Armchair Quarterbacking Comic-Con 2011

Grading the upcoming Comic-Con, from who's in attendance to who decided to stay behind...

It’s that time again, folks. On Wednesday night, the year’s biggest pop culture event, Comic-Con International in San Diego, gets started for another four days of movies, TV, video games, anime, and yes, comic books. The run-up to this year’s convention has been marked by technical difficulties in selling tickets and controversy over big movie studios not bothering to attend this year.

Comic-Con’s ticket-selling snafus were mostly under the radar, unless you were one of the thousands of people attempting to buy a pass for the convention. Unless you were lucky enough to attend Comic-Con 2010 and bought a ticket for this year’s convention at that show, you were probably involved in the nightmare of Comic-Con 2011’s online ticket purchasing nightmare. The convention’s ticket-selling partner, TicketLeap, crashed repeatedly, forcing the online purchasing date to be rescheduled multiple times before finally selling out all available tickets in minutes. While Comic-Con’s attendance has been capped at approximately 125,000 people for the past several years, demand for the tickets keeps going up. To be fair, those tickets would’ve sold out quickly anyway, but the delays pushed the demand to a boiling point that left many fans feeling screwed over.

Then there are the big movie studios. Since Comic-Con opened the massive, 6,500-seat Hall H in 2004, the room has been the home of the convention’s big movie presentations. But the schedule in Hall H is looking a little light this year. Some of that probably has to do with release scheduling. Warner Bros. has always been a bit of a fickle presenter over the years. They’ve never managed to bring in Christopher Nolan or Christian Bale to promote the Batman series, and I’m not sure they ever had any members of the Harry Potter cast there in person. And with major superhero tentpoles The Dark Knight Rises and the latest Superman reboot Man of Steel a year away and currently in production, Warner Bros. is skipping the show entirely.

Disney, on the other hand, has had a massive presence at the show over the past few years, promoting everything from Pixar films like Wall*E and Up to Tron: Legacy and Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol. And it seems inconceivable that Marvel Studios, which basically owes its existence to the Comic-Con crowd, will not be at the show with a full promotional push for next year’s The Avengers. Especially since the film’s director, Joss Whedon, will be holding court at his own panel on Saturday. But dig a little deeper, and the studios’ absence makes sense. Disney now owns Marvel, and Disney has its own convention, D23 Expo 2011, happening just up the road in Anaheim in August. So it looks like Disney is holding back everything from Comic-Con in deference to its own fan club members. It seems like kind of a cheap move, but that’s their prerogative.

Then there’s Lionsgate. Lionsgate usually has a full-on promotional push at the convention for its various horror and genre properties, and they will have their usual booth presence on the floor. But they aren’t doing any panels this year, which leaves one specific, gaping hole in the schedule: the studio’s adaptation of the teen-lit dystopian sensation The Hunger Games, which is set to hit theaters in April, 2012. This is the kind of movie that in the past would start its buzz campaign at Comic-Con, but its absence speaks to the studios’ shifting philosophy on the convention. As the New York Times discussed last month, Comic-Con may no longer be the place to break your movie.

Buzz among the geek elite may excite other geeks, but as past Comic-Con sensations like Kick-Ass and Scott Pilgrim have shown, geek buzz does not automatically translate into general audience interest. And if your movie goes over badly at Comic-Con, the studio is stuck doing damage control with the genre audience. Simply having a genre movie to market may not be reason enough to show it at Comic-Con. The Hunger Games has a huge built-in audience already, and with months of post-production ahead, Lionsgate may not want the headache of showing unfinished footage to an audience they think will show up regardless of what they do at Comic-Con.

This doesn’t mean that Hall H will be devoid of star power this year. The show kicks off on Thursday morning with Summit Entertainment bringing the stars of Twilight out to promote Breaking Dawn. And on Friday morning Paramount has Steven Spielberg booked for his first-ever Comic-Con appearance to promote this December’s motion-capture animated Tin-Tin: The Secret of the Unicorn. Sony has a new Spider-Man movie to plug for 2012, and they have to convince the fanboys that rebooting the franchise with a new director (Marc Webb) and new Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is a worthwhile idea. They also have to show that their Total Recall remake will be cool, and that reimagining Ghost Rider with Nic Cage still in the lead role, but with the Crank guys in the directors’ chair, is something worth seeing. And 20th Century Fox will be there on Thursday afternoon, presumably with James Franco in tow to promote Rise of the Apes, but the official Comic-Con schedule offers no concrete clues about what the studio will be showing.

Beyond Hall H, the show will have its usual assortment of television shows, sci-fi/fantasy literature, and comic book stuff. DC Comics will get the chance to plead their case to the fanboys that rebooting every single one of its titles from issue #1 is a good idea. George R.R. Martin will be making several appearances, as moderator of HBO’s Game of Thrones panel and participating in several literature panels to promote his new book, A Dance With Dragons. USA Network is trotting out Bruce Campbell, ostensibly to promote the Blu-Ray release of Burn Notice: The Fall of Sam Axe, but mostly because Bruce Campbell is awesome in the convention Q&A setting. They’re also wasting everybody’s time with a panel for Covert Affairs, so there’s an hour the tv fans in Ballroom 20 will never get back.

Similarly, CBS is bringing the stars of NCIS: Los Angeles out for a panel, which at least has the courtesy to be at the very end of the day on Friday. Fox TV is doing a panel for their upcoming sci-fi series Terra Nova, so much-reviled producer Brannon Braga will get his opportunity to defend the oft-delayed show and explain why nearly all the other producers and writers on the show quit or were fired back at the end of 2010. Mike Judge will be on hand to present his updated version of Beavis and Butt-head, which should be something to see. The people behind Avatar: The Last Airbender will get the chance to show off their upcoming follow-up series, Avatar: The Legend of Korra in the sure-to-be-full Room 6BCF on Saturday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Comic-Con regulars like Kevin Smith, the Mythbusters, the Rifftrax guys, and the aforementioned Joss Whedon will all be having their typical panels in their typical timeslots, so the fans will know where to find them. Despite some of the movie programming being more low-key this year, there will still be 125,000 people in attendance at the show. That means we can still expect long lines for the two biggest rooms and not everybody will be able to get into the panels they want to see. A new idea whose time has come is the nightly playback of panel highlights from Hall H and Ballroom 20, for the fans that got shut out of those rooms during the day. It will be interesting to see if the lower profile of Hall H, particularly on the very weak Saturday, will lead to bigger crowds in the other rooms, or on the main floor, on what is typically Comic-Con’s most crowded day.

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