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Farewell to Nerds: The Big Studios & Comic Con…

Last year, around this time, I was discussing how great it was to be a nerd or a geek. Hell, Comic Con in San Diego seemed like an obligatory stop-off point for the major studios promoting their latest blockbusters to an overly geeky crowd, debuting the trailer for Tron: Legacy or announcing the cast of The Avengers, not to mention footage and panels based around any number of big-screen blockbusters designed to cater towards the geeks and nerds in the movie-going audience. So it feels like a rather dramatic shift that very few of the major movie studios appear to be planning much for the iconic (or, at least, briefly iconic) Hall H in San Diego this year.

Does this mean that the era of the geek is over?

Will Stars stop Trekking to Hall H?

We’ve had a good run, us geeks. We’ve been pandered to extensively in the past couple of years, in a way that even I never could have predicted. I don’t think that my younger self could ever have predicted that a movie based around Batman would be one of the best-received and most successful films of the past decade, nor that three summer tentpoles would be based around Transformers, those “robots in disguise.” I certainly never thought that second-tier superheroes like Green Lantern would get a shot at the big screen, or even comic book properties like Watchmen or Sin City.

I might not have adored all the movies, but there’s no denying that Hollywood’s output seems to have skewed towards my own geekier tastes over the past few years. Courting the geek audiences at Comic Con just seemed like a logical step, addressing your target demographic, and counting on the zealots to energetically spread the word to the heathens out there in the real world, drumming up enthusiasm for blockbusters still months away.

Fanning the flame?

So the news that Disney, DreamWorks, Warners and even Marvel will be mostly avoiding Hall H this year feels like the studios slamming the breaks on this endeavour:

This year? Warner’s main studio operation is bringing nothing. Ditto Disney and DreamWorks. The Weinstein Company, a perennial presence, will also sit this one out. Even Marvel Entertainment, whose panel for The Avengers was a highlight of Comic-Con 2010, is on the fence about whether it will mount a major presentation.

The studios all have films that would seem to be directed at the geek demographic that might do well with promotion. Warners might have used the time to make some big announcements about The Man of Steel, the latest attempt to drag Superman (kicking and screaming) to the big screen. Even Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens can’t be bothered to put an appearance as a part of the Comic Con, despite a rapidly-approaching release date.

Being honest, this is just the latest sign that maybe the winds of change are blowing. We all remember when Universal pulled the plug on Del Toro’s Mountains of Madness, an R-rated H.P. Lovecraft adaptation. I would have loved to have seen that film, but experience tells me that Universal made the right business call. There is no evidence that audiences would have supported that beast, however fascinating and brilliant it might have been.

It's a Marvel that studios have engaged as much as they have...

I think the studios are feeling, understandably, burned by the geek audience – or at least disappointed about it. Despite getting rave reviews at Comic Con, Watchmen ultimately disappointed at the box office. Sucker Punch was practically the darling of the occasion last year, and we all know how that turned out. Even genuinely great films, lavished with praise, affection and attention, like Universal’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World or Kick-Ass, couldn’t draw large crowds. As vocal as nerds and geeks could be in their support of these projects, it didn’t translate to putting bums in seats. Average movie-goers, it seems, would still rather (on average) attend movies about fast cars and shootouts than try something different (good or bad).

From the studio’s perspectives, I can understand how they would feel disappointed. Sure, some of those films that failed are bad films, but some of them are also really good films. And the studios put them out there for cinema-goers to pick and choose, to vote on, with the loyal fanboy legions to act as ambassadors or canvassers. And, to be frank, we couldn’t deliver the goods. So I can appreciate why they might adjust their strategy to reflect the fact there’s no correlation between appealing to the hardcore fans and reaching a wider audience.

I can’t help but wonder if this is just a prelude to something bigger. If this small and subtle step of disengagement from the geekier film fans out there is just the start of another shift in the way Hollywood does business. Does this mean that we’ll see less movies aimed squarely at that market? That might mean an end to the seemingly never-ending superhero blockbusters, but it would also cost us the more genuinely adventurous films as well. Del Toro’s adaptation might be considered the first casualty, and I think that‘s the type of film that’s going to suffer. After all, movies like Thor and X-Men: First Classcan find their own audiences.

End of the line for Hollywood's geek fixation?

