The festival of pop culture fandom returns to San Diego, now with more fervor-fomenting film-directing phenoms.
Zombies will parade through downtown San Diego. Glamorous movie stars will patiently answer questions posed to them by amateur Jedi knights and homemade Harry Potters. Spandex will be tested by every sort of body shape and, while it won’t always be pretty, it will be forever documented on YouTube.
That’s right: Comic-Con International, the circus maximus of pop culture, the World’s Fair for fanboys, is back. More than 125,000 people are expected to attend the Thursday-through-Sunday event that is a bazaar of the bizarre for collectors and, more than ever, the place where the entertainment industry goes to hype its movies, games, toys, television shows and assorted cults of personality.
This year the tent is once again bulging at the seams. Remember when comic-book nerds had to defend their tastes? Now they’re defending their territory, squawking that “their Con” is overrun with genre tourists and promotional piggybackers. And with good reason: On Friday, Emmy winner Patricia Heaton (“Everybody Loves Raymond”) will be on hand for the screening of ABC’s new heartland sitcom “The Middle.” The feeble connection is explained in the official program: Heaton’s character finds that “getting her kids out the door for school every morning is a super-heroic act.”
Nevertheless, there will be plenty of movie stars in attendance this year touting high-profile projects more likely to set fanboy hearts aflutter — among them Robert Downey Jr., Mickey Rourke and Scarlett Johansson, all in town to warm up the jets for next year’s “Iron Man 2,” and Denzel Washington, promoting the post-apocalyptic western “The Book of Eli.” The loudest cheers — or certainly the most shrill ones — will be for Robert Pattinson, the British heartthrob who became your daughter’s favorite actor by playing the “Twilight” vampire Edward Cullen, in town to talk about the franchise’s second installment, “New Moon.”
Maybe more notable than the actors are the directors making the trek to the San Diego Convention Center. James Cameron, who is coming with perhaps the most tantalizing project, his years-in-the-making “Avatar,” leads a parade of elite filmmakers at this year’s convention.
Oscar winner Cameron directed the highest-grossing film of all time, 1997’s “Titanic,” and hasn’t directed a major Hollywood release since. He wrote “Avatar” before “Titanic,” and, essentially, he’s been waiting for the technology he needed to make the otherworldly adventure. Hollywood is buzzing that the movie’s use of immersive 3-D technology and revolutionary visual effects makes it “a game-changer.”
“There’s a renaissance because now, if you can imagine it, you can do it, and that’s different than it’s ever been before,” Cameron said.
Cameron will screen 20 minutes of “Avatar” footage on Thursday in the 6,500-seat Hall H, and while he doesn’t mind that “game-changer” descriptor (“It’s good,” he said, “as long as it does change the game, right?”), he said he is most enthused that his movie bucks the trend of movies finding their stories and characters in some other medium, such as a comic book, TV show or fantasy novel.
“We’ve had all these big money-making franchise films for a long time now, like ‘Batman,’ ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Star Trek,’ and there’s a certain kind of comfort factor that comes with that,” Cameron said. “But there’s no ‘shock of the new’ that’s possible. It’s been a while since there was something that grabbed us by the lapels, dragged us out the door and took us on a journey to a place we didn’t know … like ‘Matrix.’ We had no real way of knowing what that film was going to be about, and it took us on a ride.”
Cameron says that banking hundreds of millions of dollars on something wholly new is “simultaneously one of the great strengths and one of the potential weaknesses” with “Avatar,” due in theaters Dec. 18. But he won’t risk the ire of fans who would slag on his movie because it didn’t match the source material.
“We won’t be prejudged like ‘Watchmen,’ or even ‘Batman’ or ‘Spider-Man’ or something that has a huge brand awareness and fan base,” the director said with a chuckle. “…. They can’t say we messed it up.”
Close on Cameron’s heels when it comes to setting box-office records is another Oscar winner, Peter J ackson, the director of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy who, startlingly, has never made it to Comic-Con before.
Also making their first appearances at the convention this year are Tim Burton and Robert Zemeckis. Burton will show scenes from “Alice in Wonderland,” which stars Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, while Zemeckis is screening 3-D footage from his motion-capture retelling of “A Christmas Carol,” with Jim Carrey in key roles. Spike Jonze (“Where the Wild Things Are”), Guy Ritchie (“Sherlock Holmes”), Jon Favreau (“Iron Man 2″) and Kevin Smith (“A Couple of Dicks”) will also be on hand for presentations and panels.
Jackson said that a library-card approach to movie-making is understandable — he did it with J.R.R. Tolkien, and “there are perennial stories like ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ … which have been around since almost as long as film and remade every 20 years, and that’s OK” — but it shouldn’t be the de facto approach.
The New Zealand filmmaker is making his first trip to Comic-Con to promote next month’s “District 9,” an original tale about aliens who come to Earth and are forced to live in internment camp slums, which he produced. The feature film debut from South African director Neill Blomkamp has benefited from a somewhat cryptic marketing campaign using bus stops and billboards. But Jackson says it is still “under the radar” and will have a steeper challenge in creating awareness and interest than movies constructed out of recycled source material.
“That’s one of the most depressing things about the film industry generally today,” Jackson said. “The writers and directors should be blamed just as much as the studios because really everything seems to be a remake or adapting a 1970s TV show that was never particularly good.”
Outside Hall H
The Hollywood doings in Hall H will dominate the press coverage, but most of the people who go to the convention never set foot in that auditorium. There are ballrooms devoted to panels of television shows, with the casts and creators of “Lost,” “Dexter,” “True Blood,” “Bones” “Doctor Who” and “Battlestar Galactica” among the small-screen programming. There will also be a live table reading of a “SpongeBob SquarePants” episode by the voice stars of the show and singalongs for “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the Web sensation “Dr. Horrible.”
In the spirit of P.T. Barnum, everyone will be doing what they can to stand out: Sony Pictures, for instance, will have makeup pros on hand to give fans free “undead makeovers” so they can march in a Thursday night zombie parade through downtown San Diego meant to stir interest in the upcoming Woody Harrelson film “Zombieland.”
There’s a whole day (Friday) devoted to “Star Wars” too, and Luke Skywalker himself — actor Mark Hamill — will be attending. Hamill is at Comic-Con primarily to promote his own comic book titles and his voice work on an upcoming video game called Darksiders. He hasn’t appeared in the George Lucas saga since 1983, but that doesn’t matter to giddy devotees who will forever see him with a lightsaber in
“There is no other fan in the world like a sci-fi or fantasy fan; it’s amazing how committed they are to their hobby,” said the 57-year-old Hamill, who was a fan attending conventions in San Francisco himself as a youngster. “I’ve been on both sides of the table; I know this passion. I ran into the young guy, Zachary Quinto, who is playing Spock in the new ‘Star Trek’ movie, and I told him, ‘Get your vacation in now. Your life is about to change. The fans won’t let you walk down the street anymore.’”
– Geoff Boucher
Photos: Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man 2.” (Credit: Marvel Studios). Sam Worthington and James Cameron on the set of “Avatar.” (Credit: 20th Century Fox). “Alice in Wonderland.” (Credit: Disney)
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