This weekend the rather seismic cultural force known as San Diego Comic-Con kicks off with every conceivable bell and whistle attached. Formerly just a huge comic convention, in the last seven to eight years Comic-Con has ridden the current of the geeky zeitgeist and grown in importance and magnitude. Part of this is due to the rise in popularity of superhero, fantasy and sci-fi films, with movie studios realizing the con is as loud a pulpit to hock their products as they could wish for, and their presence is now a major part of the draw. Blockbuster movies have overshadowed virtually all other elements of the Comic-Con trade show and studios have done this by bringing their casts along to essentially sing and dance for fans, all the while showing off tantalizing clips, teasers, posters, action figures and all the other kinds of promotional marketing ephemera that acts to build anticipation and buzz.
Comic-Con now serves as an uncannily effective marketing platform for major studios and publishers who want to get their product directly into the hands of the people most likely to buy, watch, or consume whatever it is they’re selling. It’s almost gotten to the point where there are “Comic-Con movies,” with many pundits observing that the giant monsters vs. giant robots in “Pacific Rim” were akin to a Comic-Con wet dream, melding all the uber elements of geekdom into one hulking mass of a movie (read our review of the film here).
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However, the signal to noise ratio at Comic-Con is not exactly 1:1, as “Pacific Rim” proved at the box-office this weekend. The online and social chatter may have been all about Guillermo del Toro’s ambitious sci-fi action adventure but the reality that was an animated sequel in its second week of release (“Despicable Me 2“) and an Adam Sandler film with loathsome critical reviews still outperformed the gigantic movie. Sometimes movies presented at Comic-Con are met with a rapturous response only to bomb commercially, or (occasionally) some movie could have a tepid response from the Comic-Con crowd only to make some decent money later. Comic-Con creates an aura that is hard to penetrate, and looking through the comments shows a kind of “Rashomon” effect where, even if you’re in the same hall, you can view the footage (and response) completely differently. With “Pacific Rim” in theaters, arguably the ultimate Comic-Con movie, we decided to look at 15 movies that appeared at Comic-Con and how they fared in the real, non Comic-Con constituent-happy world.
What The Buzz Was Like: Zack Snyder‘s “300” was one of the films that set the template for Comic-Con buzz: a star-free property from a rising director playing to the home crowd that went on to be a surprise monster hit. “Watchmen” didn’t quite turn out to be quite the same level of success, but played well enough in Hall H that it made sense for Snyder’s original mind-bending opus to be one of the big draws in 2010. Given that it featured scantily-clad cosplay-looking girls who might as well have been manning a booth, Nazi zombies, samurais and an exploding airship, the film was in theory, right at home; as CHUD wrote, it was “the collision of geek pop culture.” But looking back, it seems that the faithful didn’t quite flip for it in the way that Warner might have hoped: Screencrave added that “It’s kind of hard to really understand the story or if there is a story,” and that “the tone of it is extremely dark and much more serious than expected.”
What Happened: After the success of Christopher Nolan‘s original film “Inception” the previous summer, Warner had high hopes for “Sucker Punch,” but they were deflated rather quickly. Released on March 25th, accompanied by some pretty painful reviews, it took only $19 million on opening weekend, and dropped off spectacularly, failing to even double its first three days for the rest of the run. It did a little better internationally, topping out for an $89 million worldwide total, but even if you buy the film’s reported $82 million production budget, that still makes it a big money-loser.
Why? The success of “Inception” (which, like the second and third “Dark Knight” movies, skipped Comic-Con altogether) was in part due to Nolan’s ever-growing reputation, and in part to some ecstatic reviews. But Snyder was already coming off the coolly-received “Watchmen,” and while “Sucker Punch” has a few defenders, the notices were mostly painful, and an original (or as original as a mish-mash of geek culture points can be) property like this lives or dies by its initial reception. Furthermore, the marketing never made much of an effort to break out from the ever-limited geek crowd, and a no-name-brand cast didn’t help matters much. “Sucker Punch” could be seen as one of the key reality checks in the history of Comic-Con movies. Of course “Man Of Steel” has made Snyder as bankable as he ever was before, though not to the extent that we’ll be seeing a sequel to this any time soon.