However, things might not be as bleak as all that. The studios might be courting the geeks through other avenues. After all, Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens might not technically be gracing Comic Con, but their premiere will be right across the street. Disney are staging their own expo in California in August that will serve as a launching pad for movies like The Muppets or John Carter of Mars. Indeed, Christopher Nolan has never even set foot in Hall H, and his comic book and nerdy property seems to be getting by just fine.

Still, I can’t help but feel just a tad nervous about this, as if this is the start of something. Maybe Hollywood is readying itself to disengage from the scores of geeky film fans who it has been attempting to cater for over the past few years. I won’t pretend that the results have always been good, or even mediocre, but I do think that it led to a slightly more diverse release schedule. I do wonder where Hollywood might end up shifting its demographic to, though. More cop movies, generic comedies and disaster movies?

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52 Responses

  1. Geoff Boucher from LA Times’ Hero Complex said that the news about studios ditching Comic Con is false. I hope he’s right as I’ll be attending the event for the first time next month!

  2. Most likely the studios see that building buzz at comic con does not insure a big return for them. Look at Scott Pilgrim, a film I adore that was everywhere at Comic con and then fell flat on Michael Cera’s face once released. It is sad but true. Snakes on a plane is another case of a movie with big buzz and pandering to internet fans that fell flat. Pandering to the geek is not always the best way to go.

    • Yep, I think it’s a harsh lesson. And I think it’s one Universal has taken to heart. I think the fact you can’t count on the geek audience to show up in large qunatities is what killed The Mountains of Madness.

      • I agree 100% with that. Geeks are the first to get excited about a movie, but if they find one thing has been changed from the source material they are up in arms and boycott the movie. I say this a as huge film and comic geek myself, just not to the extreme of boycotting a movie because it doesn’t have a giant squid.

      • Mountains of Madness was doomed from the start, regardless of the decline of the geek market. You just can’t sell an R-rated movie with a budget of 500 million dollars, period. It’s financial suicide. As much as people would like for it to get made Universal made the right choice.

      • Excuse me, the proposed budget was $150 million, not $500. The latter figure is what it would have needed to gross worldwide to turn a profit.

  3. If the movie studios aren’t there then Comic Con might have to devote more time and energy to something else. Comics, for example.

    • Yep. I think the name has been a bit redundant for a while now, with the con (as far as I’m aware) trying to set itself up as more of a diverse geek hub.

    • I started going to comicon in 1994 and went every year until 2 years ago. I have decided to not go anymore. If the big movie studios do drop out, I might start going again. The problem with these big studios coming in is that it gets too crowded to be fun. Although I am happy about the amount of business dollars it brings to San Diego, I miss the simpler times when going to the comicon wasn’t cool.

      • I don’t know, I kinda like the passive acknowledgement that we’re… not cool, exactly, but alterna-cool. Like admitting, without a hint of shame and stigma (which, to be honest, I think are two of the factors killing comics) that these are their roots , but then, as much as I hate crowds (they make me uncomfortable), I like to see my interests drawing large crowds. Not because I feel I need validation, but because DC doesn’t need to worry too much about Warner pulling the plug if their properties can draw crowds. Being honest, I think the only reason DC and Marvel are still going is as a Hollywood R&D division, because sales and profits are not in a good place, and haven’t been for a while.

  4. They probably just don’t want their panels to be full of all the twihards that will be no doubt attending this year, which actually will be there.

    So glad we made the trek last year from Aus, when there were some awesome panels/appearances. Couldn’t handle twihards there!

    • In fairness, I adopt a live and let live attitude to fandoms. I have serious problems with Twilight (most notably the fact that THAT isn’t what a loving relationship looks like), but I have no problem with people reading and enjoying the books. To each’s own, right?

  5. I still have a strange feeling that we’re going to get something about the BIG movies at least. For example, The Hobbit. Even if it’s just a small video of Peter Jackson from the studios talking about it.

    • I would hope so, and Favreau hasn’t moved too far, but I think Warner Brothers not doing anything Batman or Superman related is a fairly big blow, as is Disney not showing off John Carter of Mars, Marvel avoiding Hall H and even the lack of “smaller” geek-friendly films like Scott Pilgrim give me cause to worry.

  6. I would suggest what some view as being a ‘geek’ is in fact a search for excellence and a refinement of personal taste. Why not demand greater meaning and higher quality – less pandering and more authenticity – in both art and entertainment. I personally am not a fan of something because I feel I should be, rather because the level of excellence has engaged me.

