This weekend the rather seismic cultural force known as San Diego Comic-Con kicks off with every conceivable bell and whistle attached. Formerly just a huge comic convention, in the last seven to eight years Comic-Con has ridden the current of the geeky zeitgeist and grown in importance and magnitude. Part of this is due to the rise in popularity of superhero, fantasy and sci-fi films, with movie studios realizing the con is as loud a pulpit to hock their products as they could wish for, and their presence is now a major part of the draw. Blockbuster movies have overshadowed virtually all other elements of the Comic-Con trade show and studios have done this by bringing their casts along to essentially sing and dance for fans, all the while showing off tantalizing clips, teasers, posters, action figures and all the other kinds of promotional marketing ephemera that acts to build anticipation and buzz.
Comic-Con now serves as an uncannily effective marketing platform for major studios and publishers who want to get their product directly into the hands of the people most likely to buy, watch, or consume whatever it is they're selling. It’s almost gotten to the point where there are "Comic-Con movies," with many pundits observing that the giant monsters vs. giant robots in “Pacific Rim” were akin to a Comic-Con wet dream, melding all the uber elements of geekdom into one hulking mass of a movie (read our review of the film here).
However, the signal to noise ratio at Comic-Con is not exactly 1:1, as “Pacific Rim” proved at the box-office this weekend. The online and social chatter may have been all about Guillermo del Toro’s ambitious sci-fi action adventure but the reality that was an animated sequel in its second week of release ("Despicable Me 2") and an Adam Sandler film with loathsome critical reviews still outperformed the gigantic movie. Sometimes movies presented at Comic-Con are met with a rapturous response only to bomb commercially, or (occasionally) some movie could have a tepid response from the Comic-Con crowd only to make some decent money later. Comic-Con creates an aura that is hard to penetrate, and looking through the comments shows a kind of "Rashomon" effect where, even if you're in the same hall, you can view the footage (and response) completely differently. With “Pacific Rim” in theaters, arguably the ultimate Comic-Con movie, we decided to look at 15 movies that appeared at Comic-Con and how they fared in the real, non Comic-Con constituent-happy world.
What The Buzz Was Like: Zack Snyder's "300" was one of the films that set the template for Comic-Con buzz: a star-free property from a rising director playing to the home crowd that went on to be a surprise monster hit. "Watchmen" didn't quite turn out to be quite the same level of success, but played well enough in Hall H that it made sense for Snyder's original mind-bending opus to be one of the big draws in 2010. Given that it featured scantily-clad cosplay-looking girls who might as well have been manning a booth, Nazi zombies, samurais and an exploding airship, the film was in theory, right at home; as CHUD wrote, it was "the collision of geek pop culture." But looking back, it seems that the faithful didn't quite flip for it in the way that Warner might have hoped: Screencrave added that "It's kind of hard to really understand the story or if there is a story," and that "the tone of it is extremely dark and much more serious than expected."
What Happened: After the success of Christopher Nolan's original film "Inception" the previous summer, Warner had high hopes for "Sucker Punch," but they were deflated rather quickly. Released on March 25th, accompanied by some pretty painful reviews, it took only $19 million on opening weekend, and dropped off spectacularly, failing to even double its first three days for the rest of the run. It did a little better internationally, topping out for an $89 million worldwide total, but even if you buy the film's reported $82 million production budget, that still makes it a big money-loser.
Why? The success of "Inception" (which, like the second and third "Dark Knight" movies, skipped Comic-Con altogether) was in part due to Nolan's ever-growing reputation, and in part to some ecstatic reviews. But Snyder was already coming off the coolly-received "Watchmen," and while "Sucker Punch" has a few defenders, the notices were mostly painful, and an original (or as original as a mish-mash of geek culture points can be) property like this lives or dies by its initial reception. Furthermore, the marketing never made much of an effort to break out from the ever-limited geek crowd, and a no-name-brand cast didn't help matters much. "Sucker Punch" could be seen as one of the key reality checks in the history of Comic-Con movies. Of course "Man Of Steel" has made Snyder as bankable as he ever was before, though not to the extent that we'll be seeing a sequel to this any time soon.
What Was The Buzz: Given that Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons' "Watchmen" is often called the "Citizen Kane" of the graphic novel, it was always going to make sense to unveil the long-awaited movie adaptation, directed by "300"'s Zack Snyder, in Comic-Con's Hall H. And indeed, the film was the big hitter at the 2008 show, and lived up to expectations in a big way: Snyder's faithful approach won a roar of approval from the crowd, and Ain't It Cool wrote "Damn does it look impressive," and Hollywood.com added "I am not a Watchmen fan, but I feel compelled to become one after watching snippets of the movie." Deadline closed off their piece, somewhat prophetically: "The base is bumped for this movie, but will mainstream audiences follow?"
What Happened: The answer to Deadline's question? Sort of, but not really. The buzz kept building over a series of impressive and visually splendid trailers and clips, and when the film opened, it took an impressive $55 million, one of the best R-rated opening weekends of all time. But the film had a precipitous drop-off, plummeting nearly 70% in its second weekend, and ultimately failed to double its first three days across the rest of its U.S. run. It wasn't all that great internationally either, taking only $77 million for a total of $185 million. For a movie that cost upwards of $185 million.
