SAN DIEGO — On the first day of Comic-Con, producer Ben Browning was dozing in the lobby of the Wyndham San Diego Bayside Hotel, exhausted after an early morning drive from Los Angeles to promote his independent science fiction film “Europa Report.”
Browning was waiting to make a presentation in the San Diego Convention Center’s largest and most infamous room, Hall H, which holds more than 6,000 people and hosts the event’s biggest names — casts of movies and TV shows with cult-like followings, such as “The Hunger Games,” “Captain America” and “The Walking Dead.”
Alpha fans camp out overnight for the chance to see stars and advance footage on the cavernous hall’s jumbo screens, and the fans’ penchant for sharing reactions via social media has made the space a temple of pop culture marketing and snark.
But “Europa Report” was an anomaly on the star-studded Hall H schedule, a bantamweight film by Comic-Con’s increasingly outsize standards. Whereas most of the movies here are big-budget studio franchises due in wide release over the next year, “Europa Report” is a documentary-style thriller that cost less than $10 million to make and is already available on demand and on iTunes before arriving in theaters in limited release Aug. 2.
Unlike Legendary Pictures, which turned a San Diego warehouse into a Japanese monster theme park to promote “Godzilla,” or Ubisoft, the video game company firing canons from a pirate ship docked behind the convention center to generate buzz about “Assassin’s Creed IV,” Browning and Magnet Releasing, the small company distributing “Europa Report,” had no over-the-top stunts planned, just some footage to share and a conversation with Ecuadorean director Sebastián Cordero, actress Karolina Wydra, composer Bear McCreary and two NASA scientists who consulted on the movie.
Most of the audience for the “Europa Report” panel would actually just be staking out their spots to see presentations that followed it, including panels on Showtime’s “Dexter” or the young adult literary adaptation “Divergent,” not that that dampened Browning’s enthusiasm at breakfast with Cordero.
“It’s like standing at the side of a stream with a net,” said Browning, who has been to Comic-Con with previous projects such as the “Masters of Horror” TV series. “If they’re swimming by, we’ll catch them.”
Cordero, whose thriller “Cronicas” was a hit with critics at Cannes in 2004, is a newcomer to Comic-Con. Told of the size of the room and the fact that his movie would be in a slot held in previous years by Disney, his eyes widened.
“We don’t have anything like this in Ecuador,” Cordero said. “Now I’m getting stressed.”
Cordero shot his movie, about a team of astronauts on a mission to find life on one of Jupiter’s moons, over 18 days in a Brooklyn warehouse in 2011. After “Europa Report’s” L.A. Film Festival premiere in June, Variety called the movie “meticulously crafted” and “genuinely compelling,” and multiple reviewers compared the storytelling to “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Despite relying on minimal online promotion, “Europa Report” has been the top-selling science fiction film on iTunes for the last two weeks.
Nevertheless its international director and cast were little known to most of the Comic-Con audience, so in a bid to be included the filmmakers pitched a panel stressing their hard science bona fides, and invited Jet Propulsion Laboratory researchers Kevin Hand and Steven Vance to talk about the plausibility of life on Europa and astronomer Phil Plait to moderate.
Two hours before their panel, Browning huddled with the scientists in the lobby and Magnet Releasing’s vice president of publicity, Arianne Rocchi, joined them.
Browning was interested in balancing the moderator’s enthusiasm for topics like Europa’s underground oceans with the need to sell a movie. “People are going to be really into the science part, but we want it to be entertaining,” he said.
When the conversation veered to a discussion of Helium-3 mining, Rocchi gently steered it back to the task at hand. “Remember to tell people the movie is coming out, that it’s available on iTunes,” she said.
As a woman in bunny ears and another in a top hat walked past, Plaitt, who has moderated at Comic-Con before, reminded the group of the unpredictable crowds.
“If somebody gets stabbed in the eye, prepare to be flexible,” he said, recalling a 2010 incident when one attendee jabbed another with a pen in an argument over seats.
Then came the moment of truth. Hall H was 80% full and the crowd polite — if a little puzzled.
“What’s ‘Europa Report?’” a teen girl asked another girl in a “Dexter” T-shirt. “I have no idea,” Dexter T-shirt replied, without looking up from her phone.
As the panel began, Ethan Anderton, managing editor of the movie news website Firstshowing.net, tweeted, “Europa Report is probably a cool sci-fi film, but the project has no business being in Hall H, especially when it’s already on VOD.”
On the brightly lighted stage, Cordero thanked the audience and confessed, “It’s a little bit intimidating to be up here.”
But he appeared to relax a bit after a dramatic clip from the movie played and the crowd responded warmly, letting out an audible “awww” when it cut off before revealing a key plot point.
Their panel hit the requisite beats. Wydra, an elegant former model, described filming in a heavy spacesuit. Hand made inspirational comments about the future of exploration. And Plait reminded the audience that the movie was already available on iTunes and is coming out in theaters in a few weeks.
After the hourlong presentation, as Browning and Cordero were being whisked to do interviews, Cordero reflected on his first Comic-Con experience.
“I feel it went really well,” he said. “But I have completely blanked out on what I said up there.”
Outside Hall H, a new line was forming.
“I heard Harrison Ford is coming,” someone said.
– Rebecca Keegan | @LATHeroComplex
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