What The Buzz Was Like: Like filmmakers Kevin Smith and Edgar Wright, director Robert Rodriguez is one of the Comic-Con faithful, and might as well have been born on stage on Hall H given how comfortable he feels up there. The director had been part of one of the Con's earliest big smashes with "Sin City," but for his bloody Mexploitation actioner "Machete," spun-off a fake trailer in "Grindhouse," Rodriguez went for something a little different, skipping a full presentation in favor of an outdoor party, complete with tequila, a screen showing red-band footage from the film, and a taco truck staffed by the filmmaker and his stars Danny Trejo and Michelle Rodriguez. The result stole the thunder from some of that year's bigger pictures, with CinemaBlend calling it "totally badass," and Dread Central adding "We are SO there."
What Happened: Fox released the movie about six weeks later, on September 3rd, to a bit of a whimper even on one of the quieter box office weekends on the calendar. The film opened to about $11 million, and took in a domestic haul of $26 million (about the same as what "Grindhouse" made, but significantly less than "Once Upon A Time In Mexico" or "Sin City"), with another $17 million coming internationally for a worldwide total of $44 million. Not bad on a $10 million budget, but probably not what Fox were hoping for, and it's worth noting that Open Road are releasing this fall's sequel, which appears to be skipping San Diego altogether.
Why? Any movie opening on the first weekend of September is pretty much doomed, and a good home video total and box-office from the Spanish-speaking world was probably always the end game with "Machete." Hand-serving your fanbase tacos is all well and good, but if the movie isn't great it'll only get you so far.
"Scott Pilgrim vs. The World"
What the Buzz Was Like: Inescapable. Comic-Con in 2010 belonged to "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World." Giant banners for the film plastered the convention center, the final volume of the comic book series on which it is based was released just days beforehand, Canadian electro pop band Metric (who contributed to the movie's soundtrack) played a free show at Comic-Con and the star-studded panel concluded with director Edgar Wright marching the entire hall over to the Balboa Theater for a screening of the film (there would be two more before the weekend was out). Wright knows what the Comic Con crowd wants and he knows how to give it to them. Predictably, the results were through the roof. Movieline commented that it was "one of the best comic book adaptations I've ever seen" while Cinema Blend hyperbolically noted that it "plays well beyond the hype, an enormous burst of energy and imagination that both plays with every cinematic convention we know of and re-invents the form entirely." This is probably the biggest example of preaching to the converted that we can drum up: when comic book creator Bryan Lee O'Malley's name flashed in the opening credits, the crowd erupted in applause.
What Happened: Game over. The film saw wide release a few weeks after its Comic Con love-in, opening in 2,818 theaters on August 13th. That weekend it grossed a paltry $10.5 million (comparably, "The Expendables" made nearly $35 million the same weekend). Universal acknowledged the difficulty in bringing the film to a mainstream audience and admitted that its box office was disappointing (by its second weekend, it had almost left the top ten entirely). The film cost almost $90 million to produce, and tax rebates and incentives bumped that number down to around $60 million, but with a domestic total of a little more than $30 million, it was still a massive flop.
Why? Simply put: it didn't play to those who won't wait outside of Hall H for hours on end. Universal knew that the Comic-Con crowd was who would really love "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," but instead of making those potential ticket-buyers pay for the movie, they gave it away for free. There were so many screenings after Comic-Con (but before the release), in Universal's frenzy to drum up a positive reaction, that it seemed like by the time the movie came out, anyone who had even a passing interest in seeing the movie had already done so, and not paid a dime. Moreover, Universal never gave mainstream audiences a reason to get excited for this one the way the faithful had.
What The Buzz Was Like: Fairly low wattage. The beloved Judge Dredd character, a satire of square-jawed American action heroes who first appeared in the pages of incredibly British sci-fi comic book anthology "2000 A.D.," had first been brought to the screen once before by Sylvester Stallone in Disney's underwhelming R-rated "Judge Dredd" way back in 1996. This new "Dredd," starring Karl Urban and written by frequent Danny Boyle confederate Alex Garland, was a relatively low budget affair that managed to fly pretty much under-the-radar. It was most notable for its production woes, which saw director Pete Travis and Garland battling during editing, and it never quite shook that stigma. In an effort to move the needle, the film was screened at midnight at Comic-Con, to a fairly enthusiastic crowd. Ain't It Cool News said that the movie was "strong," complete with "crazy Verhoeven-level violence/satire moments" and made mention of the "hardcore fans" positive reaction. Deadline also chronicled the extremely positive reaction to the movie, noting that the audience cheered and laughed during several key moments, but wondered about its potential widespread appeal.
What Happened: "Dredd" was released in September, more than six weeks after its ecstatic Comic-Con debut, and the hype simply couldn't carry. Opening weekend it just clocked a little over $6 million, which couldn't even land it in the top 5 for that weekend. Domestically it would earn just $13 million and even with its international grosses wouldn't even come close to earning back its production budget of $50 million. The movie always felt, from the very beginning, like a cult movie too dark and violent for mainstream acceptance. Time will tell if its cult status will be achieved or if it will disappoint in that respect too.
