“Watch Superheroes Or Become One”
–Ad for IMAX, seen around SDCC
Part 1: Movie signs
On Thursday afternoon, the first full day of San Diego Comic-Con, I was staring out a rain-streaked window when suddenly—though not unexpectedly—the ground started to shake, the lights flickered, and I heard distant shrieking. The rumble intensified, just as the window filled with the head of a giant lizard. A few minutes later, a man with a clipboard stressed to me and everyone else in the room that the lizard was subject to change.
This was “The Godzilla Encounter,” a promotional installation like many others set up around the San Diego Convention Center during Comic-Con weekend. Part amusement-park ride (without any actual ride) and part memorabilia museum (without any time to explore), these spaces are like deconstructed movie trailers, with fragments of film clips and props strewn about a room, somewhat inconveniently. The Godzilla Encounter didn’t feature any actual clips from the upcoming Godzilla remake from Legendary Pictures and director Gareth Edwards—something emphasized strongly to the assembled journalists, lest we say anything positive, negative, or even merely descriptive about the creature that just roared at us. Instead, the Encounter was loaded with artifacts of Godzilla fandom, representing decades of different representations of one perennially popular monster. Before we could finish geeking out over all the vintage toys and manga, though, actors in lab coats and Japanese army uniforms burst in, shouting at us to follow them to safety. The show had started.
For much of the past decade, the knock against Comic-Con has been that it’s lost touch with its roots in comic-book fandom, as Hollywood has taken over and turned the weekend into one massive motion-picture trade show. This year, though—and not for the first time—I heard people asking, “Where are the movies?” The number of panels devoted to studio tentpoles seems to have dwindled, and even walking the main exhibition floor this year, I saw fewer booths touting upcoming films. The most noticeable movie booth stood right in the center of the hall, hosted by new partners Lionsgate and Summit, but even that was cross-promoting a batch of unrelated films, from the low-budget horror picture You’re Next to the massive hit-to-be The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. No one movie made such a strong impression in 2013 that it dominated the weekend, the way The Avengers and Man Of Steel did in years past.
Partly that’s because SDCC is increasingly TV-focused, thanks to television becoming so adept at science-fiction and fantasy with series like Game Of Thrones, Orphan Black, and Adventure Time. In terms of scale and design, the marketing for big-budget movies like Predator 3D and Ender’s Game at this year’s SDCC appeared roughly on par with that for TV series like Dracula and Sleepy Hollow. Plus, so many of the big characters in blockbuster-land these days are from established franchises that none stand out as strikingly new. All these properties blur together after a while, especially when combined with the overpowering wave of comic-book movies (Kick-Ass 2, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Thor: The Dark World) and movies based on popular young-adult fantasy novels (The Hunger Games, Divergent).
At a panel called “The Writer’s Journey: Breaking Into Hollywood And Comic Scriptwriting,” moderator Brandon M. Easton talked about “the transmedia marketplace,” and how aspiring creators who have a killer idea for a movie need to be open to the possibility that their baby might work just as well as a Cartoon Network series, graphic novel, or videogame. Easton said that even more than the next great story, the big media conglomerates are hungry for fresh intellectual properties they can gobble up, rather than just license. For example, while Legendary Pictures will probably do fine with its Godzilla movie, it doesn’t own the actual Godzilla character, and will only get a taste of the spin-off toys and games. One underreported element of the “Pacific Rim is bombing” story is that all the giant monsters and robots in that film belong to Legendary, which means that if the Pacific Rim fan base solidifies the way it has for Godzilla over the years, the company could potentially make piles of money off ancillary products. One summer blockbuster season was never the sum total of Legendary’s Pacific Rim strategy.
That’s why when entertainment reporters asked where the movies were at this SDCC, I wanted to point them to the enormous banner for the Angry Birds: Star Wars sequel, or to the Ghostbusters car parked in the Gaslamp District, or to the crowded Scream! Factory panel where the audience went nuts over news of impending Darkman and Nightbreed special-edition Blu-rays. Movies are still a big deal at Comic-Con. Just not always recent movies. Since so many of the modern films feel familiar anyway, fans are sticking with the older ones they already know they love.
