Studios, Nets Play to Comic-Con

Hard-core geeks, Twilight-swooning tweens, Star Wars nostalgists, pale-skinned comic book collectors, SpongeBob SquarePants, costumed zombies, Oscar winners including Denzel Washington, Peter Jackson and James Cameron and perennial attendee Kevin Smith are descending on San Diego this weekend for the 40th edition of Comic-Con.

What began in 1970 with 300 comics aficionados gathering at the city’s U.S. Grant Hotel has mushroomed into one of the largest promotional bazaars on Hollywood’s calendar: For movie distributors eager to sneak genre wares to super-receptive audiences, it eclipses trade events like ShoWest, and this year — for the first time, as far as TV networks and cablers are concerned — it will upstage the annual summer Television Critics Association press tour show-and-tell, which doesn’t take place until next month, by offering a first look at the fall season.

Attracting 125,000 attendees, Comic-Con saw its $75 four-day passes sell out two months ago, earlier than ever before. This week, they were commanding twice that price on Craigslist.

The Hollywood invasion, escalating steadily in recent years, has been greeted with mixed reactions from longtime participants.

As fans began gathering Wednesday night, one man admitted: “A lot of people bemoan all the Hollywood stuff, but I don’t care. I love that stuff.” Meanwhile, a young woman who has attended the past nine years complained: “I’m sick of the crowds. I used to come for all four days, but now I’m only coming for one.”

Is all the attention being paid to movies and TV shows muscling aside Comic-Con’s original purpose, described in its mission statement as “creating awareness of, and appreciation for, comics and related popular art forms”?

Organizers of the annual conclave say no.

“Anybody who thinks there’s a lack of comics isn’t doing a lot of looking,” Comic-Con director of marketing and public relations David Glanzer says. Estimating that 20,000-30,000 will attend events in the convention center’s cavernous Hall H — where the big movie presentations hold forth — during the course of the four days, he adds, “That leaves 100,000 people who have little to do with Hollywood.”

On Thursday afternoon, as Cameron unveiled footage from Avatar in Hall H, competing events in surrounding rooms included an appearance by Brian Herbert, son of Dune author Frank Herbert; DC Comics artist Tom Nguyen, offering a demonstration of how to ink comics; and comic publisher Oni Press, previewing its coming attractions.

Still, the big-ticket film and TV items draw the bulk of the media — 3,000 are credentialed this year — whose snap judgments instantly ricochet throughout the Web by blog and tweet.

Eager to promote genre-inspired movies, filmmakers began to discover Comic-Con during the early ’90s. Francis Ford Coppola was among the pioneers when he made the trek to promote 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. By 2004, Comic-Con expanded into Hall H, and the next year the Hollywood contingent ranged from indie stalwarts like Smith to mainstream producers like Joel Silver along with everyone from Bryan Singer to Natalie Portman.

Thursday’s kickoff day provided a particularly heavy film lineup with an emphasis on 3D movies. For the first time, Hall H was outfitted with 3D projection equipment so Disney could show eye-popping footage from Robert Zemeckis’ Disney’s A Christmas Carol, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Tron: Legacy, followed by Fox and Cameron unveiling Avatar. Summit also took the stage to tub-thump its Twilight sequel New Moon while taking advantage of the hostage audience to focus eyeballs on its animated movie Astro Boy.

Glanzer insists, though, that the Con didn’t purposely frontload movie titles. “We try to program as it comes in,” he says. “We look for diversity of programming.” It all amounts to a pop culture Rubik’s cube because “there are so many variables.”