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Open Thread: Does Comic-Con Matter?

If you read the movie blogs over the weekend, you read a whole lot about this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, the annual convergence of comic book fans, movie geeks, and the filmmakers who would like their money. This year’s slate boasted several big-name directors — including Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Soderbergh — as well as panels for such potential blockbusters as The Amazing Spider-Man and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn- Part 1. But there were also some conspicuous absences over the weekend, perhaps attributable to increasingly abundant evidence that a big splash at Comic-Con does not necessarily translate to big box office. Is Hollywood’s love affair with the convention waning? And should it?

Brooks Barnes at The New York Times has done some excellent reporting on that question this summer, noting that several big studios sat out this year’s festivities, and that such seemingly sure-fire fan favorites as The Avengers, The Hobbit, and John Carter were MIA. Why? Barnes makes a compelling case that studios are getting gun-shy, having been burned badly by Comic-Con in recent years.

Two case studies, both from 2010: Warner Brothers hosted a panel for their then-forthcoming film adaptation of DC’s Green Lantern, with star Ryan Reynolds in the house and (as is the custom) a few minutes of preview footage from the picture. Fans reportedly camped out overnight in the Hall H line to get a first look at the clips — and then took to the Internet to express their disappointment. The filmmakers spent the next year quietly fighting the bad buzz generated by that early footage; when it finally opened last month, The Green Lantern’s box office was about as underwhelming as its panel.

However, one movie that had no buzz trouble last year was Edgar Wright’s ingenious and entertaining Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, a $60 million adaptation of the popular graphic novel series. The film was heavily promoted at the convention, its all-star panel was charming, and the clips electrified the Comic-Con audience. Three weeks after the Con, Scott Pilgrim hit theaters — and tanked. Opening at #5, its total domestic gross was ultimately about half of its production budget. (Other recent Comic-Con favorites like Sucker Punch and Kick-Ass saw similar box office deaths.)

What’s the lesson? Some would say that Comic-Con has merely become too commercialized, metamorphosing over the years into just one more publicity stop for films and television shows, whether they’re geared towards the comic book demographic or not (in one of the convention’s more befuddling panels, the Patricia Heaton sitcom The Middle drew about 75 people in 2009). Thus, it could be argued, there are simply more movies being promoted, and therefore more failures to report. This may very well be the case, though there are plenty of similar stories from earlier years of the fan favorites (like Mallrats) failing outside of the rarefied SDCC air.

More likely, studios have simply figured out that, as lucrative and desirable as their dollars may be, the fanboys are a fickle bunch, critical by their very nature, and with the rise of Twitter and other methods of immediate feedback (and, therefore, buzz creation) via social networking, the expense and risk of Comic-Con may not be worth the trouble — it may be an enterprise that can do only negligible good, but great harm. The audience that was going to see The Green Lantern was going to see The Green Lantern, regardless. Because its Comic-Con presentation generated a mediocre response, maybe some of them didn’t ultimately see it. But even it that panel had gone well, there’s no reason to think that the positive buzz would have crossed over to the non-Comic-Con audience (if Scott Pilgrim is any indication, anyway). As time goes by, more studios may decide that it’s not worth the risk.

What do you think? Are studios overreacting? Are analysts like us reading too much into this weekend’s absences? Have comic conventions become too commercialized? Or, as we posited before, are people just getting tired of comic book-related movies (less likely, given Captain America’s stellar weekend, but still possible)? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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