Why? Just because it's based on a comic book doesn't mean that it will automatically print money and "Dredd" was weird and bleak and funny in ways that aren't usually associated with superhero movies. Yes it was more faithful to the comic book but by the time it came out you could probably count "Judge Dredd" loyalists on one hand. It was snappy and funny and the 3D was utilized in ways that felt genuinely unique and gorgeous (it was shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, another Boyle confederate who won an Oscar for his digital cinematography on "Slumdog Millionaire" and gave Lars von Trier his psychosexual horror tableaus in "Antichrist"). Unfortunately, most never saw "Dredd" in 3D. Plans for a sequel were quietly shuttered though wishful thinking conversations pop up every once in a while.
"Cowboys & Aliens"
What the Buzz Was Like: Fairly tepid. At Comic-Con the year before, Jon Favreau had appeared with "Cowboys & Aliens" star Harrison Ford handcuffed (the only way he'd ever come to Comic-Con, he always grumbled), which understandably got those in attendance incredibly riled up. But in the year since most observers were baffled by "Cowboys & Aliens" more than excited— it was an ambitious genre crossover but one that seemed oddly directionless and poorly defined in most of its marketing materials. (Was it supposed to be funny? A spoof? What?) The special Comic-Con screening was meant to answer these questions and reroute the sea of hype in a positive direction in the splashiest way possible. 2,000 Comic Con diehards got to watch the movie early and the reception was warm (Deadline was sure to note the "massive cheers' at the end, although that could have been because Favreau had brought along Daniel Craig, Ford, Olivia Wilde and Sam Rockwell), with The Wrap saying that the movie was "right on target when it comes to delivering the thrills." While the screening may not have answered all the questions people had about the movie, it at least gave a couple thousand people a good time.
What Happened: Here's where the confusion over what, exactly, "Cowboys & Aliens" was really shows itself: on opening weekend (a little over a week after Comic Con), it looked for a while that it would underperform so badly that it would lose the box office derby to "The Smurfs." It managed to squeak by and secure the #1 spot, but just barely - earning less than a million dollars more than the cuddly blue-skinned creatures, which is sort of humiliating for a movie that boasted the combined creative star power of Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Steven Spielberg, and Damon Lindelof. The movie would go on to gross $100 million domestically and another $74 million internationally, which combined roughly covered its production budget.
Why? "Cowboys & Aliens" is proof that if you're making a genre-inclined property you need to make a clear pitch to mainstream audiences. "Cowboys & Aliens" was a confused movie that made other people confused; it wasn't as fun as it needed to be, suffered from poor leadership in Favreau and was probably diminished from there being too many cooks in the kitchen. It's also just a lousy movie. The fact that it made $100 here is sort of a miracle in and of itself.
What The Buzz Was Like: Disney and DreamWorks' 3D remake of the beloved cult classic certainly had a presence at Comic-Con 2011, for sure, but it seemed like a last ditch bid at building anticipation, as opposed to an organic progression of already seeded enthusiasm. There was an all-star panel hosted by original "Fright Night" star Chris Sarandon and including appearances by Colin Farrell, Anton Yelchin and "Doctor Who" star David Tennant (clips shown during the panel were made available online almost immediately), a bus that drove around plastered in "Fright Night" imagery, a party was thrown in the style of Tennant's Peter Vincent character, and an aggressive interactive component that urged fans to tweet and text for exclusive prizes. It was all capped off by a screening in which fans were personally selected to attend and, apparently, issued with a gag order. (You can't find any reactions from the screening online.) Those that were at the panel say that it was great fun and drummed up a fair amount of interest for the virtually hype-free movie. Still: they should have had press come to the screening, that would have made a huge difference.
What Happened: Released about a month after Comic-Con, "Fright Night" failed to make any kind of impression at the box office. It's first weekend in release it didn't even make the top 5, instead coming in at #6 with $7 million. (It was so bad Deadline issued an "autopsy report" before the weekend was even over.) At the end of its domestic run it would gross a little more than $18 million total, which doesn't even cover its modest $30 million budget but, when you add in the international gross ($22 million) and whatever it ended up doing on home video, it probably broke even. Of course, during the Comic-Con panel, writer Marti Noxon talked about ideas for a sequel that was never meant to be. (A direct-to-video sequel with a completely different cast is actually in the works and it's set to make its big debut at Comic-Con this year.)
Why? The Comic-Con buzz might have been good but critics were mixed, and the ad campaign simply couldn't do the rest of the heavy lifting, which all ultimately spelled doom for "Fright Night."
Of course, just because a number of these flashy titles failed to connect with a mainstream audience doesn't mean that Hollywood will stop courting the Comic-Con crowd. Just this year we have at least two big screenings (in addition to the dozens of panels)— one for the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Sylvester Stallone prison movie "Escape Plan" and another for the Edgar Wright sci-fi pub crawl "The World's End," which effectively serves to cap off the unofficial trilogy that began with "Shaun of the Dead" and continued with "Hot Fuzz." Considering how rapturously Wright has been received in the past in San Diego, expect the new film to retain those good vibrations. But how well will it do after the Con? Well, that's another story. - Oliver Lyttleton and Drew Taylor