By Todd Gilchrist | Indiewire July 23, 2013 at 9:35AM
With the exception of a 2005 performance by Tenacious D and a handful of impromptu audience serenades by loquacious panelists, Comic-Con has seldom included music as one of the "popular arts" that the convention annually celebrates. And yet, at the end of Friday's events in the San Diego Convention Center's storied Hall H, newly relaunched distributor Picturehouse staged a presentation for "Metallica Through the Never," an unconventional 3D concert film due out September 27 in IMAX, and a week later in traditional theaters, which doubles as the catalyst for the distribution company’s hopeful comeback.
But notwithstanding its attraction to an audience that historically seems more likely to beat up Comic-Con attendees than queue up alongside them, the film's appearance underscored both the power of the convention as a marketing tool and its simultaneously dubious suitability for the promotion of certain types of entertainment.
The panel itself was only the first stage of Picturehouse's campaign for the film -- which, in true Comic-Con form, seamlessly merged expert salesmanship with fan validation. Among the promises made to attendees was an opportunity to win tickets -- one of just 500 -- to a secret concert by Metallica later that night in San Diego's Gaslamp district, but before moderator Gina McIntyre revealed the winning numbers, fans sat through an exclusive reveal of the poster, the first trailer for the film, and an extended clip that highlights its combination of concert footage and fictional storytelling.
Ironically, it was only that fandom that saved the panel from mostly being a disaster: McIntyre's brisk and workmanlike demeanor exacerbated fan frustrations when winners were announced before all attendees received their raffle tickets, but a few extra minutes granted to the crowd for questions cooled the rising outrage as organizers scrambled to rectify the situation.
"Through the Never," named after a song from the band's eponymous fifth album, combines footage from three live shows in Vancouver the band performed in August 2012 with a fictional narrative in which a roadie is forced to prove how far he will go for his favorite band, facing down challenges that include fending off rioters and surviving a confrontation with a gas mask-clad horseman.
The trailer, which subsequently premiered online after its Hall H debut, suitably highlights both the ambition of the concert set-up -- replete with larger-than-life imagery from the band’s albums -- as well as the cacophonous sweep of the fictional story. And in the clip director Nimrod Antal ("Predators") unveiled for fans, DeHaan, who looks more like a young Leonardo DiCaprio every day, navigates his way through a scuffle between police and rioters as footage of the band rhythmically unspools as a soundtrack for his cinematic apocalypse.
Speaking with Indiewire earlier on Friday, producer Charlotte Huggins was quick to underscore the unorthodox and markedly timely issues the film explores even as it celebrates Metallica's expansive musical catalogue. ""In many concert movies, the story that combines with the concert has either documentary elements, or if they are narrative, they're kind of light," she said. "But the story of this movie actually is extremely current; as Nimrod says, it has really deeply important issues that are going on in the narrative element of the story."
But in spite of Picturehouse's admirable risk-taking -- which led the company, when it was still owned by TimeWarner, to shepherd along projects such as "Pan's Labyrinth" and "La Vie En Rose" before being shut down in 2008 -- the company's choice to launch its campaign for "Through the Never" at one of the world's most visible pop-culture celebrations was not matched with commensurate planning. Although the giveaway snafu at the panel was eventually resolved, its handling was massively bumbled (the entire front section of the venue had not received their raffle tickets before the winning numbers were read), and Metallica fans, unlike Comic-Con's more typically docile visitors, were initially inconsolable.
Additionally, each winner received two tickets apiece, which meant that only 250 people in a hall of 6,500 (at capacity) would walk away with passes to the show later that night. The unceremonious departure of DeHaan halfway through the panel, with a succinct "I have to catch a plane," ranked among the least awkward exchanges between the panelists and the crowd.
