Thursday, July 30, 2009

Culture Shock 07.30.09: Comic-Con grows into Hollywood's biggest party

It's all over but the fumigation.

More than 125,000 people attended this year's Comic-Con International in San Diego this past weekend. To give you an idea how many people that is, Comic-Con could qualify as the fifth-largest city in Alabama, just after Huntsville and nearly 2 1/2 times the size of Decatur.

But despite the name, Comic-Con isn't just about comic books, nor has it been for the past decade. Comic-Con is now the biggest entertainment event this side of the Oscars, and in the grand scheme of things, it's far more important than any mere awards ceremony.

Comic-book writers, artists and their fans, like the 300 or so who attended the first Comic-Con in 1970, are now second-class citizens — make that third-class citizens — at their own party. They've been given a big, collective wedgie by Hollywood's entertainment elite. It's just like junior high school all over again.

The comics geeks who started Comic-Con are, as they say, victims of their own success. All it took was movie studios realizing the convention's attendees represent a demographic that can make or break a summer blockbuster. And a sample size of 125,000 is hard to beat, even if far too many attendees forget to bathe during all the excitement, no matter how many times con officials remind them.

Plus, most of Hollywood's top-grossing films of late, from "Spider-Man" to "Iron Man" to "The Dark Knight," are based on comic-book characters. If you have a big sci-fi or adventure movie due out in the next year, you skip Comic-Con at your peril. And you better arrive with some pretty jaw-dropping preview footage if you want to stir up interest on Twitter and the movie blogs.

Judging by Twitter, this year's big winner at Comic-Con was "Tron Legacy," the sequel to 1982's groundbreaking cult classic "Tron." "Tron Legacy" was a "trending topic" on Twitter this past weekend — meaning everyone was talking about it.

Once you've seen the test footage screened at Comic-Con, you'll know why. (You can view it here.) Not only are the first film's light cycles back, upgraded for the 21st century, so is the original's star, Jeff Bridges. And in more ways than you might suspect.

This year's "Tron Legacy" test footage was a more polished version of footage screened at Comic-Con in 2008. That screening created enough positive buzz to make Disney confident in greenlighting the sequel. Such is the power of Comic-Con.

The film positioned as 2010's early frontrunner, "Iron Man 2," probably didn't need the publicity, but disappointing the Comic-Con hoards would have been a damaging P.R. blunder. That's not how you reward an audience that helped turn a lesser-known Marvel Comics hero into a box-office champ, to the tune of $318 million in North America alone. So, this year, director Jon Favreau and star Robert Downey Jr. wowed the audience with five minutes of footage, including glimpses of new co-stars Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) and Mickey Rourke (Whiplash) and great one-liners like Downey's Tony Stark quipping, "I have successfully privatized world peace."

Proving it is now a force on this side of the Atlantic, too, the British sci-fi series "Doctor Who" elicited cheers as preview footage of this year's Christmas episode debuted at Comic-Con, and I suspect more than a few fans in Great Britain are jealous their American cousins got the first look.

But just as sci-fi and adventure films have taken over what was once a small event devoted to comic books, this year yet another party crasher threw its weight around.

Legions of "Twilight" fans invaded Comic-Con to see new clips of the upcoming sequel, "New Moon." And the sound those "Twilight" fanatics made whenever they saw a shirtless Robert Pattinson could be heard by dogs in several surrounding states.

No, Comic-Con definitely isn't what it used to be. And that's not always for the best.

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