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Disney taking a page from Comic-Con

Next month's D23 Expo in Anaheim is modeling itself on the successful pop-culture festival in hopes of boosting Disney's film and TV projects and its amusement parks.

August 24, 2009|Geoff Boucher and Dawn Chmielewski

Will the success formula of Comic-Con International work for a Mickey Mouse operation?

The leadership at Walt Disney Co. hopes so as it moves forward with the D23 Expo, a four-day event next month in Anaheim that will celebrate -- and sell -- all things Disney with celebrity appearances and slick sneak previews of upcoming films, television shows and theme park attractions.

The approach is pure Comic-Con, the pop-culture festival that has become one of Hollywood's most potent megaphones by providing hard-core fans with insider-access experiences that turn many of them into Internet apostles for movies, television shows and other projects.

Last month, more than 126,000 people attended Comic-Con in San Diego, and films such as "District 9" and "Avatar" enjoyed a strong surge in public awareness after putting stars and filmmakers in the same room as fans hard-wired into Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

Disney was a key player at Comic-Con with Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton appearing before a cheering crowd to promote their 2010 release "Alice in Wonderland," but now the company is looking to separate itself by throwing its own pop-culture party in Disneyland's shadow.

Robert Iger, Disney's president and chief executive, said that the company has, more than any other entertainment outlet, enjoyed decades of support from "very passionate, very ardent" uber-fans, but now, in this digital age, that constituency has greater expectations as well as newfound tastemaker power.

"We will be much better served by serving them better," Iger said. "We live in a world where digital communication enables people to express their opinions about things to a much broader set of people. We call it the combustion of digital world of mouth . . . their ability to communicate with others is unlike anything we've seen at any time before."

It's a good time for Disney to reach out to fans -- the recession has been bruising, even for a company with a market cap of $49.8 billion. Disney's profits declined in the most recent quarter with tough times for television advertising, DVD sales and domestic theme park attendance. The film studio posted its first operating loss since 2005, despite the success of Pixar's "Up." Disney's ABC has also struggled, with declines in summer prime-time viewership landing the network in fourth place.

Still, company leaders are sunny about the potential of D23, which is a chance to preach to their most devoted choir, the fans who are true believers in the Disney marketing message, that the company creates touchstones, not just entertainment properties.

The event at the venerable Anaheim Convention Center will be a chance for Disney to promote feature films such as Burton's "Alice," "The Princess and the Frog" and "A Christmas Carol" but also will serve as a big tent for Disney's varied empire. Attendees will not only be offered the chance to buy new teen-pop CDs and vintage animation cels, for example, they also will be pitched travel packages for the Disney Cruise Line.

ABC Entertainment Group President Steve McPherson and stars Patricia Heaton, Kelsey Grammer and Ed O'Neill will be part of a major presence for the network, which has a screening room and an exhibit dedicated to "Lost."

The expo's schedule aspires to be all things to all Disney fans. The Disney Channel will bring the cast of "Wizards of Waverly Place," screen an upcoming episode and stage a musical performance. Pixar fans will be more interested in the final day's slate of events: a presentation by animation guru John Lasseter, a special "Toy Story 3" preview and a digital 3-D screening of the first two "Toy Story" films.

The expo will also try to stir interest in the reworking of California Adventure, the struggling Anaheim venture that is undergoing a $1 billion reworking and will, in 2012, have a new 12-acre attraction based on Pixar's "Cars." It may also be used to announce the major upgrade to "Star Tours," the somewhat creaky Disneyland ride based on "Star Wars."

The D23 Expo (the name alludes to 1923, when founder Walt Disney arrived in Hollywood) will begin Sept. 10 with an Iger speech about the future of the company. Iger may take the opportunity to share a favorite anecdote about a fan who stood up at a Disney shareholders meeting in New Mexico and said the company should give its most passionate fans more respect and special access.

"Some of these fans show up at those meetings," Iger said, "because, other than going to our parks, it's been the only way they can feel truly connected."

D23's corporate heritage sets it apart from Comic-Con, which started in 1970 as a scruffy merchant show in a hotel basement. Now bursting at the seams, it has become a world's fair for fanboys.

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