn’t count on Campbell’s desire to not have to make B-movies in Bulgaria to earn a living, and Campbell signed on immediately. The best moment of the panel, however, came when a person dressed in Harry Potter robes approached the microphone to ask a question. Campbell ripped on her for a minute straight before finally letting her speak, and then she directed her question to Matt Nix instead.
After Campbell and Nix finished up at 11am, the next Ballroom 20 panel I was really interested in was Game of Thrones at 3 pm. But there was realistically very little chance of leaving the room and getting back in for GoT. It’s a popular, fresh tv show making its first appearance at Comic-Con, and it’s based on a series of books that thousands of people at Comic-Con have read. Game of Thrones was one of the white-hot events of the convention, so I stayed put. Even having a press pass gives you no advantage at Comic-Con. We have to wait in the lines and the panel rooms just like everybody else to get in to what we want to see.
The Covert Affairs panel turned out to be pretty genial, with the cast getting at least a warm, if not exactly ecstatic, reception from the crowd. Mostly there were a lot of women screaming for the show’s male hottie, Christopher Gorham. The assembled cast and crew gushed about how much fun it was to work on the show, while executive producer Doug Liman talked about his excitement at being able to shoot scenes in exotic locations around the world. After that came Psych, another show I don’t watch. But the assembled cast seemed to be having great fun onstage, and the show’s creators kicked off the panel by singing the theme song, which they wrote and recorded. There were a lot of laughs to go around, and it wasn’t a bad way to spend an hour.
Then there was Ringer. This new CW show for the fall stars geek icon Sarah Michelle Gellar, returning to series tv after getting sick of starring in B-horror movies and unnoticed indie films. The show also stars recognizable genre actors Nestor Carbonell (Richard in Lost) and Ioan Gruffudd (Mr. Fantastic in Fantastic Four), making it a good fit for the Comic-Con crowd. The plot centers on Gellar, who plays identical twins leading very different lives, and how one twin begins to impersonate the other. It’s not a bad premise for a soapy CW drama, and it could be very interesting. But all they brought to show the audience was a five-minute sizzle reel, and during the panel discussion the actors revealed that they were only one day into shooting the show’s second episode. After the introductions and the clips, the panel moderator and participants essentially had to fill 50 minutes of time talking about a show that nobody had seen and that the cast and crew had done almost no work on. There was very little there to sell to the audience besides the physical presence of Gellar, and the whole panel fell flat.
Finally, it was time for Game of Thrones. The room host tried to get everyone in the room to slide inward and fill every single seat because there were “thousands of people waiting in line” outside and they wanted to let as many in as possible. Series author George R.R. Martin himself moderated the panel, which included most of the show’s adult cast members. The breakout star of the panel was Jason Momoa, who brimmed with enthusiasm for playing the part of Khal Drogo, the imposing foreign horse-lord. Show creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss said that they had been stumped on casting the part until going to an internet casting suggestion thread and seeing his name. And Momoa took credit for the scene late in the season when Drogo rips a guy’s throat out with his bare hands, saying “I had just finished chopping off 150 heads while filming Conan. I wanted to do something that was different but still badass.”
The love-fest continued as Martin praised Benioff and Weiss for putting in excellent scenes during the season that weren’t in the book. Emelia Clarke, who plays Daenerys, said that she’s being very good and forcing herself to not read ahead in the books, so that she can go on the same journey as her character. All three creators assured the audience that the second season would include the Battle of Blackwater. This was a concern since budgetary limits kept any major battles in the first season offscreen. Sadly, the show hasn’t even entered production for the second season yet, so the only video was a short recap of the first season.
Next on the list for the day was finally getting out of Ballroom 20 and possibly heading to the Penn & Teller panel. A massive line for the Batman: Arkham City panel and a long wait led me to abandon the plan in favor of food, as much as I wanted to see the magicians/bullshit artists in person. Thursday evening ended with the Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog Sing-Along. A crowded room laughed and made comments, and yes, sang along to Joss Whedon’s internet sensation from 2008. Sadly, the fire marshal made us stop bouncing along to the Bad Horse theme song. Apparently, the feeling of 3,000 people making the floor physically bounce got him nervous about something dangerous happening, like the floor potentially collapsing into the exhibit hall below.
The big choice for Friday morning was whether to get in the Hall H line to see Steven Spielberg in person, there to promote The Adventures of Tin-tin: Secret of the Unicorn, or to go for Ballroom 20 to see the day’s tv panels. Ultimately the lure of Spielberg won out and I joined the surprisingly short Hall H line around 8am. Over in the Ballroom 20 line, friends reported “insanity” and “7,000 people in line.” Tin-tin is a famous character around the world, but his name wasn’t enough to draw a lot of early arrivals. Instead, fans of Torchwood, The Walking Dead, The Big Bang Theory, and True Blood, the latter of which didn’t even start until 5:30pm, packed the line for 20. Once again, thousands of people were stuck on the outside for most of the day as the line stretched through the convention center, outside through shade tents, and down to the steps to the marina.
In Hall H, though, things were pretty calm. The room did eventually fill to capacity for the Tin-tin panel, and Steven Spielberg came out to a heroes’ welcome. Then he introduced Tin-tin producer Peter Jackson, and the two of them proceeded to hold court and discuss their love of the character. Jackson grew up reading the Tin-tin books, looking at the artwork before he could even really read. Spielberg didn’t check out the books until he was an adult and people kept telling him that Raiders of the Lost Ark reminded them of a Tin-tin adventure. They showed off a lot of character footage from the motion-capture animation film, and it looks good. Jackson and Spielberg mentioned that a lot of the big action sequences weren’t ready to be shown yet, because the folks at Weta are still hard at work refining the animation. When asked about progress on The Hobbit, Jackson mentioned that he was having way more fun than he expected going into the project and that it was moving along. The question and answer portion of the panel was pretty pedestrian, although Spielberg mentioned that Jurassic Park 4 was moving forward into the script stage. A man came up to ask the final question wearing a t-shirt that read “If possible I would love to meet Steven Spielberg just to shake his hand and say thank you very much.” Spielberg immediately invited him on the stage and he and Jackson took pictures of the shirt and indeed shook hands with him.