    Is the era of the geek over? Not so long as we continue to push forward for achievement of the best we can offer as a species. …to boldly go…

    • I love that philosophy, but I think that the popular perception of a geek is somebody more in love with the idea of a niche property rather than somebody who genuinely loves something because they appreciate the quality of the work. It’s just one of those perceptions that can be hard to fight, and – to be hoenst – I think there’s a minority who seem more invested in “the geek brand” than the actual quality of the work in question (people who can’t admit a given adaptation or particular episode/story/film suck because of their loyalty to a particular brand).

  7. I loved Watchmen & Sucker Punch :(
    Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one.

    • I’ll admit to liking Watchmen more than most. It was an ambitious film,a nd I admire that abit, even if it didn’t work out entirely. I stilla dore the sequence on Mars as an illustration of what Hollywood can do when the source material and film maker line up perfectly. Sucker Punch I haven’t seen. My brother wasn’t too impressed, though.

  8. Which movies were really good films?

    Scott Pilgrim? (casting a hipster icon like michael cera kinda goes against the whole idea of who or what SP is-a regular everyman guy who just happens to be kinda of geeky. think Shia Lebeouf but more insecure.. when you have the main bad guy’s theme as hipster douche you have a miscommunication)

    Tron Legacy? Do I need to restate that fact? Tron. Legacy. visually it was cooler than anything I’ve seen in a while, but there was absolutely no story..it’s just as bad as the sequels to the fast and the furious..cool visuals but nothing else..

    the only major difference between most of the so called ‘geek dynasty’ films and the mainstream ‘Broseph movies’ were that instead of hot girls and cars you had hot girls and scifi/fantasy set pieces…

    • In fairness, Scott Pilgrim was very well-received, and I think it’s a very well-made film. It’s not exactly outside Michael Cera’s comfort zone, but there are plenty of great movies that feature actors playing in the screen personas they’ve built up for themselves.

      Last year, it provided a nice platform for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (I love Del Toro, even producing and writing) and Let Me In among others. Both very well-received horrors based on non-American selling points (Del Toro and Let the Right One In). The previous year, it gave us Kick-Ass.

      And I think that Favreau’s Iron Man built up a lot of momentum at Comic Con, back in the days before anybody knew who the hell Tony Stark was. I think that’s why Favreau has such loyalty to the event.

      Maybe none of these are “classics” (and I don’t believe any are), but I think they’re very fine films that can be measured among the best of a given year. Sure, there’s a whole host of stuff you can put in the “maybe” pile (like Watchmen, for example, which is… divisive and Tron which was visually stunning if, as you said, less than complex) and even a few stinkers (Sucker Punch, apparently).

  9. Congrats on making the IMDB hit list.

    I can see where the studios might think it’s not worth the money for these type of marketing campaigns, or even making so many superhero/comic adaptations, but I’m still surprised that the likes of Warner Bros won’t be bringing anything. If there’s a company out there that can understand how much money the fanboys can bring it, WB is certainly one of them.

    Even if the studio representation is down for a year or two, with releases like TDKR and Superman coming, as well as Avengers in 2013, I see it improving eventually.

    • Thanks, Red!

      I think if any studio needs it, it’s Warners, what with Harry Potter winding up. I just think the irony is that they haven’t learned from their own success. Green Lantern seems like it was focus-grouped to death, when The Dark Knight demonstrated that giving a lot of money to a person with vision makes a great film.

  10. studios just realized that internet buzz/ nerds are not the ones they need to convince to get into theaters-

    families, women, and minorities are the ones that need to be targeted, a movie nerd will see the movie even if it isn’t highlighted for X million of dollars at comic-con.

    • Yep, I think that’s a key thing. Movie nerds generally have their film visits scheduled quite a bit ahead of time (at least mentally for the tentpoles). If it’s something they want to see, you can plan on them knowing about it. So it is the wrong demographic to raise awareness.

      However, I do think – without sounding whiny an entitled – it’s a nice little acknowledgement to that audience. And I think the principle the studios latched on to is that Comic Con was a great place to go “viral” like The Dark Knight or even Tron did, as you can rely on nerds to spread the word over social networking sights. However, as you observed, they generally just spread the word to other nerds.

      That said, Tron: Legacy is a film that was put on my radar by comic con.

  11. Congrats on making IMDb, Darren.

  12. Scott Pilgrim was worse than a headache coupled with a sore throat.

    • “Yeah? … Well, that’s like your opinion, man!”