With that in mind—and having just left The Godzilla Encounter—I got in line to join The International Fleet at the Ender’s Game tent. Due out in November, the big-screen adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 science-fiction/adventure novel has the potential to become a new geek favorite, if Card’s long history of obnoxious anti-gay proselytizing doesn’t sink the film before it launches. Outside the tent, I had my picture taken and printed on a plastic ID badge, and then stepped inside to see props from a movie that isn’t out yet, flanked by scrims onto which a couple of short Ender’s Game scenes were being projected. In other words: This was just another commercial, broken into pieces and rendered non-specific, making Ender’s Game look like every other futuristic action movie elbowing for attention at the con. The crowd quickly moved through the space toward the exit, past a thin screen onto which the giant head of star Harrison Ford was issuing instructions. We could see right through him.
Part 2: Cosplay
Insidious: Chapter 2 wanted to give me a popsicle. Well, not “give,” exactly. I’d have to earn that popsicle by taking a picture of the Insidious: Chapter 2 popsicle truck, then posting the photo on social media with an #insidious2 hashtag. Only then, having sucked up, could I suck on a popsicle. I declined. (But now that I’ve mentioned Insidious: Chapter 2 four times in this paragraph, surely somebody owes me something.)
Ever been to Las Vegas? It’s impossible to walk 10 feet on the Strip without having calling cards for escort services and private dancers waved in your face. Comic-Con is a lot like Vegas, except that instead of average dudes handing out pictures of scantily clad women, there are scantily clad women handing out pictures of science-fiction heroes, while begging passerby to check out some new show or movie.
I’ll be honest: It’s all a little gross. One of the most frustrating aspects of Comic-Con is that it’s more tease than thrust. The panels, booths, parties, and outdoor installations all show snippets, but rarely a full film or TV episode. Marketers hand out T-shirts, buttons, toys, and posters that function as ads, with little inherent value as actual products. The smarter publicity campaigns try to lessen the crassness by making the overall experience unique: by handing out popsicles, or by doing what the upcoming science-fiction comedy The World’s End did and letting attendees climb onto a 10-person pedal-truck and roll slowly through the San Diego streets, whooping all the way.
In the end, though, even the frozen treats and pedal-trucks are just a pitch. Accept this situation going in, and Comic-Con can still be fun. But expect anything more, and it gets frustrating to shuffle through all the zombies (both costumed and metaphorical) to make it from one infomercial to the next.
What makes it worse is that the sellers and the buyers all look the same. Everyone is in costume at Comic-Con—not just the cosplayers. Early in the morning, all weekend long, on any given San Diego street corner within five blocks of the convention center, groups of attractive models and actors huddled around PR flacks, receiving instructions about where they were supposed to patrol and what they were supposed to hand out. I saw men and women in blue and yellow spandex—Best Buy colors—walking the streets touting the CinemaNow service. I saw people milling about in Trask Industries hats and T-shirts, building advance buzz for next year’s X-Men movie. Local businesses sent street marketers out, too, using superheroes to pitch whiskey shots and breakfast burritos. Waiters and waitresses at Con-adjacent restaurants sported capes, masks, and thigh-high boots. Actually, scratch Las Vegas: Walking through San Diego during Comic-Con is like living inside the mind of a teenage fantasy fan.
But those teenagers—and wannabe teenagers—wear costumes of a sort, too. They declare their allegiances through T-shirt logos, and clarify their attitudes through how those logos are deployed. A Bat-signal expresses one thing; a Mickey Mouse logo in the form of a Bat-signal expresses something else. The latter shows some wit and irreverence—contrary to the popular image of the comic-book fan as overly serious and socially inept.
Many of the mainstream media outlets that come to San Diego to gawk at the con love that image, though, and go looking for weird-looking folks to interview for whimsical human-interest segments. Failing that, they stack the deck. Walking the exhibit floor one afternoon, I saw a man in a Halloween-worthy “nerd” costume stammering comically as he was being interviewed on-camera next to a bikini-wearing booth-babe. The bit would’ve been appalling, if it weren’t so lame.
