With the Cannes Film Festival in the rear-view mirror, 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 in 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 campaigns for major movies from virtually every major studio.
Any film with the vague hope of attracting a genre-y type audience tends to make a stop at Comic-Con, normally with A-list stars and first-look footage in tow: some films have had panels not just weeks into production, but months before — the cast of "The Avengers" assembled for the first time there two years ago, while two of the four movies on Legendary's panel last year still haven't made it to production ("Paradise Lost" — which had the plug yanked in February — and the video game adaptation "Mass Effect"). But the signs are ever-growing that perhaps it's not the force that it once was when it comes to the movie world.
Last year, for instance, Disney skipped the event entirely, preferring to unveil even something as targeted to that crowd as "The Avengers" at their own D23 event, and Warner Bros., DreamWorks and The Weinstein Company all stayed away. And this year, not just one, but at least three major studios — Fox, Paramount and DreamWorks, plus potentially Universal, who are still undecided — are skipping the con, along with Relativity Media, despite all five companies having had major presences at the show in the past. So is SDCC becoming a spent force when it comes to launching major movies?
Perhaps. There are a number of other reasons why the studios in question might have chosen to skip a year. Paramount, for instance, are having a pretty terrible year so far: while "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," "World War Z" and "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters" are classic Comic-Con fare, all three were severely delayed by the studio, who essentially cleared their 2012 slate entirely, leaving the Tom Cruise vehicle "Jack Reacher" as their sole major release for the rest of the year. And that action/thriller is not an obvious fit with the San Diego audience. Perhaps more importantly, a recent string of bad publicity on 'Joe' and 'WWZ,' relating to poor test screenings and reshoots connected to the delays, have meant that the studio are on the backfoot, and likely know that they'd probably be faced with trying to sell films that are being heavily retooled, and facing awkward questions from the press at a point at which they wouldn't necessarily have the answers. It does mean that "Star Trek 2" doesn't get a berth, but given that J.J. Abrams is second only to Christopher Nolan when it comes to secrecy, the sequel wasn't necessarily going to have a presence at Comic-Con in a big way anyway.
And as for the other studios, it's likely that they simply don't have enough product to shill. Fox, often a genre-friendly studio, have a few pictures which are kinda-sorta aiming for the Comic-Con crowd — the underpromoted "The Watch," which opens two weeks later, plus "Taken 2," "Life Of Pi," the animated "Epic" and "Machete Kills" further down the line — but with "The Wolverine" only shooting right before the event, and the "X-Men First Class" sequel not shooting until next year, they don't really have the kind of big draw movie they've had in the past. DreamWorks and Relativity don't have any real comic-book type movies on their slate, particularly after Spielberg's "Robopocalypse" got delayed an entire year, and DreamWorks Animation have never courted the geek crowd in a big way — why would they need to, when the films will make major coin regardless?
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.
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).
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.