      Nah, any excuse to (probably mis)quote the Dude. To each’s own. I thought it was bold, well-made and entertaining – but I can understand it’s a love it or hate it. And, I’ve found, not always the people you’d expect in either category.

      • Darren,
        I was HUGE fan of the novels and it basically summed up my entire experience or at least everything I needed for my 20s and when I heard of the movie adaption, I was even more floored.
        However, the actual experience was kind of a let down because there was more emphasis on (why not) getting the gold coins than actually beating king koopa; which is the anthesis to the whole series. If they actually focused on the relationships Scott had and the meaningfulness of it instead of the action -or at least balanced it better -which the books did and while they had more time, they could have done better with what they had..Forrest Gump did ok and they had a lot of ground to cover, it’s about structure, which is surprising since Edgar Wright has done well with his Ice Cream series (Hott fuzz and Shaun of the dead) of balancing the action and the relationships..

      • Sorry Alfred, I didn’t mean to imply that you were “uncool” or anything like that or “not in on it” or something, and I’m sorry if it came across that way. Being entirely honest, I don’t think that the fans of a given film should be restricted based on familiarity with the source material. I don’t expect everyone who read the book to like the film, or everyone who didn’t to hate it. I actually think that this sort of proprietary thinking really hurts and divides “fandom” and I think it’s a huge problem – a work should be taken on its own merits, and you should “owe” a film anything because you loved the book.

        And I’m sorry you didn’t like it. I can understand the struture argument you make, and I think that I can understand how the space might be an issue – but I think trying to make the film anywhere near as tight as Forrest Gump would have killed it.

  13. Darren,
    I would have to disagree.
    Since essentially it’s a movie about relationships if you focus entirely on getting the dialogue correctly and showing with a look or a glance who everyone is and why it matters to Scott, then what you have is a well balanced film.
    The argument could be made that you would lose the entire frenetic aspect, but you actually allow a unique reality within that frenetic structure. Anarchy is great but when it comes down to it, anarchy gets boring. My problem with the film was that it barely touched on the reasons Scott has all these problems ( he’s got tons of baggage and is bad at relationships-helloo story and character arc!) and instead focused on what cool things are part of the world he inhabits (video game references which yea are cool but in what aspect were they used in the first place?

    When we write a script, often we get caught up in the ‘what if’ and miss the ‘why’ and that is what destroys a good movie because you lose sense of who these people are, why they are here and how does it all make sense/matter-what devices are you using to tell your story and how does it reflect their needs as well as the stories needs. Since it was made as a nostalgic piece and not as a story, it ended up losing everything the original author worked so hard to achieve in the first place-a fond remembrance.

  14. SDCC is a COMIC convention and while they’ve been busy pandering to the video game and movie people they’ve forgotten the very thing that made them,and most of those movies,possible.I’ve seen so many creators tell horror stories of sinking a couple of thousand dollars into setting up at SDCC(on top of the investment in books and merchandise) and not even make 100 dollars of it back.When you have a crowd of that size in a building and less than 6 people stop at your table,and 5 of them say “I didn’t know you guys were back here.”then you’ve lost your way.SDCC did fine without the movie people,now they need to go back to mending fences with the comic people.

    • I never really thought of it like that. I assumed that not only the studio involvement, but all the media buzz around the studio involvement could only help.

      I think that the month-on-month comic book sales have been in decline for years now and – I say this as a comics fan, as I hope my weekly reviews show – I kinda worry if the pool is getting smaller and smaller and that somewhere to overlap with the mainstream in a fashion like SDCC isn’t a bad idea. Film is a medium with millions (if not hundreds of millions) of fans. Comic books, it seems, have a fandom of around one hundred thousand. I liked the idea of the studios acknowledging the roots of their blockbusters, even though I can see where you stand.

  15. This may all be a result of a bad rumor that the San Diego City Council had voted to turn the event into a one afternoon affair, instead of a 3 day fun for all.

  16. I hate having to lose At the Mountains of Madness to some studio BS. But on the other hand, I’m glad Hollywood is getting out of the comic con biz, leave nerds and geeks alone. That’s what we are, a collective of people bonded by our fascination of comics,sci-fi and what not. Then you had hipster big brother Hollywood hanging around trying to muscle in on our territory, thinking it would make him look cool, and what I say to that is. FUCK OFF and leave us alone.

