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Comic-Con's buzz-makers

'District 9,' 'Avatar' and 'The Twilight Saga: New Moon' generated special heat at the festival, a critical testing ground for mass-appeal movies.

July 27, 2009|John Horn

SAN DIEGO — Many provocative questions arose at Comic-Con International this year. Why was Spider-Man playing drums in the Lego Rock Band booth? Was that dog-eared copy of "The Vault of Horror" really worth $5,400? And who in the world was that guy clanging through downtown on a sweaty summer evening in a full suit of chain-mail armor?

As interesting as those topics might be, the more important query for Hollywood is this: Which movies (and, to a growing extent, television shows) benefited the most from their visits to the mammoth pop-culture carnival that folded up tents Sunday night, and which ones left San Diego the worse for wear?

Comic-Con unquestionably represents a critical testing ground for mass-appeal movies, particularly those playing to fantasy fiction enthusiasts. "It all started here," Jon Favreau, director of "Iron Man," said of 2006's Comic-Con launch of his first superhero blockbuster while he was previewing footage Saturday for next summer's sequel to an ardent crowd. "Nobody cared before you did."

Like at any film festival, the Comic-Con crowd can be so grateful to see footage from even the most minor movie that it's possible to leave San Diego with a false impression of how well a movie played. But after spending more than a few hours in the convention's 6,500-seat Hall H, it became obvious which presentations fared better than others.

Here's a report on not only which projects performed well, but also which gained the most (or fell) from their previous standing, along with some observations about the ever-evolving Comic-Con culture and lifestyle:

"District 9." Though Megan Fox's promotional appearance for Fox's "Jennifer's Body" in a hotel ballroom certainly sparked interest Thursday night, it was the screening of Sony's sci-fi thriller in another part of the festival that generated the most heat that evening. Twitter blasts from the room were proclaiming "District 9" to be among the best of its genre in a long, long time. With the film due to hit theaters Aug. 14, the buzz generated at Comic-Con (where Sony started an enigmatic marketing campaign for the film a year ago) is certain to give "District 9" even more momentum, and it hardly hurt that producer Peter Jackson's first-ever Comic-Con visit felt like a Beatles concert.

The environment. Hollywood loves to share its passion over global warming with anyone and everyone, but when it comes to Comic-Con, Earth Day is a distant memory. Though many studio executives (Summit's Rob Friedman) and actors (take a bow, Breckin Meyer) took the train from Los Angeles to San Diego, more than a few -- Cameron Diaz, for one -- made the 100-mile trip in private jets. Other pollutant-spewing studio types used car services to drive five blocks from their hotels to the San Diego Convention Center (which, due to traffic, took twice as long as walking), later leaving their empty SUVs idling in parking lots much of the afternoon with the air-conditioning blasting. But what does it matter? According to Roland Emmerich's "2012," the world will be facing cataclysm in three years anyway.

"Avatar." It would difficult to think of a movie better suited to the Comic-Con crowd than James Cameron's Dec. 18 sci-fi spectacular, which thus set the "Avatar" bar very high; had the writer-director's 25 minutes of footage disappointed, the word of mouth could have been ruinous. That didn't come close to happening: The approving Internet buzz was instantly deafening. As much as the audience (many waited multiple hours to get into the presentation) was thrilled with the sneak, the throngs seemed equally excited over the news that on Aug. 21, Cameron will show "Avatar" footage for free in Imax and 3-D theaters across the country.

"The Twilight Saga: New Moon." The teen vampire sequel didn't disappoint the cultish crowd, many of whose members camped out overnight for a scream-filled (not for scares, but for star Robert Pattinson) presentation in Hall H. Director Chris Weitz said the fan base is excited no matter the setting, including during production of the Nov. 20 "Twilight" follow-up: "There was a moment where I had to go to the bathroom, and there was not a cafe I could go into without being mobbed. Not because I'm me, but people wanted to know if I could set up meetings with Rob." And lest anyone forget there is more than one vampire-themed phenomenon in the pop-culture universe right now, HBO's "True Blood" also engaged with its own legion of devotees.

Swag. One of Comic-Con's distinguishing characteristics is its egalitarianism: It's impossible to cut lines, and those with disabilities are accommodated everywhere. But just as the Sundance Film Festival was spoiled by the advent of swag suites, the same elitist lifestyle boutiques are starting to flourish all around the convention. The Wired Cafe -- invitation only, please! -- had as much snobby attitude as Cafe Bustelo coffee and Patron tequila had free samples.

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