What Was The Buzz: Given that Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons‘ “Watchmen” is often called the “Citizen Kane” of the graphic novel, it was always going to make sense to unveil the long-awaited movie adaptation, directed by “300“‘s Zack Snyder, in Comic-Con’s Hall H. And indeed, the film was the big hitter at the 2008 show, and lived up to expectations in a big way: Snyder’s faithful approach won a roar of approval from the crowd, and Ain’t It Cool wrote “Damn does it look impressive,” and Hollywood.com added “I am not a Watchmen fan, but I feel compelled to become one after watching snippets of the movie.” Deadline closed off their piece, somewhat prophetically: “The base is bumped for this movie, but will mainstream audiences follow?”
What Happened: The answer to Deadline’s question? Sort of, but not really. The buzz kept building over a series of impressive and visually splendid trailers and clips, and when the film opened, it took an impressive $55 million, one of the best R-rated opening weekends of all time. But the film had a precipitous drop-off, plummeting nearly 70% in its second weekend, and ultimately failed to double its first three days across the rest of its U.S. run. It wasn’t all that great internationally either, taking only $77 million for a total of $185 million. For a movie that cost upwards of $185 million.
Why? This certainly wasn’t a case of the comic-book geeks failing to show up: clearly, the Comic-Con appetites were whetted, perhaps one of the reasons was that the film was so front-loaded. There are certainly questions as to whether a nearly three-hour, R-rated superhero epic was ever going to be a massive hit, but Snyder’s version simply wasn’t liked well enough: though there were a few raves, reviews were mixed, with many fans missing crucial parts of the source material, critics finding Snyder’s approach to be tone-deaf and overtly faithful, and Joe Public perhaps a bit baffled by the whole thing.
What Was The Buzz Like: A rare three-time attendee without a neckbeard, Disney’s belated sequel was actually announced in Hall H, with a secret teaser trailer revealed at Disney’s panel in 2008 under the title “Tron 2,” And the ecstatic reaction saw Disney move the film onto the fast track, bringing cast-members and concept images (plus a recreation of Flynn’s Arcade) the following year, and returning again in 2010 with extensive and complete effects footage that Wired said “brought plenty of visual heft and menace to the screen,” and Collider calling it “amazing.”
What Happened: Six months on, “Tron: Legacy” opened, marking something of a gamble, and the first roll of the dice in a new tentpole-only era for Disney. While not an unreserved success, the film probably marks one of the better results for a big Comic-Con picture; opening that December to a $44 million weekend, and taking $172 million in the U.S, and a grand total of $400 million worldwide. Given that the film’s cost was close to $200 million without marketing, it wasn’t a resounding victory, but Disney probably broke even with the ancillary markets. Whether we ever see the promised third film still seems less certain, though…
Why? Disney always faced something of an uphill battle here: “Tron” had never been a monster hit to begin with, and nearly thirty years on, didn’t have much in the way of name recognition from anyone other than nostalgic forty-somethings. To their credit, they positioned the film as the successor to the “Avatar” 3D visual splendor, pushing the format, and IMAX screenings hard. They also managed to woo a hipper, younger crowd with music by Daft Punk, as well as an effective ad campaign that emphasized its moody, neon-lined visuals. Would we have spent $200 million on a “Tron” sequel? Probably not. But they sold it about as well as they could, making it an event not just to the Comic-Con crowd, but for moviegoers in general.
What Was The Buzz Like: Before Comic-Con 2007, “Iron Man” was something of a risky question mark for many—a character seen as a B-list hero, a director who’d never played in the tentpole sandbox, a star who’d been out in the wilderness for years, and a comics company ambitiously planning their own studio (and, unbeknownst to many, their own “cinematic universe”). But the footage that Jon Favreau unveiled was an instant hit, showcasing troubled star Robert Downey Jr.‘s singularly smart-ass-y performance, as well as the action, and it put the film on everybody’s radar.
What Happened: Cannily, Marvel released the Comic-Con trailer not all that long after the event itself, and the film kept on building steam. By the time that it came to theaters in May 2008, accompanied by terrific reviews, it turned out to gross $98 million in its first three days, and took nearly $600 million worldwide. A sequel followed two years later, with “The Avengers” two years after that and “Iron Man 3” arriving this summer, the latter two making over a billion dollars each, and cementing “Iron Man” as one of the more profitable franchises around. All of Marvel’s success to this point can arguably be tracked back to that initial Comic-Con presentation.
