June 22 2011 10:20 AM

Hollywood studios should blame themselves for poor performance, not the geeks

Heavy marketing at Comic-Con couldn’t save Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

The geeks can feel it coming, a tingling of Spidey sense, a tremor in the Force, like skin turning green at the onset of a Hulk rage. We’re one month out from San Diego Comic-Con.

But a few production studios aren’t coming this year, The New York Times reported in a parade-raining story last week under the headline “Movie studios reassess Comic-Con.” warner Brothers, Disney, DreamWorks and the Weinstein Company aren’t promoting films this year (though, as Slashfilm.com notes, they don’t really have much to promote to begin with), leading some to worry about, or rejoice at, a renewed focus on actual comics at the comic convention. The Times’ story doesn’t quote any of the film execs behind the studio decisions and, instead, repeats a common two-part lament floating around the internet: Negative buzz at Comic-Con can hurt more than it helps and even the positive hype doesn’t meet expectations at the box office.

First of all, local Comic-Con fans don’t really care if Hollywood opts out. While they don’t want to see the geek economy take a hit, just about everyone who’s ever stood in line for Hall H or shuffled through the exhibit floor at a zombie pace would appreciate even the slightest scale-back. Plus, TV programs are going to be on fire this year.

We reject the underlying premise. Regarding negative buzz: No matter how much money you throw into promoting a crummy film, you can only mask the stench of crap so much (talking to you, Green hornet). Regarding expectations: Don’t blame the fans.

Last year, Universal Pictures’ Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was seen as the Comic-Con benchmark, establishing itself through heavy marketing as the hottest property at the Con. It was a stunning picture, but it didn’t make its money back, and that’s spooking Hollywood. According to boxofficemojo.com, the $60-million film sold only $47 million worldwide.

But consider this: Scott Pilgrim was an anime / video-game / indie-rock-inspired, kung-fu slacker opera based on a Canadian graphic novel, directed by a Brit with only cult name-recognition outside of the U.K. Yet, what should’ve been a film with limited appeal (hipsters, gamers and dudes with Asian fetishes) still pulled in almost $50 million. The year before, the similarly brilliant film Kick-Ass also disappointed at the box office, despite a positive reception at the convention. What people don’t factor in is that, according to TorrentFreak.com, the film became the second most pirated film of 2010 after Avatar. Ticket sales alone don’t reflect the full impact of the geek community.

If marketers are going to reassess anything, it should be their promotion strategy. Studios think if you create a spectacle, you can just sit back and watch it go viral. Local geek-event organizers complain that companies turn up in San Diego without a cohesive plan and they aren’t prepared to follow up after the convention’s over.

Thing is, geeks don’t want a one-night stand. They want to fall in love. They want you to bring them flowers, year after year. They want you to bring Harrison Ford in handcuffs.

Director Jon Favreau pulled that stunt last year. Even though he had only a few shots from his upcoming sci-fi western, Cowboys & Aliens, he brought the clips to Comic- Con, along with the stars, including Ford somewhat against his will. (The buzz probably would’ve been louder if the panel hadn’t been interrupted by the infamous “face-stabbing” incident.)

Favreau gets it. After sowing the seed a year ago, he’s debuting the film at Comic-Con and will ride the publicity wave to the theatrical release the next weekend. Maybe the film will break records. Maybe it’ll disappoint in ticket sales. Either way, Favreau can bank that his stock will continue to rise. Remember, this is the guy who began his career as the stoner “Gutter” in PCU and writing the indie comedy Swingers. He’s now on the path to becoming as influential a figure as Michael Bay or James Cameron, maybe even George Lucas.

Marvel Entertainment, the Times reports, is “on the fence” about whether to go big at Comic-Con. There’s no reason to carpet bomb the convention with publicity, but certainly they should bring out the big guns, especially when it comes to The Avengers, the star-studded ensemble superhero film directed by Joss Whedon (another director who gets it). The important thing is to foster geek culture as a whole, even if it doesn’t result in instant payoff.

To the studios, we say this: Stay home at your own peril. Your film’s probably going to suck anyway.

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.