Both in the interview and on the panel, Huggins was predictably appreciative of Picturehouse's support, and demurred when asked about the inadvertent responsibility "Through the Never" may play in getting the company going again. "We were given the privilege and sort of the trust to make the best movie that we could," she said. "When it came to distribution, we searched for the very best distributor that understood the concept and understood the movie and understood our passion for the movie. [Picturehouse head] Bob Berney far and away got it the fastest and had the same energy and passion that the band had."
She also took the pressure off the company's need for "Through the Never" to perform. "I never thought of it bringing Picturehouse back to life with the movie," she said. "But I think it was like it was meant to be, if you will, because it's really a different kind of movie, but it's a Bob Berney kind of movie. It's got an edge to it, it's got heart, it's got the kind of elements that I think Bob Berney wants to roll up his sleeves and get out into the world. So I think it's a really good match."
Although Antal's previous film was the fan service sequel "Predators," the Hungarian-born filmmaker made a name for himself in independent circles with the festival favorite "Kontroll," and that dichotomy -- unrestrained creativity versus studio politics -- provided him with ample inspiration to throw himself into this concert film. "I'm not one of those guys who comes in and says 'I was a fan of this band,' and I wasn't,” he insisted. "I truly was a fan of this band. And I'm certainly grateful for all of the opportunities I've had in Hollywood, but when you work in those environments, the micro-managing and the politics and all of the things that really have no place in making a movie are exhausting."
Antal indicated that the confidence of the band both empowered and intimidated him. "When someone says to you, 'I believe in you, don't fuck this up,' that gets me going way more than any executive on a phone call could ever do," he observed. "Because they believe in me, and I can't disappoint them, I can't let them down, and for me, there were quite a few people in this process that I felt that for."
Long before Antal joined "Through the Never" as its director, Metallica hatched plans to shoot a concert documentary. But advances in technology, paired with the concept Antal pitched for the fictional half of its story, galvanized the project and gave it momentum. "The band had this epic concert they wanted to capture, but beyond that, I think they wanted to introduce an element that would make it different than the average bear," he said. "I think initially they had some IMAX conversations, and it went away for whatever reason, but I think they decided to revisit it once that technology has changed as much as it has, and that capturing it, at least on paper, was a little bit easier than a decade ago."
Huggins explained that the band more or less literally created a foundation for a concert doc, which Antal and their collaborators fortified with truly cinematic ideas. "They had built this for the idea that they were trying to achieve, this spectacular stage, and once they stage was done, they had blocked out sort of what the concert was going to be, but then they stopped and said, ‘well, gosh, now what do we do next?'" she recalled. "So what they did was search for the producer, director and a story idea."
The film’s Comic-Con journey wasn’t finished until later Friday night, when fans, journalists and a handful of celebrities converged on Spreckles Theatre to watch Metallica perform its secret show. Despite the earlier problems in Hall H, spirits were high among ticketholders, even after their set was delayed more than 45 minutes. Thankfully, the band's performance more than quelled any attendees’ impatience: at near-deafening levels of sound, Hetfield, Ulrich and co. rattled through a greatest-hits collection of songs that roused even nonfans -- including yours truly -- while positively hypnotizing longtime devotees.
Antal said that much like the indefatigable enthusiasm the group displayed at that free show, Metallica's approach to "Through the Never" never felt commercially driven. "The band did not do this for financial gain, much like studios do," he said. Huggins added, "They're the ultimate guys to make a movie for or with, because they're coming from a creative place. So if you can make a good creative argument, they're going to go with that."
Whether or not the film is a commercial hit that successfully revives Picturehouse obviously remains to be seen. But the Comic-Con events have indeed stirred excitement for the film. The footage on display highlighted that "Metallica: Through the Never" would offer viewers a unique experience, one Antal said was not only audiovisual, but truly cinematic. "There's a lot of symbolism to be found in the film," Antal said. "There's a lot of ambiguity, and I think in today's modern narrative form, you're saturated with tying a bow on the end of everything with boring specifics. As a storytelling experience, it's different than the average film."