Why? Marvel cannily got the hardcore fanbase onboard early, but the reason that “Iron Man” crossed over to a wider audience, we’d say, is Downey Jr. himself: a winning performance, with enough wit and timing that the film often felt as much a comedy as an action film. Worth remembering next time someone tries to cast a Garret Hedlund or Charlie Hunnam in the lead of a tentpole…
“The Green Hornet“
What Was The Buzz Like: Sony made a kind of critical mistake by playing the long-game with “The Green Hornet,” bringing Seth Rogen and Michel Gondry down before filming had even begun to unveil the title character’s car (scattered applause at best). They then came back in 2010 (after the release date slipped from that summer to January 2011) to unveil some relatively brief footage. While Rogen and villain Christoph Waltz played well to the crowd, the film itself (already fighting bad delay buzz) got a more mixed reception in the brief excerpts that were screened: while Total Film said that “Frankly, it kicked ass,” and that the footage “was met with thunderous applause,” others seemed less convinced: Hero Complex wrote that the it “seemed to confuse some moviegoers by falling in-between kitschy action and more self-serious inspiration,” and described the reaction as “Decent, if not rousing,” while UGO said the presentation “doesn’t win anyone over (in fact, many people leave the panel).”
What Happened: When it finally arrived in January of 2010, “Green Hornet” demonstrated why it was being dropped in a traditional dumping ground with a painful, and well-deserved critical panning. That said, the film performed decently: it took $98 million in the U.S, not at all bad for a January picture, and made it to $228 million worldwide. For a film that cost upwards of $120 million, that wasn’t so great, but for an oft-troubled production, it could have been a lot worse.
Why? In part, the same problem that recently beset “The Lone Ranger” (coincidentally, or not, the Green Hornet’s ancestor): there’s little name recognition of the character among the target audience, or the general public. But then again, there wasn’t all that much name recognition attached to “Iron Man” before that film opened, and if the film itself had worked, it might have been far more successful. Instead, it was caught awkwardly between being a straight-faced superhero picture and a more traditional Rogen comedy. Both the star and the director have recently candidly spoken about the picture, Rogen saying that Sony “wouldn’t let us take risks,” and Gondry adding “I don’t think I had much artistic freedom.”
What Was The Buzz Like: Two-and-a-bit billion dollars later, it’s easy to forget that when “Avatar” was first unveiled in San Diego, the buzz was less than deafening. The film had already been hyped to the skies, billed as a game-changer and something revolutionary, so when director James Cameron screened 25 minutes from the film in Hall H, there was an almost inevitable sense of anticlimax. Sure, there were some who got excited: First Showing raved “holy shit it was phenomenal, just amazing. It does indeed look like nothing you’ve ever seen, it is groundbreaking, it looks incredible.” But Collider‘s reaction, saying “Nothing of what I saw redefined cinema or will change the way films are made forever,” or CHUD’s, saying “This is an evolutionary jump, not a revolutionary leap,” were more typical among the geek press.
What Happened: If anything the release of the first trailer and Cameron’s worldwide IMAX “Avatar Day” presentation in August (in which substantial footage was screened exclusively on IMAX screens) only continued the slightly underwhelming feeling about the movie in advance, which might have caused Fox to sweat a little. But they stayed on course, and even if the film didn’t exactly change cinema, it picked up strong reviews, and made a little bit of money. Namely, $760 million in the U.S, and $2.782 billion worldwide, making it the top-grossing film in history.
Why? Well, given the weight of expectations placed on it, Cameron could have been joined on stage by Jesus and Jimi Hendrix and some would have come away disappointed. But premiering the footage at Comic-Con gave the faithful time to come round whilst letting Fox focus on marketing it to Joe Public. By touting Cameron, and the film’s budget, it made it an event of the kind that hadn’t been seen since, well, “Titanic.” And for all the film’s flaws, Cameron’s storytelling chops were still rock-solid enough that the film felt satisfying enough for audiences to go back for more.
