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<i>Comic-Con</i> Convention Becomes Hollywood's New Test Market - 2004-07-23


California's governor has been there, so have Francis Ford Coppola, Frank Capra, James Cameron and Ang Lee. There are always plenty of Klingons and Storm Troopers and the place where they all converge is the Comic-Con International in San Diego, California. Comic-Con is short for Comic Convention. It was once considered a 'geek-fest' for comic book fans and Trekkies (Star Trek fans). The Comic-Con, which this year runs from July 22-25, now draws tens of thousands of comic book, film, television and video game professionals, making it the largest comic book gathering in North America. As Beth Accomando reports, it has also become a place for Hollywood to test-market new movies.

Held every summer, the Con, as it's known, offers seemingly endless rows of dealer booths selling comic books, posters, toys, DVDs, games, and collectibles. There are two floors of meeting rooms with more than 600 hours of lectures and demonstrations. There are autograph signings, a masquerade ball and film screenings.

Tom McLean is associate editor of special reports for Variety. "It's always sensory overload at first," he says.

He grew up with comic books and went to the Comic-Con as a fan before covering it as a reporter. Mr. McLean says Variety's interested because the Con has become an important marketing event for Hollywood studios looking to create excitement and anticipation.

"For the studios, the appeal is to go down and to make direct contact with the most avid fans of their materials," he adds. "And it's also fairly inexpensive because really all they have to do is show a couple clips and bring in talent to answer questions, and it's that personal contact with an actor or favorite director that really makes the fans feel special and that their interests and opinions are valued in Hollywood. I mean there's no other venue where you can go and have your question answered by James Cameron."

The value of those opinions has gone up as the entertainment industry has invested more money in comic book properties such as X-Men, Spider-Man and Hellboy. Geek is chic. So the Comic-Con, with its congregation of comic, film, TV, toy and gaming fans, offers a highly prized demographic, says the Con's marketing director David Glanzer.

"The people who come to our show are very much into hi tech items, cutting edge things, they are more likely to go to a movie on opening weekend and about 90% use the internet on a regular basis," he notes. "And I think what that equates to is if a film company comes down and does a presentation that gets positive response at our show that will goes out on blogs and on web sites and things of that nature and build a ground swell of interest."

Before the Internet, there was just word of mouth. The Con earned its reputation as a place to start spreading the word more than two decades ago, when fans got a sneak peek at a project that few in Hollywood thought would succeed.

"In 1976, Lucasfilm came down to San Diego and showed clips of Star Wars a full year before it came out and that started a bit of a trend," he adds.

David Glanzer says Lucasfilm is back this year with what's being billed as an insider's look at the upcoming Star Wars Episode III. Three years ago, Sam Raimi previewed the first Spider-Man at the Con.

This year Jude Law, Keanu Reeves, and Sarah Michelle Gellar are at the convention promoting their new projects. Robert Rodriguez is here too previewing his adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City graphic novels. And so is Spawn.com, the company that features Todd McFarlane's comic book creation and toy line. Al Simmons was Mr. McFarlane's college roommate and the inspiration for the Spawn character. He says the Comic-Con has become a marketplace so his company is showing off new toys and a new animated series.

"You have movie stars now, where it used to be who were the big draws before, if you could bring a Todd McFarlane or got a Jim Lee [comic artist] to come to a show, that was your headliner," says Mr. Simmons. "Well, now those guys aren't your headliners anymore. Your headliners are your Quentin Tarantinos, your big directors. It's not the comic industry that went over to the entertainment world, the entertainment world has come to the comic industry."

That's in part because there's a generation in that world that's grown up with comics. Entertainment reporter Tom McLean points to Kevin Smith, a prolific young filmmaker whose films often reflect his passion for comic book culture.

"You talk to Kevin Smith, he used to go to these shows as a fan and now that he's done comics and he's done films, he still likes to go," he says. "The generation that's come of age in the last few years in Hollywood, not only grew up with comic books but they grew up with the culture of comic book conventions and comic book shops."

Aspiring comic book artists come to the Con for professional tips at the convention's portfolio review. Organizers say some have even been hired off the floor. Small press comic book writers and artists hope that their self-published works will be seen by Hollywood development executives here, so they can return in 2005 with a summer blockbuster like Spider-Man. For Main Street, I'm Beth Accomando at the Comic-Con International in San Diego.

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