    • Yep, but DC is funded by Time Warner and Marvel by Disney solely because of their uses as “intellectual property factories”. The comics industry isn’t in a good way, and the numbers aren’t sustainable. I think the uncool big brother is footing the bill and perhaps deserves a bit of credit for it. The two biggest comics of May could not sell 100,000 copies. That is not a good sign.

  17. Don’t Hollywood screenwriters read BOOKS any more?? Everything is focused on video games, comic books and graphic novels. I could list no less than 40 books (REAL books with more than 25 pages!) which would make good screen stories – hence good movies (in the hands of the right writer).

    • In fairness, Hollywood hasn’t stopped adapting books. I’m yet to be convinced that adapting videogames is a good idea – not because they aren’t art or any nonsense or anything like that, but because it seems reductive to adapt from an active medium (doing) to a passive one (watching).

      On the other hand, I’m grand with comic book adaptations. Any medium that gave us Road to Perdition and A History of Violence is fine by me.

  18. The truth is that there is very little difference intellectually between most “geeks” and most people in any other walk off life. They are not making all of these comic-book movies for geeks but for mainstream audiences. If Hollywood stops going to Comic Con in droves, it will be because it makes little difference to the box office either way and the stars do not want to subject themselves to the mass of sweaty geeks if they do not have to. :P

    • Yep, I fear that’s the case. I think they might have overestimated the viral viability of geeks, and been disappointed when it didn’t deliver as expected.

  19. The problem is that Comic Con is not FOR those of us who actually like comics. I mean, when the cast of Veronica Mars did a panel one yea,r I was finished. When famous whores who cannot read let alone follow the pictures of a graphic novel walk around with their rock star boyfriends then this thing has STOPPED being what it was supposed to be.

    • That’s a little harsh. Surely it’s big enough for everyone? And any overlap between comic books (a niche market) and wider pop culture is a good thing.

    • Thank you for this insightful reply. That is pathetic,comic con is supposed to be about comics,sci-fi etc. Having the cast of Veronica Mars there is how Hollywood perceives us,worthless retards they can exploit for their own gain until it all blew up in their faces.

      • I thought Veronica Mars (which I’ve never seen) had a cult geek audience, which would seem to fit the occasion? Only difference I can think of is between that and, say, Trekkies/Trekkers is the male/female breakdown.

  20. I don’t think that the studios will abandon the con its just that last year had so many big announcements and with the box office results for certain films as of late that maybe ( and hopefully) that they are just considering this year more of a vacation from the con allowing for a bit more secrecy with upcoming projects which in turn bring out the crowds to see the films. Studios will be back in full force again.

    • That’s an interesting idea. I do think that those speculating about the bursting of the comic book movie bubble will have to wait until next year with The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises to judge on their sustainability.

  21. On the assumption that studios only care about business (after all it’s just money), not people’s interests, then think about why so many reboots, “new” versions, second and n parts, etc. Maybe they think that nerd/geeks is an “exhausted market target” and are pointing towards other markets.
    About Comic Con, I have never been there (I wish I could) because I do not live in the states. Here in Venezuela, I belong to a Star Trek Fan Club and we just have a couple of years participating in conventions like CC (of course at a lesser scale). What I see is people sharing different points of view on sci-fi, comics, anime, literature, films, etc., and I think that is what is supposed to be.
    Maybe the big studios create a bigger illusion when they go and do direct marketing.

    • Yep. I’ve always seen it as preaching to the choir. Although I do sorta like the idea of engaging with Comic Con.

  22. There are some films that frankly do not need the Comic Con Crowd, like Capt American and The Dark Knight and its sequel. DK did well for three reasons heath Ledger death, and the awesome viral marketing campaign that led up to the film. It was more memorable and did more to promote the film and cost less than a convention appearance.

    Third it was a sequel to a film that already won good will with the audience. Even if Ledger lived to see the film premier it wold have still done well.

    • Yep, but – and I feel horrible talking about it in such terms – perhaps not as well as it would have if not for certain unfortunate extenuating circumstances. It’s a monumental leap from Batman Begins’s box office returns to one of the top five box office draws of all time. But we’ll never know.

      In fairness though, as you point out, Nolan did do it without using Comic Con. I wonder how much, since you mention it, a convention appearance actually costs a studio?

  23. Perhaps this year it will BE a Comic-Con again and not the media-whore show it has become.

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