What Was The Buzz Like: Tepid. Sony made a big push for their glossy big-budget remake of Paul Verhoeven‘s Philip K. Dick adaptation. Despite filming having only just gotten underway, they brought an early, action-packed sequence to Hall H in 2011, and then returned in force in 2012, a few weeks before the opening. The first year, reaction was fairly cool, with Collider writing that, “It looks a lot like a video game… I’m not really feeling any thoughtful or inventive sci-fi from what we saw.” But there was at least an understanding that it was some way off. While the more extensive footage shown the next year of the completed film had some supporters (Cinema Blend called it “fantastic”), it didn’t seem to do much to turn views around.
What Happened: Something of a disaster. Opening a few weeks after Comic-Con, “Total Recall” was comprehensively outgrossed on both its opening weekend and in its total by its 1990 predecessor, taking only $25 million in its first three days, and $58 million in total. It fared better internationally, making it to just under $200 million worldwide, but given the film’s whopping cost, it was still one of last year’s biggest money-losers.
Why? Simply put: there was no reason for it to exist. Verhoeven’s “Total Recall” might not have quite been a geek sacred cow, but its target audience certainly had their defenses up, and director Len Wiseman‘s film failed to add anything even vaguely interesting to the premise. Looking deeply generic, and with the never-quite-a-draw Colin Farrell carrying it on his shoulders, it’s not so much a question of why the film flopped as why it was greenlit in the first place.
What Was The Buzz Like: Last year’s Comic-Con wasn’t a complete wash-out for Sony, with their underdog “Looper” winning over fans in a similar way that “District 9” had a few years earlier. The low-ish budget sci-fi was perhaps anticipated more by cinephiles, thanks to being from the brain of “Brick” director Rian Johnson, than by the geek crowd. But last year’s Hall H presentation changed that as Johnson and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt charmed the crowd, and the studio showed a good chunk of footage that Cinema Blend called “insanely cool,” and had Hollywood.com praising its “innovative action scenes.”
What Happened: A nice little sleeper hit: “Looper” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to strong reviews in September, and rolled out at the end of that month. While not quite busting-blocks, it made a very healthy $66 million domestically after a $20 million and an impressive $110 million worldwide, for a total of $176 million, only just shy of the gross for “Total Recall,” at a fraction of the cost.
Why? Domestically, the film came in somewhere between a “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and a “District 9,” suggesting that there is something of a ceiling on this kind of low-budget original sci-fi fare, but it can be higher if the film is targeted to audiences other than the geek crowd (i.e. Johnson’s profile, and its TIFF opening, signalled to audiences that it was smarter than, say, “Dredd“). Crucially, the real cash was made abroad, where the presence of megastar Bruce Willis helped bring in action-hungry audiences. And in a sign of what’s becoming increasingly common practice, scenes scripted to be set in France were moved to China to help appeal to audiences there, with those moments extended in the film’s Chinese release. Most importantly, it was made for a reasonable price. “Looper” would have been a flop if it had cost $120 million, but modest budget helped it turn a tidy profit.
What The Buzz Was Like: Deafening. Nine years after Bryan Singer revived the modern superhero movie with “X-Men,” the time seemed ripe to start to deconstruct the genre, so enter the comic book world’s enfant terrible, Mark Millar (who’d had a hit the year before with “Wanted“), and fast-rising British director Matthew Vaughn, who at one point had nearly directed “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Their “Kick-Ass” was something of an underdog at 2009’s Comic-Con— lowish budget, independently financed and, at that point, without a distributor. Its bloody, sweary charms captured the Hall H imagination in a big way, with Ain’t It Cool News describing “the wild ovation (half of it standing)” that greeted Vaughn’s presentation, and /Film talking of “the pitch-perfect execution” and adding that the clips were “received more warmly than ‘Avatar.'” Lionsgate snapped up the film soon after, and buzz reached a fever pitch by the time the film screened in full to a similar crowd at Butt-Numb-A-Thon (a 24-hour film festival hosted by Ain’t It Cool godhead and Comic-Con mainstay Harry Knowles) in December, to rave reviews.
What Happened: Lionsgate opened the film in April 2010, where it did reasonably well, if not quite living up to expectations. The film opened to a middling $19 million, and took $48 million in total domestically, with the same again coming internationally. Given the film’s low cost of $30 million, that proved profitable, but it was only a healthy home video total that saw this summer’s sequel greenlit.