Some stereotypes are based in reality. SDCC is loaded with attendees who make Eddie Deezen look like John Travolta. But as anyone who’s spent time immersed in geekdom knows, the tribe subdivides into many different types, of varying levels of sociability. Unless reporters come to the Con looking specifically for what they expect to find, I don’t know how anybody could leave San Diego thinking the actual attendees are all the same. Misfits stride side by side at SDCC with stunningly beautiful men and women—and not just ones who have something to sell. Forget the “friendless virgin” joke: Most Comic-Con-goers move in packs, and many are coupled up. Some bring their kids. The biggest secret of the Comic-Con crowd is that it’s incredibly diverse. The fanboy community has taken some deserved hits in recent years because some its more strongly opinionated members have spewed racist and sexist invective on the Internet, but SDCC itself welcomes gay, straight, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, wheelchair-bound, autistic—you name it.
If nothing else, Comic-Con allows all these people to interact as people, and not as characters in virtual space. One of the strangest yet most revealing events I attended at SDCC this year was the Rotten Tomatoes-sponsored “Your Opinion Sucks!” panel, which invited con-goers to debate movies with a group of critics. Everyone in the audience was provided with little Rotten Tomatoes paddles, with “Fresh” on one side and “Rotten” on the other, and the website’s editors and publicity team instructed us to lift those paddles to register an opinion whenever anyone mentioned the title of any movie. The idea here was both to exploit and defuse the frequent tension that arises between ardent fans and the people whose reviews dampen enthusiasm for whatever the next geek-friendly movie is meant to be.
As the panel got rolling, I appreciated the articulate passion of the fans and the reasoned responses of the critics, which was all so much more civil than the tone of most discussions on the Internet. But, ugh, those damned paddles. People on both sides of the panel were encouraged to keep the evening lively by mixing it up, and some got right into the spirit of it—including critic Scott Mantz, who answered a thoughtful analysis of Man Of Steel by yelling, “This movie should’ve been called Man Of Stupidity!” It was all in good fun, yet ultimately I found the idea that cinephilia is best expressed by shouting across a room as distasteful as the idea that I had to publicly hail the as-yet-unseen Insidious: Chapter 2 to get a popsicle. I was more in sympathy with Leonard Maltin, who at one point listened politely to one audience member’s rave for Drive, and then said that while he finds Nicolas Winding Refn’s work too pretentious, he could see why others might find his work appealing. “It’s just an opinion,” Maltin shrugged. And the crowd booed—playing the part of the angry mob, as requested.
3. The big break
“I’m lucky to have the fans I have,” Patton Oswalt told the audience at the Spreckels Theater, shortly before launching into a funny hourlong set about parenting, aging, and the many different kinds of prostitution—all for an album and TV special that will be out later this year. Like Simon Pegg (star of The World’s End and author of the memoir Nerd Do Well), Chris Hardwick (author of the book The Nerdist Way and the newly announced distributor of the D&D dramedy Zero Charisma), Oswalt has been redefining what it means to be a geek in the 21st century. In his new material, Oswalt references Lord Of The Rings locations and makes jokes about Werner Herzog and Pol Pot, showing that the modern nerd can be funny, charismatic, and eclectic.
There’s an aspirational quality to Comic-Con that at times makes the weekend as much like a self-help seminar as a celebration of pop culture. The presence of Oswalt, Joss Whedon, Neil Gaiman, Edgar Wright—all phenomenally successful folks with spectacularly nerdy interests—is a reassurance that it’s possible to make a lot of money and win the adulation of millions while knowing who Thanos is.
But how? That’s the part that remains largely mysterious to the amateurs who want so badly to be pros. Screenwriter Jonathan Callan put it well on the “Writer’s Journey” panel, when he quoted an old showbiz saying: “Breaking into Hollywood is like breaking out of prison. As soon as someone figures out a new way to do it, they seal up the hole.”
