With attendance estimated to be over 126,000 people this year, San Diego’s Comic-Con International came to a close on Sunday, and once again, Hollywood dominated the event. Whether the studios crashed the party or were invited is up for debate. Some would tell you that film has always had a place at Comic-Con – the first event, held nearly 40 years ago in a San Diego hotel basement, featured a screening of the 1925 silent “The Lost World” and a Flash Gordon serial – while others lament that, in the last few years, the event has been hijacked by studio marketing departments, eager to jumpstart the buzz on future releases.
Others shrug off the whole controversy, saying that the presence of a movie star at one end of the convention center does not affect the price of a mint copy of “Action Comics” #293, featuring “The Secret Origins of Supergirl’s Super-Horse.” Whatever side of the argument Con-goers are on – and to be honest, the vast majority of them probably don’t even realize there’s an argument going on – there’s no denying the massive changes Comic-Con has recently undergone.
This year, Johnny Depp, Tim Burton, Robert Downey Jr., Peter Jackson, Denzel Washington, Cameron Diaz, Josh Brolin, and Megan Fox all took the stage of Hall H, the near-legendary, 6,500-seat auditorium at the heart of Hollywood’s alleged take-over of Comic-Con. This is where James Cameron screened 25 minutes of “Avatar” in 3-D, (I wasn’t able to get in, but I hear it looked great.), where young Max Records wrote his introduction to clips from “Where the Wild Things Are” on his hand, (The more I see of this movie, the more excited I am about it.), and where thousands of young girls screamed and cried their way through two scenes from “The Twilight Saga: New Moon.” (I skipped this one. Go figure.)
In a slight twist to the Comic-Con formula, two filmmakers were hoping their appearance in Hall H would not just help them find their audience, but also a distributor. First up was Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.” After its lukewarm reception at Cannes, the film could have used some love from Comic-Con, but while the footage screened looked like classic Gilliam, the audience was clearly responding more to the director’s presence on stage than to the images onscreen.
Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass” received a far more immediate and enthusiastic response. Based on Mark Millar’s ongoing comic book about a normal, awkward teenager who decides to become a superhero and stumbles into a ever-increasingly violent world of drug lords, crime bosses, and 11-year-old sword-welding girl vigilantes, “Kick-Ass” was independently financed by Vaughn through private investors. Now he’s looking for a studio willing to release the movie with all the inappropriate and bloody bits left in. Acknowledging that leaving Comic-Con as one of the big buzz titles would go a long way in his future negotiations, Vaughn told the audience, “If you all give me the thumbs up, we might get distribution. Thumbs down, we’re fucked.”
For many Con-goers, however, the must-see panel in Hall H was the Disney animation panel on Friday afternoon, featuring a rare Stateside appearance by legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. Introduced by Disney/Pixar’s John Lasseter, Miyazaki received a standing ovation as he walked out on stage. The two men, both wearing white suit jackets for some reason, then sat down and discussed Miyazaki’s artistry and “Ponyo,” his newest film. When asked abut his creative process, Miyazaki thought for a moment and replied, “My process is thinking, thinking, and thinking. Thinking about my stories for a long time.” After another pause, he added with a grin, “If you have a better way, please let me know.”
Miyazaki wasn’t the only Asian auteur in San Diego. In one of the smaller upstairs conference rooms, above the din of the massive Exhibit Hall, Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto introduced a rough cut of the first ten minutes of his latest, “Tetsuo: The Bullet Man.” Still deep in post-production, the film is Tsukamoto’s first English-language production. “The storytelling is in a Hollywood style, but my original poison is inside, hidden in the heart, hidden everywhere” A few hours later, Park Chan-wook would become the first Cannes-award winner to appear at Comic-Con, offering up a little taste of “Thirst,” his take on faith and vampirism.
International filmmakers weren’t the only ones to make small inroads into the Comic-Con landscape. A few American independent filmmakers were there too. Director-screenwriter Nick Jasenovec and actress-screenwriter Charlyne Yi held a lively panel discussion in support of their upcoming film, “Paper Heart,” while Scott Sanders experienced a case of Comic-Con cross-pollination at his “Black Dynamite” discussion. While many audience members were already familiar with the film, either from its multiple film festival appearances or its strong online presence, a number of people – many of them young and costumed with an anime flair – were simply there early and waiting for the upcoming Gaia Online panel. However, after some lively onstage conversation between Sanders, moderator Elvis Mitchell, and co-stars Michael Jai White, Byron Minns, and Salli Richardson-Whitfield and a few well-chosen clips, the room was obviously excited by Sanders’ homage to vintage blaxploitation.
Since premiering at Sundance earlier this year, Dan Eckman’s “Mystery Team” has been flying under the radar. With its fall release slowly approaching, however, the filmmakers decided to put the movie on the Comic-Con front lines, manning a booth on the Exhibit Floor, flanked by a design studio selling art prints and t-shirts on one side and the creators of the animated series “The Adventures of Pachuko Boy” on the other. “It’s been really, really, really fun down here,” actor DC Pierson enthused. “There’s been a good mix of people who come by and say ‘Oh, right. I know you guys’ and people who are just kinda curious and have no idea what it is.” But why Comic-Con and not a more traditional route back into theaters? “When the opportunity to come to Comic-Con presented itself, we just jumped on it,” explained Eckman. “We always wanted to come and it just seemed like the coolest thing possible. This convention is filled with people who have found a way to reconcile their adult lives with… well, pure enthusiasm.”