Why? The initially breathless reactions from Comic-Con and BNAT were replaced by more measured ones on release (the film is arguably Vaughn’s best since “Layer Cake,” but is still tonally wonky and not as interesting as it could have been), and with “Clash Of The Titans” still mopping up much of the geek crowd thanks to surfing the 3D wave, the film faced tougher competition—we wonder if it might have done better if it had landed a month or two earlier. It’ll be interesting to see how the almost completely Vaughn-free “Kick-Ass 2” does next month.
What The Buzz Was Like: Want to know why ‘Scott Pilgrim,’ “Cowboys and Aliens,” “Dredd,” and this year, “Escape Plan,” risk doing full screenings at Comic-Con? The answer is “District 9.” Neill Blomkamp‘s (relatively) low-budget sci-fi actioner had a quiet presence in the form of viral teaser posters in 2008, but came back in full force the following year, at a point where the film was a few weeks out from release, and still under the radars of many. The film didn’t just have a storming Hall H panel, complete with producer Peter Jackson‘s first-ever Comic-Con appearance, it also screened secretly on the Thursday night and despite the presence of “Avatar” proved to be all anyone could talk about the rest of the weekend. Deadline wrote that the film “looks all kind of awesome,” and io9 said it “excited us more than any other,” and called the finished film “one of the best movies of 2009.”
What Happened/How Much It Grossed: An almost unprecedented level of success, as far as relatively-low-budget con fare goes. Sony opened the $30 million R-rated star-free movie about three weeks after Comic-Con on August 14th to a hugely impressive $37 million weekend, which led to a $115 million domestic gross, and a worldwide total north of $200 million. What’s more, it proved to be a critical smash too, eventually going on to pick up a Best Picture Oscar nomination on top of all that green. Blomkamp’s follow-up, “Elysium,” was one of the big hits of last year’s Comic-Con (back when it was sent for a March ’13 release), but isn’t on Sony’s slate this year. That said, don’t rule out a similar surprise screening, given that the movie’s done.
Why? The easy answer would be “because it was awesome,” and that’s partly right. “District 9” was one of the best sci-fi movies in years and its strong reviews, both from the geek crowd at Comic-Con and from the wider press, can only have helped. But the film also had a canny release date—it followed in the footsteps of underperformers like “Funny People” and “G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra,” so the geek crowd had gone nearly a month without anything targeted at them (though “Inglourious Basterds” did land the week after). Furthermore, Sony didn’t do what some of their competition did in solely targeting the movie at the geek crowd; the minimalist art and high concept appealed to a wider audience even without A-listers involved.
What The Buzz Was Like: Like filmmakers Kevin Smith and Edgar Wright, director Robert Rodriguez is one of the Comic-Con faithful, and might as well have been born on stage on Hall H given how comfortable he feels up there. The director had been part of one of the Con’s earliest big smashes with “Sin City,” but for his bloody Mexploitation actioner “Machete,” spun-off a fake trailer in “Grindhouse,” Rodriguez went for something a little different, skipping a full presentation in favor of an outdoor party, complete with tequila, a screen showing red-band footage from the film, and a taco truck staffed by the filmmaker and his stars Danny Trejo and Michelle Rodriguez. The result stole the thunder from some of that year’s bigger pictures, with CinemaBlend calling it “totally badass,” and Dread Central adding “We are SO there.”
What Happened: Fox released the movie about six weeks later, on September 3rd, to a bit of a whimper even on one of the quieter box office weekends on the calendar. The film opened to about $11 million, and took in a domestic haul of $26 million (about the same as what “Grindhouse” made, but significantly less than “Once Upon A Time In Mexico” or “Sin City”), with another $17 million coming internationally for a worldwide total of $44 million. Not bad on a $10 million budget, but probably not what Fox were hoping for, and it’s worth noting that Open Road are releasing this fall’s sequel, which appears to be skipping San Diego altogether.
Why? Any movie opening on the first weekend of September is pretty much doomed, and a good home video total and box-office from the Spanish-speaking world was probably always the end game with “Machete.” Hand-serving your fanbase tacos is all well and good, but if the movie isn’t great it’ll only get you so far.