Why? This certainly wasn't a case of the comic-book geeks failing to show up: clearly, the Comic-Con appetites were whetted, perhaps one of the reasons was that the film was so front-loaded. There are certainly questions as to whether a nearly three-hour, R-rated superhero epic was ever going to be a massive hit, but Snyder's version simply wasn't liked well enough: though there were a few raves, reviews were mixed, with many fans missing crucial parts of the source material, critics finding Snyder's approach to be tone-deaf and overtly faithful, and Joe Public perhaps a bit baffled by the whole thing.
What Was The Buzz Like: A rare three-time attendee without a neckbeard, Disney's belated sequel was actually announced in Hall H, with a secret teaser trailer revealed at Disney's panel in 2008 under the title "Tron 2," And the ecstatic reaction saw Disney move the film onto the fast track, bringing cast-members and concept images (plus a recreation of Flynn's Arcade) the following year, and returning again in 2010 with extensive and complete effects footage that Wired said "brought plenty of visual heft and menace to the screen," and Collider calling it "amazing."
What Happened: Six months on, "Tron: Legacy" opened, marking something of a gamble, and the first roll of the dice in a new tentpole-only era for Disney. While not an unreserved success, the film probably marks one of the better results for a big Comic-Con picture; opening that December to a $44 million weekend, and taking $172 million in the U.S, and a grand total of $400 million worldwide. Given that the film's cost was close to $200 million without marketing, it wasn't a resounding victory, but Disney probably broke even with the ancillary markets. Whether we ever see the promised third film still seems less certain, though...
Why? Disney always faced something of an uphill battle here: "Tron" had never been a monster hit to begin with, and nearly thirty years on, didn't have much in the way of name recognition from anyone other than nostalgic forty-somethings. To their credit, they positioned the film as the successor to the "Avatar" 3D visual splendor, pushing the format, and IMAX screenings hard. They also managed to woo a hipper, younger crowd with music by Daft Punk, as well as an effective ad campaign that emphasized its moody, neon-lined visuals. Would we have spent $200 million on a "Tron" sequel? Probably not. But they sold it about as well as they could, making it an event not just to the Comic-Con crowd, but for moviegoers in general.
What Was The Buzz Like: Before Comic-Con 2007, "Iron Man" was something of a risky question mark for many—a character seen as a B-list hero, a director who'd never played in the tentpole sandbox, a star who'd been out in the wilderness for years, and a comics company ambitiously planning their own studio (and, unbeknownst to many, their own "cinematic universe"). But the footage that Jon Favreau unveiled was an instant hit, showcasing troubled star Robert Downey Jr.'s singularly smart-ass-y performance, as well as the action, and it put the film on everybody's radar.
What Happened: Cannily, Marvel released the Comic-Con trailer not all that long after the event itself, and the film kept on building steam. By the time that it came to theaters in May 2008, accompanied by terrific reviews, it turned out to gross $98 million in its first three days, and took nearly $600 million worldwide. A sequel followed two years later, with "The Avengers" two years after that and "Iron Man 3" arriving this summer, the latter two making over a billion dollars each, and cementing "Iron Man" as one of the more profitable franchises around. All of Marvel's success to this point can arguably be tracked back to that initial Comic-Con presentation.
Why? Marvel cannily got the hardcore fanbase onboard early, but the reason that "Iron Man" crossed over to a wider audience, we'd say, is Downey Jr. himself: a winning performance, with enough wit and timing that the film often felt as much a comedy as an action film. Worth remembering next time someone tries to cast a Garret Hedlund or Charlie Hunnam in the lead of a tentpole...
"The Green Hornet"
What Was The Buzz Like: Sony made a kind of critical mistake by playing the long-game with "The Green Hornet," bringing Seth Rogen and Michel Gondry down before filming had even begun to unveil the title character's car (scattered applause at best). They then came back in 2010 (after the release date slipped from that summer to January 2011) to unveil some relatively brief footage. While Rogen and villain Christoph Waltz played well to the crowd, the film itself (already fighting bad delay buzz) got a more mixed reception in the brief excerpts that were screened: while Total Film said that "Frankly, it kicked ass," and that the footage "was met with thunderous applause," others seemed less convinced: Hero Complex wrote that the it "seemed to confuse some moviegoers by falling in-between kitschy action and more self-serious inspiration," and described the reaction as "Decent, if not rousing," while UGO said the presentation "doesn't win anyone over (in fact, many people leave the panel)."
What Happened: When it finally arrived in January of 2010, "Green Hornet" demonstrated why it was being dropped in a traditional dumping ground with a painful, and well-deserved critical panning. That said, the film performed decently: it took $98 million in the U.S, not at all bad for a January picture, and made it to $228 million worldwide. For a film that cost upwards of $120 million, that wasn't so great, but for an oft-troubled production, it could have been a lot worse.
Why? In part, the same problem that recently beset "The Lone Ranger" (coincidentally, or not, the Green Hornet's ancestor): there's little name recognition of the character among the target audience, or the general public. But then again, there wasn't all that much name recognition attached to "Iron Man" before that film opened, and if the film itself had worked, it might have been far more successful. Instead, it was caught awkwardly between being a straight-faced superhero picture and a more traditional Rogen comedy. Both the star and the director have recently candidly spoken about the picture, Rogen saying that Sony "wouldn't let us take risks," and Gondry adding "I don't think I had much artistic freedom."