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The Con Is On

18 Jul, 2008 By: John Latchem

The 2008 edition of San Diego Comic-Con International runs July 24-27 at the San Diego Convention Center, just a two-hour drive from the Hollywood studios that have increasingly turned their attentions to the throngs of fans who flock to the annual celebration of popular culture.

“Comic-Con is the ideal place for studios to show and tease their entertainment wares for the upcoming year to an extremely enthusiastic crowd of bloggers and other tastemakers who have a lot of influence in the ether,” said Steve Feldstein, SVP of marketing and corporate communications for 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

What started as a simple comic book convention in 1970 now offers everything from previews of movies, TV shows and video games to a chance for fans to sample the latest technologies and interact with creators and stars. Organizers this year expect another capacity crowd of 125,000 people over the weekend, with passes selling out quickly.

“I think of the fans who are there as the hardcore fans who are at the leading edge of what the fans are thinking,” said “Futurama” executive producer David X. Cohen. “These are the people who get onto the Internet and post stuff, and it has a snowball effect. I don't know if you can calculate concrete numbers, but my guess is it has to have a positive impact.”

Bill Hunt, editor of TheDigitalBits.com, calls Comic-Con “a geek vacation for the movie crowd and the DVD crowd.”

“For industry insiders, it's a great opportunity to go and chill out,” Hunt said.

As he has done for the past few years, Hunt is co-hosting the 2008 DVD Producers Panel (July 24, 3-4 p.m., Room 5AB), featuring a discussion of the latest DVD and Blu-ray Disc developments, and a look ahead at upcoming releases.

This year's Comic-Con might see an increased emphasis on the high-definition home video format Blu-ray Disc, Hunt said. The Sony Pictures booth will feature a demo of BD Live and its interactive functions.

Several studios also are using the event to showcase new direct-to-video tie-ins to popular franchises. Sony will introduce a fourth “Resident Evil” movie, Warner will premiere The Lost Boys: The Tribe, Universal is trotting out MMA champion Randy Couture to promote The Scorpion King 2, and Disney is using the Sunday Kids' Day to show off The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning.

“Clearly Hollywood has awakened to the fact that this is a core audience that has matured,” said Steve Sansweet, director of fan relations at Lucasfilm. “It's a family audience, with spending money, who are early adopters who can spread the buzz.”

This year, most of Lucasfilm's focus will be on the Aug. 15 theatrical debut of the CG-animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars movie, which will lead into a new Cartoon Network series. The effort culminates with a panel hosted by Sansweet Friday, July 25 (4-5 p.m., Hall H). Since the mid 1990s, Fridays at Comic-Con have been dubbed “Star Wars Day.”

Sansweet said Lucasfilm pioneered the trend of promoting films at Comic-Con by bringing Star Wars to the 1976 show. It wasn't until the 1990s, however, that Hollywood really began to exploit the marketing power of the convention.

“Comic-Con used to be just about comic books and science-fiction. For better or worse Hollywood has discovered it,” Hunt said. “It's basically the Hollywood hype machine.”

Studios also use the venue to screen pilot episodes of some of their hot new shows. Series such as “Heroes” and “Reaper” got off to a good start by building audience excitement with Comic-Con screenings to enthusiastic audiences.

“The screening at Comic-Con was one of the best days of my professional life,” said James Middleton, consulting producer of “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.” “The fans said they had grave concerns about it, but once they saw it they said it lived up to the franchise.”

Such successes have prompted an increased television presence over the years. This year is no different, kicking off with a special July 23 preview night screening of “Fringe,” an upcoming series from J.J. Abrams.

“Comic-Con has become the place to talk about DVD releases of upcoming shows,” said Gord Lacey of TVShowsOnDVD.com. “We've even begun to see Comic-Con panels included on DVD sets.”

Last year, in support of the direct-to-video movie Bender's Big Score, the “Futurama” cast read from a promotional comic book that was distributed to the crowd to celebrate the show's return. The recording of that table reading ended up as an extra on the Bender's Big Score DVD four months later.

“There were 4,500 people in the room who got to see that,” said “Futurama” executive producer David X. Cohen. “There are probably some individuals who were in the audience who have a distinctive laugh and can hear themselves.”

Cohen said that creators of films and TV shows see Comic-Con as a valuable resource for interacting with the fans. Cohen will be in attendance this year promoting the second and third “Futurama” DTV movies on behalf of Fox. The second film, The Beast With a Billion Backs, will be shown at a theater screening for 200 lucky fans, and the third film, Bender's Game, due later this year, will be the primary focus of the “Futurama” panel on Saturday, July 26 (10-10:45 a.m., Ballroom 20).

“The fans of ‘Futurama' saved our neck buying the DVDs,” Cohen said. “I'd just like to go there and thank them and let them know we appreciate them.”

For the full 2008 Comic-Con programming lineup, visit Comic-Con.org.

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