“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World“
What the Buzz Was Like: Inescapable. Comic-Con in 2010 belonged to “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.” Giant banners for the film plastered the convention center, the final volume of the comic book series on which it is based was released just days beforehand, Canadian electro pop band Metric (who contributed to the movie’s soundtrack) played a free show at Comic-Con and the star-studded panel concluded with director Edgar Wright marching the entire hall over to the Balboa Theater for a screening of the film (there would be two more before the weekend was out). Wright knows what the Comic Con crowd wants and he knows how to give it to them. Predictably, the results were through the roof. Movieline commented that it was “one of the best comic book adaptations I’ve ever seen” while Cinema Blend hyperbolically noted that it “plays well beyond the hype, an enormous burst of energy and imagination that both plays with every cinematic convention we know of and re-invents the form entirely.” This is probably the biggest example of preaching to the converted that we can drum up: when comic book creator Bryan Lee O’Malley‘s name flashed in the opening credits, the crowd erupted in applause.
What Happened: Game over. The film saw wide release a few weeks after its Comic Con love-in, opening in 2,818 theaters on August 13th. That weekend it grossed a paltry $10.5 million (comparably, “The Expendables” made nearly $35 million the same weekend). Universal acknowledged the difficulty in bringing the film to a mainstream audience and admitted that its box office was disappointing (by its second weekend, it had almost left the top ten entirely). The film cost almost $90 million to produce, and tax rebates and incentives bumped that number down to around $60 million, but with a domestic total of a little more than $30 million, it was still a massive flop.
Why? Simply put: it didn’t play to those who won’t wait outside of Hall H for hours on end. Universal knew that the Comic-Con crowd was who would really love “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” but instead of making those potential ticket-buyers pay for the movie, they gave it away for free. There were so many screenings after Comic-Con (but before the release), in Universal’s frenzy to drum up a positive reaction, that it seemed like by the time the movie came out, anyone who had even a passing interest in seeing the movie had already done so, and not paid a dime. Moreover, Universal never gave mainstream audiences a reason to get excited for this one the way the faithful had.
What The Buzz Was Like: Fairly low wattage. The beloved Judge Dredd character, a satire of square-jawed American action heroes who first appeared in the pages of incredibly British sci-fi comic book anthology “2000 A.D.,” had first been brought to the screen once before by Sylvester Stallone in Disney‘s underwhelming R-rated “Judge Dredd” way back in 1996. This new “Dredd,” starring Karl Urban and written by frequent Danny Boyle confederate Alex Garland, was a relatively low budget affair that managed to fly pretty much under-the-radar. It was most notable for its production woes, which saw director Pete Travis and Garland battling during editing, and it never quite shook that stigma. In an effort to move the needle, the film was screened at midnight at Comic-Con, to a fairly enthusiastic crowd. Ain’t It Cool News said that the movie was “strong,” complete with “crazy Verhoeven-level violence/satire moments” and made mention of the “hardcore fans” positive reaction. Deadline also chronicled the extremely positive reaction to the movie, noting that the audience cheered and laughed during several key moments, but wondered about its potential widespread appeal.
What Happened: “Dredd” was released in September, more than six weeks after its ecstatic Comic-Con debut, and the hype simply couldn’t carry. Opening weekend it just clocked a little over $6 million, which couldn’t even land it in the top 5 for that weekend. Domestically it would earn just $13 million and even with its international grosses wouldn’t even come close to earning back its production budget of $50 million. The movie always felt, from the very beginning, like a cult movie too dark and violent for mainstream acceptance. Time will tell if its cult status will be achieved or if it will disappoint in that respect too.
Why? Just because it’s based on a comic book doesn’t mean that it will automatically print money and “Dredd” was weird and bleak and funny in ways that aren’t usually associated with superhero movies. Yes it was more faithful to the comic book but by the time it came out you could probably count “Judge Dredd” loyalists on one hand. It was snappy and funny and the 3D was utilized in ways that felt genuinely unique and gorgeous (it was shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, another Boyle confederate who won an Oscar for his digital cinematography on “Slumdog Millionaire” and gave Lars von Trier his psychosexual horror tableaus in “Antichrist“). Unfortunately, most never saw “Dredd” in 3D. Plans for a sequel were quietly shuttered though wishful thinking conversations pop up every once in a while.