That big moment wrapped up the panel and sent us into the next one, from Relativity Media. Relativity had two movies to show on Friday, Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire and the Edgar Allen Poe thriller Raven starring John Cusack. Haywire stars MMA fighter and American Gladiators breakout Gina Carano as a spy who gets betrayed by her higher-ups. Soderbergh said that he first became aware of her while watching an MMA special on network television and thought he could build a movie around her. The trailer shows a lot of action and some impressive stunt-driving, but the real highlight here was an extended fight scene between Carano and co-star Michael Fassbender. It’s a brutal, bone-crunching sequence inside a luxury hotel room and it got me very interested in the film.
Raven is a fictionalized story about a serial killer in 19th century Baltimore who uses Poe’s stories as the basis for his murders. Poe gets involved with the local police, first as a suspect, and then as a consultant to help catch the killer. It’s an interesting idea, but director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta, Ninja Assassin) has yet to really prove himself as a director independent of his longtime friends and producers, the Wachowski siblings. The trailer is a pretty typical horror/thriller trailer that didn’t excite me, but it didn’t look bad, either.
Next up was Underworld 4, again starring Kate Beckinsdale, who is back after skipping the third movie. The panel discussion gave away very little in terms of plot for this one, except to say that the vampires and lycans will be much more out in the open this time around. The clips shown from the movie made it look like, well, another Underworld movie. A lot of blue and black in the color scheme, cut through with swatches of dark red blood as Beckinsdale slices her way through guys.
After that it was Attack the Block, a British import from first-time director Joe Cornish that was produced by Edgar Wright. Attack the Block, which I’ve seen, is a hugely fun combination of horror, comedy, and action. The producers showed some great clips of the film, which involves a group of teenagers fighting off an alien invasion in a South London apartment building. On stage, Edgar Wright was charming and fun, mentioning that he and Cornish had just turned in a new draft of their prospective Ant-Man movie for Marvel. Cornish, however, tried to give the audience the hard sell, lapsing into his well-rehearsed talking points at every opportunity and generally sounding stiff. It’s understandable; Comic-Con is a unique environment for filmmakers that puts some of them off-balance. But Cornish has a great film on his hands that is pitch-perfect for the Comic-Con audience and it was a bit disappointing to see him so awkward onstage.
Fright Night was our last Hall H film of the day. This remake of the ‘80s horror near-classic stars Colin Farrell as the vampire next door. Anton Yelchin plays the teen who begins to suspect Farrell’s nature. Former Buffy writer-producer Marti Noxon wrote the script, and the clips make it look like a witty, exciting update of the original film. Unfortunately, the panel began with a blatant commercial for a popular internet site and an invitation for attendees to go to that site for more Fright Night goodies. It was a really aggravating way to start things off, but the studio nearly made up for it by having the original vampire from Fright Night, Chris Sarandon, come in to host the panel.
I bailed on Hall H before the day’s second big event, the epic two and a half hour Sony panel that featured the Total Recall remake, the upcoming Ghost Rider sequel directed by the guys from Crank, Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer’s 30 Minutes or Less, and the highlight, the new Spider-Man reboot. For me, though, it was more important to get into the Spotlight on Kim Harrison and get in the line for the Rifftrax panel. Harrison’s The Hollows novels are modern fantasy in the same vein as Charlaine Harris or Laurell K. Hamilton, except less concerned with sex and more interested in action and adventure. Witches, vampires, werewolves, pixies, elves, you name it. They’ve probably shown up in The Hollows books. Unfortunately, Harrison’s panel was plagued by technical difficulties, as her editor could not get their iPad-based slide show to work smoothly. Still, Harrison soldiered through, discussing each one of her books for a bit and talking about writing them. She also did a little dance onstage because she had just found out that her new graphic novel Blood Work had hit #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list. Of course, she didn’t mention the caveat that it was the graphic novel bestseller list and not the general fiction list, but it was still a happy moment. Sadly, the technical difficulties slowed things down to the point where I had to leave before we got to the Q&A portion of the panel.
Next up was Rifftrax, but to get into that panel, we had to sit through the presentation for Vertigo’s American Vampire comic book. The book’s creators realized that the packed house they were playing to was largely there for Rifftrax and not for them, so they did their best to sell us on their creation. And for the most part, it worked. Writer Scott Snyder went over the premise of the book and they showed plenty of artwork on the room’s big screen. The Q&A was lively and entertaining and I was sold on the idea of different species of vampire living in different parts of the world.
The Rifftrax guys were as entertaining as ever, but I was a bit disappointed in their panel. It consisted of the three men promoting their upcoming movie theater-based Rifftrax Live event, them riffing a live short (which wasn’t their best), and then talking to audience members. But there’s no Q&A at the panel, no discussion of how they pick their movies or their general process. Instead they just let the audience members suggest bad movies for them to riff and end the panel by choosing one. The give and take during the suggestion section is fun, but there’s very little conversation beyond that. This year’s final showdown was between two dubious ‘70s movies, Zardoz and Logan’s Run. In the end Logan’s Run won out, mostly because Rifftrax founder Mike Nelson made it clear he really, really didn’t want to do Zardoz.