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Discuss: Is Movie Studio Interest In Comic-Con Beginning To Wane?

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist June 18, 2012 at 1:23PM

Now Cannes is long in the rear-view mirror, and the LA Film Festival just underway, the next big event on the film calendar is, for better or worse, San Diego Comic-Con. Originally a small gathering of fans of science fiction and comics, it's now grown into a vast Geek Bonnaroo, taking around 130,000 guests across four days, making it the biggest such event in North America, and the fourth largest in the world. And for the last decade or so, it's been a centerpiece of the marketing campaign for major movies from virtually every major studio.
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And "why would they need to?" is perhaps the most important question here, and perhaps the reason that Universal are dragging their feet, despite having geek-friendly properties like "R.I.P.D," "47 Ronin" and "Oblivion" on the way in the next twelve months. The company spent massively on big launches for "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World" and "Cowboys & Aliens" in the last couple of years, with high-profile premieres for both, only to see both tank with mainstream audiences outside the hardcore geek-film constituency. And a Comic-Con panel for "Battleship" last year didn't help that film in the longer term either. Because the thing is, the Comic-Con crowd are the ones who'll show up to those movies in almost any circumstance. But as we've said before, Hollywood is gradually wising up that they can't just market to the core geek audience and expect that to convert into $100 million domestically, let alone worldwide. "The Avengers" skipped Comic-Con, last year and is the third biggest grossing movie of all time. 'Scott Pilgrim' owned Comic-Con in 2010, and yet made $30 million domestic, because Universal didn't think to make average moviegoers turn up as well. This doesn't necessarily mean that they will end up skipping in 2012, but it's got to give them pause before greenlighting that additional promotional budget.

Idris Elba Pacific Rim

And we suspect that's why studios are skipping out, and that the golden years of the event may be waning, particularly as competitors like New York Comic-Con and the like spring up, with their own panels and footage premieres. There are still big unveilings, as you can see from the high-profile slate that Warners are bringing. It's probably still important for a film like "Man Of Steel," which needs to convince Superman fans that it's going to be more "Batman Begins" than "Green Lantern." Guillermo Del Toro's "Pacific Rim," too is a no-brainer; a beloved son of SDCC who has a megabudget original concept movie to sell. And it being a relatively sparse year can only help them.

And that's probably where the event is most useful, as a launching pad. A year out, it's a good way to get buzz rolling, and build awareness, of films that fanboys could be a little skeptical of. Zack Snyder's now burned audiences a couple of times since "300," so unrolling some wow-factor footage could help to get the geek crowd excited (particularly if, as the original "Iron Man" did, the footage is then released officially online to wider audiences) -- although on the flipside, "Green Lantern" arguably never recovered from a poor showing in Hall H in the summer of 2010. "Pacific Rim" doesn't have an inbuilt audiences, so could use a presentation to start to get the word out that it's going to be something big and bold and spectacular (which it should be, if the script is anything to go by).

J.J. Abrams Star Trek

But once you've established that brand, and got trust in your franchise, then we can't really see the upside -- neither "The Dark Knight Rises" or "Star Trek 2" would really influence their box office up or down with a Comic-Con presentation. The audience are already sold on both films, and will be going anyway, so flying cast and crew to San Diego and plastering the event with advertising is pretty much just an enormous waste of money. All the fan goodwill in the world won't help anything if the film doesn't connect with a wider audience, and that's been the masterstroke of both Nolan and Abrams -- they made "Batman" and "Star Trek" movies that people who don't care about Batman or Star Trek could enjoy.

So who does benefit from Comic-Con? Films with low profile that need a bit of a boost. An example for this year would be Lionsgate's "Dredd," due in theaters in about four months, and thus far doesn't even a trailer to its name and basically zero footprint outside the hardcore geeks and movie blogging world. We expect a good chunk of the marketing budget will be spent on making sure this comic adaptation gets a huge launch at Comic-Con with the entire cast on hand and lots of goodies being shown off. Again, it may not translate into box office, but if they can get the geek set excited, Lionsgate will hope that enthusiasm will catch with a broader audience.

We suspect that the studios will never abandon Comic-Con entirely, short of the superhero flick going the way of the 1960s roadshow musical. But it may be that they're beginning to work out that, for the most part, it involves them spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, preaching to the converted, and it's more important to get the non-genre fans out to see "The Avengers," or "Scott Pilgrim," or "Sucker Punch," or whatever, than anything else. We'll find out if we're wrong in a month or so.

This article is related to: Comic-Con, The Dark Knight Rises, Pacific Rim, R.I.P.D., 47 Ronin


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