“Cowboys & Aliens“
What the Buzz Was Like: Fairly tepid. At Comic-Con the year before, Jon Favreau had appeared with “Cowboys & Aliens” star Harrison Ford handcuffed (the only way he’d ever come to Comic-Con, he always grumbled), which understandably got those in attendance incredibly riled up. But in the year since most observers were baffled by “Cowboys & Aliens” more than excited— it was an ambitious genre crossover but one that seemed oddly directionless and poorly defined in most of its marketing materials. (Was it supposed to be funny? A spoof? What?) The special Comic-Con screening was meant to answer these questions and reroute the sea of hype in a positive direction in the splashiest way possible. 2,000 Comic Con diehards got to watch the movie early and the reception was warm (Deadline was sure to note the “massive cheers’ at the end, although that could have been because Favreau had brought along Daniel Craig, Ford, Olivia Wilde and Sam Rockwell), with The Wrap saying that the movie was “right on target when it comes to delivering the thrills.” While the screening may not have answered all the questions people had about the movie, it at least gave a couple thousand people a good time.
What Happened: Here’s where the confusion over what, exactly, “Cowboys & Aliens” was really shows itself: on opening weekend (a little over a week after Comic Con), it looked for a while that it would underperform so badly that it would lose the box office derby to “The Smurfs.” It managed to squeak by and secure the #1 spot, but just barely – earning less than a million dollars more than the cuddly blue-skinned creatures, which is sort of humiliating for a movie that boasted the combined creative star power of Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Steven Spielberg, and Damon Lindelof. The movie would go on to gross $100 million domestically and another $74 million internationally, which combined roughly covered its production budget.
Why? “Cowboys & Aliens” is proof that if you’re making a genre-inclined property you need to make a clear pitch to mainstream audiences. “Cowboys & Aliens” was a confused movie that made other people confused; it wasn’t as fun as it needed to be, suffered from poor leadership in Favreau and was probably diminished from there being too many cooks in the kitchen. It’s also just a lousy movie. The fact that it made $100 here is sort of a miracle in and of itself.
What The Buzz Was Like: Disney and DreamWorks‘ 3D remake of the beloved cult classic certainly had a presence at Comic-Con 2011, for sure, but it seemed like a last ditch bid at building anticipation, as opposed to an organic progression of already seeded enthusiasm. There was an all-star panel hosted by original “Fright Night” star Chris Sarandon and including appearances by Colin Farrell, Anton Yelchin and “Doctor Who” star David Tennant (clips shown during the panel were made available online almost immediately), a bus that drove around plastered in “Fright Night” imagery, a party was thrown in the style of Tennant’s Peter Vincent character, and an aggressive interactive component that urged fans to tweet and text for exclusive prizes. It was all capped off by a screening in which fans were personally selected to attend and, apparently, issued with a gag order. (You can’t find any reactions from the screening online.) Those that were at the panel say that it was great fun and drummed up a fair amount of interest for the virtually hype-free movie. Still: they should have had press come to the screening, that would have made a huge difference.
What Happened: Released about a month after Comic-Con, “Fright Night” failed to make any kind of impression at the box office. It’s first weekend in release it didn’t even make the top 5, instead coming in at #6 with $7 million. (It was so bad Deadline issued an “autopsy report” before the weekend was even over.) At the end of its domestic run it would gross a little more than $18 million total, which doesn’t even cover its modest $30 million budget but, when you add in the international gross ($22 million) and whatever it ended up doing on home video, it probably broke even. Of course, during the Comic-Con panel, writer Marti Noxon talked about ideas for a sequel that was never meant to be. (A direct-to-video sequel with a completely different cast is actually in the works and it’s set to make its big debut at Comic-Con this year.)
Why? The Comic-Con buzz might have been good but critics were mixed, and the ad campaign simply couldn’t do the rest of the heavy lifting, which all ultimately spelled doom for “Fright Night.”
Of course, just because a number of these flashy titles failed to connect with a mainstream audience doesn’t mean that Hollywood will stop courting the Comic-Con crowd. Just this year we have at least two big screenings (in addition to the dozens of panels)— one for the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Sylvester Stallone prison movie “Escape Plan” and another for the Edgar Wright sci-fi pub crawl “The World’s End,” which effectively serves to cap off the unofficial trilogy that began with “Shaun of the Dead” and continued with “Hot Fuzz.” Considering how rapturously Wright has been received in the past in San Diego, expect the new film to retain those good vibrations. But how well will it do after the Con? Well, that’s another story. – Oliver Lyttleton and Drew Taylor