Film Fund-amentals: Comic-Con Goes Hollywood

Friends, fan boys and countrymen, I come not to praise Comic-Con but to bury it. Oops, don’t need to because Hollywood has beaten me to it. Now that the recently completed 41st Comic-Con Festival in San Diego has become a celebration of everything that has gone completely warped at the movies, it may be time for this festival of comic art to just re-name itself Cannes II. It has basically become a marketing tool for tent-pole movies with no brains, which is practically everything coming out of Hollywood these days.

Which is why the comic fans were treated to such off-topic events as Salt, The Expendables and trailers for Jackass 3D. Angelina Jolie dashed through as a form of honey trap while Sylvester Stallone preached to the wrong choir about the evil effects of Batman movies and CGI. While a few of the film-promoting guests made sense (Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith being the two most obvious), most of the stars were bits of second-hand glitter dangled to hawk the studios’ wares.

Which is sort of OK. A little glam never hurt anyone. Heck, even Stallone’s usual brainlessness had at least one positive fitness point (though based on his increasingly puffy mis-muscled look, I would strongly suggest not using his gym). But the real question is why is Hollywood packing this much mainstream star power into an event best enjoyed by couch potatoes in costumes? The answer isn’t very difficult. But it is nonsensical.

For Hollywood, Comic-Con has become the magic gateway to the young male demographic market. In many respects, it is (though in truth, the comic fan universe has a lot of middle-age and balding guys running through it). This is the perfect demographic audience for movies like The Dark Knight. That movie made lots of money, therefore everything pitched toward this audience will make lots of money. Perfect non-logic, right?

In the real world, comic book movies have an extremely iffy history. They cost a lot of money to make (generally around $150 to $250 million before the PR cost is added). Every so often, a film like The Dark Knight scores big. Mostly, they barely break even and some simply bomb. The young male demographic market is pretty small and narrow, and for any of these movies to go anywhere, they have to stretch beyond that audience (which was the case with The Dark Knight). When they don’t, you end up with the so-so return of something like Watchmen (which could be argued as a more pure form of comic book movie) or even worse, the disastrous returns of a movie like Jonah Hex (which even the comic fans wouldn’t touch). Either way, this type of movie costs way too much to make and its box office strength is largely mediocre to gad-awful. But Hollywood won’t give up on the idea simply because it has no other ideas. Period.

So it makes sense to them to barn-storm Comic-Con. Heck, it kind of works because the fans lap everything up with the giddy pleasure of kids running loose in the candy store. Even Stallone got a standing ovation (despite the fact that most of these kids were born after he became an over-pumped has-been). By all accounts, the audience loved it. It was like being a paparazzo for a day. By the end of the festival, people were thrilled.

The same could be said about a one-night stand with the most shallow but beautiful woman on earth. Might be a night to remember, but don’t plan on making it the rest of your life. Boredom kicks in by day two, and before the week is over the resentment level is more toxic than the Gulf of Mexico after the oil spill. Hollywood is only there because they think these folks are going to stroke their egos, praise these crappy films and become walking PR zombies that will turn each movie into a mega-hit. It ain’t gonna to happen, but that’s what the suits think.

In turn, the festival will get pressed and steamrolled until it just can’t take it any more. Likewise, the fans become experienced and even jaded. They wake up one morning feeling used. They start snapping at each other in the convention hall as they realize that their dream date is really just a one-dimensional tease with an IQ lower than supermarket squash. They start to feel that they need, even want, something better, something more, and all they are getting is the same lame movie with a mere change in the roman numeral. Then, they get mean.

I have seen this first hand. Back in 1997, I got hounded out of business as a reporter with a British magazine by the UK publicist for a major US studio. I had written some basically smart-aleck reports about the filming of the fourth installment in an extremely profitable super-hero movie franchise. I had broken the unwritten law by suggesting that the studio honchos who were calling the shots didn’t know what they were doing and strongly suggested that the movie might end up being a box office dud (you are suppose to make these kind of statements only after the film has already opened and bombed). I even suggested that the studio had no clue as to what the fans might want. By the time this was over, I was out and the PR guy was writing reviews for the magazine under a nom-de-plume.

However, I took some comfort at a fans convention a week before the movie opened. J. Michael Straczynski was the guest and was doing a bang-up job of working the house while delivering a 30-minute-long diatribe about the idiots who ran Hollywood. As an example of studio stupidity, he tore into the same movie. Suddenly, hundreds of fans started lining up at the microphones in the auditorium to take turns denouncing the movie as a travesty of a highly regarded (since 1939) comic book hero. One after the other unloaded increasingly scathing attacks upon the film (which they hadn’t even seen), the studio and basically anybody connected to the dang thing. The whole place started to resemble a Soviet purge trial from the 1930s.

So I suspect that the folks at Comic-Con will be happier sticking with such fan-made short films as Batman: Dead End. This love affair with Hollywood is likely headed toward a bumpy end.