Sunday, July 17, 2005

Comic Geeks Now a Fantastic Force

A most interesting article. Click on the link for the whole article.

Comic Geeks Now a Fantastic Force

"Actress Natalie Portman knows something about the dark side — she was Mrs. Darth Vader, after all — and for a moment on Friday she came face to face with it.

"The setting was the International Comic-Con, which began life three decades ago as a gathering where mostly young men rummaged through cardboard boxes for vintage comic books. But as Hollywood increasingly bases its movies on comics and graphic novels, the gathering has turned into a sort of Cannes for geeks: They carry such clout that the likes of Portman and other A-list celebrities make the pilgrimage here each year to work the crowd.

"The fans at this weekend's four-day convention — their number is expected to far exceed the 75,000 at last year's festival — represent a double-edged sword for the movie industry. The true-believer audience is eager to embrace the big-screen adaptations of its heroes but is equally ready to reject them.

"Either way, the fans are poised to spread the word to legions of fellow fans via the Internet.

"On Friday, Portman and producer Joel Silver appeared for a question-and-answer panel before a crowd already skeptical about their new film, 'V for Vendetta,' based on the 1980s Orwellian graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. The more than 7,000 savvy "Vendetta" followers were well aware of the recent decision to switch the male lead actor in mid-production (from James Purefoy to Hugo Weaving) and the move by Moore — a towering figure in comics — to publicly disassociate himself from the film.

After waiting two hours to get into Comic-Con's movie preview showroom, they cheered in response to the w"orld premiere of the sleek trailer. But when Portman, Silver and others from the movie met the audience, fan largesse lasted exactly two questions. The third fan to reach the microphone elicited robust applause when he pointedly said: "I wonder why Alan Moore hasn't signed up for this."

But instead of blowing up, the issue was quickly defused by panel members ready to answer it. 'Alan has his own views of things,' said Lloyd, who was also in attendance and praised the film's 'very good script.' And for the moment, at least, 'V for Vendetta,' due for a Nov. 5 release, seemed to be off the hook.

"The makers of 'Vendetta,' whose film touches on such hot-button topics as terrorism and bombings in London, aren't the only ones to face the Comic-Con gantlet. In addition to Portman, the four-day schedule includes Oscar-winner Charlize Theron, on hand to promote another sci-fi film, 'Aeon Flux,' as well as Jack Black, Kate Beckinsale, the Rock and directors Tony Scott, David Cronenberg and John Landis, among others, touting assorted projects that orbit the fan planet.

"Movie studios are so serious about courting these tastemakers that they routinely spend big money on giving them the first-look, specially edited previews of films and special souvenirs (such as the 'V' mask handed out Friday to people who saw the preview). They also pay to deliver the films' stars and props from all points of the globe.

"'You might see studios spend a quarter of a million dollars on Comic-Con now,' says John Hegeman of Lions Gate Entertainment, the film distributor that this year footed the bill for a lavish Friday night masquerade ball and for bringing in the entire cast of the company's upcoming horror film 'The Devil's Rejects.'

"Comic-Con has become a big enough tent to include not only superheroes but also samurai warriors, slasher film villains, gnomes and all manner of other fantastical folk.

"'For us, Comic-Con is everything,' said Hegeman, Lions Gate Entertainment's president of worldwide marketing. 'It's the Holy Grail, as far as reaching the concentrated genre fans that we need to communicate with.'

"That said, the allure of big-budget science fiction and hero movies these days goes well beyond niche audiences. Since 1999, 11 of the 15 most successful films at the U.S. box office have fallen squarely inside the genre turf of Comic-Con superheroes, science fiction and fantasy. Such franchises as 'The Lord of the Rings,' 'Star Wars' and 'Spider-Man' show that a one-time win can be parlayed into seasons of success.

"Comic-book fans were once a deeply frustrated constituency. Hollywood typically mauled their beloved heroes in screen adaptations and injected a camp sensibility that chafed the fans who, above all, hated to be mocked.

"That has changed as films as diverse as 'Men in Black,' 'The Mask,' 'Sin City' and 'Road to Perdition' have found success with deeply faithful renderings of the comic-book pages. With success, though, the long-suffering comics fans are quick to be indignant when they don't like what they see.

"'If they think you are lying to them or that you are letting them down, they will let you have it,' says Avi Arad, president and chief executive of Marvel Studios, which has guided such characters as Spider-Man, Blade and the X-Men to box-office heroics. 'Don't tell them you read the comic book if you didn't; they'll ask you about what happened on Page 11 of Issue No. 6. If they don't like what they see and hear, they spread word on the Internet.'

"Studio publicity and marketing people still refer to the Comic-Con clientele as 'the F&Gs' — it's short for 'freaks and geeks' — but now they do it quietly or with a measure of affection. The studios also monitor the intense fan chatter on the Internet and woo convention crowds as if they were studio company shareholders.

"'It's unbelievable how things have changed…. The fans have the power now,' said Otis Chambliss of Rancho Cucamonga, one of thousands of fans in attendance Friday.

"'It's the advent of the Internet,' film producer Silver said. 'These days, you can have a guy sitting on a couch somewhere writing good or bad things about a movie and it makes a difference. At Comic-Con, you have 6,000 guys in one room.'

"Fans toting laptops have been known to race online to be the first to spread word about the latest sneak peek or juicy tidbit that Hollywood unveils at Comic-Con, in part to gauge the crowd's early reaction.

"'You have to go and you have to show them what you have,' said director Bryan Singer. He has pulled himself away from the tight filming schedule of 'Superman Returns' in Sydney to be in San Diego today with footage from the planned summer 2006 release."