Callan had some good news for attendees, though: “Hollywood is not barred to anyone with talent.” One of the panelists, Tony Puryear, told the story of how his life changed overnight when he sold his spec script for the movie Eraser. Panelist after panelist emphasized that while aspiring writers may grumble about people who’ve made it only because of who they know or who they’re related to, the truth of the business is that producers want to work with people who are good, and who work hard. According to writer Geoffrey Thorne, “You can be Tori Spelling and get work as an actor, but not as a writer. As a writer, you only get one shot to suck.”
Still, even on the “straight talk” panel, no one could really explain how to catch a break in Hollywood; they could only say how to be ready once it happens. (Thorne’s best piece of advice was to have a stack of completed scripts ready before even trying to knock on any doors, because more finished work means a more refined craft, and besides, Hollywood producers always ask, “What else have you got?”) Practical questions from the audience like “How do I get an agent?” and “To whom do I send my spec scripts?” were met with anecdotes about the one-of-kind chances the panelists received. People who’ve made it through the gates of show business are like people who’ve successfully lost weight: Everyone’s story is highly individual and thus unrepeatable, aside from its essentials. Want to shed pounds? Eat less and exercise more. Want to be a professional writer? Get good at it, show some dedication, and opportunities will eventually arise. Beyond that? Good luck to you.
Earlier that same day, I watched Douglas Neff, the self-proclaimed “Tony Robbins of geeks,” deliver a much warmer and fuzzier self-actualization lecture, complete with worksheets and a colorful, superhero-and-Star-Trek-filled slide show. Neff began his talk by asking how many people in the room would rather be sitting on his side of the table, and after nearly every hand in the room shot up, Neff told the story of his first trip to Comic-Con with two of his buddies, and how they were awed at the opportunity to see so many of their favorite creators in person. But, he adds, “We also felt an ache. You know what I’m talking about?” Much nodding ensued.
Neff’s lecture—soon to be a book, Epic Win! The Geek’s Guide To The Journey From Fan To Creator—wasn’t about craft. And he was open about admitting that there’s no magic formula to becoming the next Whedon or Gaiman, saying that it takes talent to get anywhere. Neff’s tips had to do with goal-setting, and breaking down a big dream into manageable, reasonable pieces, while enlisting help from friends and family to play coach, cheerleader, and critic. At one point, Neff asked the crowd to pull out their worksheets and write down something they thought they could accomplish, complete with their timetable, because, as he said, “It’s important to your unconscious and the universe to visualize what your goal is.” Then he asked one woman to read hers aloud, and when she said that she plans to finish a screenplay of a zombie movie by New Year’s, he was nice enough not to say, “Really? You think the world needs another one of those?” Instead, he continued to hammer away at one of his main ideas: That it’s more important to finish a project than for the project to be a masterpiece.
What’s weirdest about Neff’s “I did it and so can you” shtick is that apparently this motivational seminar was Neff’s goal. He said up top that when he attended that first Comic-Con, his dream was to become an author and motivational speaker. The advice he gives at cons around the country isn’t bad. (I especially appreciated his tip that would-be creators should research their chosen fields before making any long-range plans, so they don’t pin all their hopes on selling a comic-book idea to a company that doesn’t accept unsolicited pitches.) But it’s odd to hear a man boast about achieving his goal when his goal was to tell other people how he achieved his goal. There’s a circularity there that ultimately has to frustrate the audience members who feel that ache Neff talks about.
Then again, Comic-Con weekend is all about that circularity: It’s about somebody in the street handing out an advertisement encouraging people to come see another advertisement. The “how-to” portions of the con hearken back to the early days, when one of the reasons people came was to show their art portfolios to professional cartoonists. But there are just as many people (if not way, way more) who come to get autographs and see friends, not to network. There are plenty of people who only want to be sitting in one of the big rooms when the first pictures and artwork from next summer’s superhero movies get released, to roar approval along with the crowd, because it’s exciting and validating. Better, then, to ignore the tension that runs throughout SDCC, between the celebration of storytellers who’ve become showbiz legends and the insistence that if attendees walk through the right door, they can crack the code to become one of those storytellers. Sure, the con puts wannabes in a room with already-ares, and tries to persuade the former that they’re on their way to becoming the latter. But that’s just business. That’s just the con job.