Does Comic-Con matter?

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It’s a huge event. And we love it. But does Comic-Con matter? Does it really matter, at the end of the day, if a TV show or movie has a presence at the San Diego mega-event? Does it genuinely make a noticeable impact in a project’s popularity if the conference’s hardcore fans tweet their approval? Or is Comic-Con to the entertainment industry simply like an office holiday party that everybody feels like they must attend — you know, just to be seen.

Once, the annual #SDCC, which gets underway today, was actually a comic book event. Then it added memorabilia and movies. Now, 43 years since the first Comic-Con gathering, TV is on equal footing. And it’s no longer even a prerequisite for a project to have a toe in the sci-fi/fantasy/horror genres. A few years ago, USA Network taking Burn Notice to Comic-Con raised an eyebrow. This year, NBC announced it will bring procedural drama The Blacklist and FX will take It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and nobody blinked. This is where the buzz is at.

For TV, ABC’s Lost is the legend. The mystery drama was among the first TV shows ever to premiere its pilot at Comic-Con back in 2004. That fall, Lost became a huge hit and major presence at the event for the rest of its run. Now, pilot screenings are common practice, with upcoming shows like Fox’s Almost Human, The CW’s The 100 and CBS’ Intelligence debuting in the cavernous conference halls this year.

Timing is key. The July conference is perfectly positioned to take advantage of a crucial moment in the yearly broadcast TV cycle — the start of the promotional ramp-up for new fall shows fall. But does all this hype make a difference? “The simple answer is Yes,” says Lisa Gregorian, chief marketing officer of Warner Bros. Television Group, which is sending 17 shows to San Diego this week. “It’s not just the 140,000 fans who attend, but it’s the amplification [of their reactions] through social media to all of their friends.”

Gregorian says the value of promoting a show at Comic-Con is not merely anecdotal, but measurable. “Within all of our systems, you have very clear call-outs that we’re tracking, such as earned media value,” she says. “We have an ROI report we analyze after each Comic-Con.”

As an early barometer of the national appeal of a show, however, Comic-Con can be tricky to trust. At last year’s fan event, we attended pilot screenings and tried to gauge the crowd reaction during the panels. We spoke to fans afterward for Fox’s The Following (viewers really loved it), The CW’s Arrow (loved it), ABC’s 666 Park Ave. (mixed), and NBC’s Revolution (mixed-to-negative). Yet in the fall, Revolution, which Comic-Con attendees ripped for being too derivative of other shows, ended up with the highest premiere rating (though by the end of the season, The Following edged it out). There were years attending Comic-Con where — if you judged by crowd adoration alone — you would think NBC’s Chuck was TV’s biggest hit.

On Friday, the panel for Joss Whedon’s upcoming ABC action-drama Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is certain to blow the doors off Ballroom 20. Yet the question will be whether the high-buzz title will register with fans beyond the Con, or end up with Firefly-sized ratings.

On the film side, Comic-Con can distort reality further. Cowboys & Aliens caused a huge Comic-Con stir in 2011, the year before it was released. Star Harrison Ford was marched onto the stage in handcuffs. There were big roars of approval. Then … the film had a box office opening weekend face-plant, tying The Smurfs for $36 million.

Pacific Rim is another recent example. The film had a massive Comic-Con appearance last year, yet the monsters vs. robots title struggled to break out of its geek-ghetto and find mainstream appeal. Pacific Rim opened at third place last weekend.

On the other hand, The Avengers panel in 2010 brought together all of the cast and helped build anticipation — not just for The Avengers, but for Thor and Captain America. Images and news stories from the panel went global, and the Hall H crowd served as a megaphone for the film.

Perhaps a more illustrative example was Django Unchained, a less conventional Comic-Con pick that helped pick up steam at the fan event.

For both TV and films, the lesson seems to be that it’s not enough for studios to show up in San Diego and kiss the geek ring. It’s not even enough to impress the fans in the room. Let’s face it — if somebody pays for an airline ticket to San Diego and a pricey hotel room to vacation at Comic-Con, they’re probably going to like Pacific Rim and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World anyway. The Comic-Con crowd is a powerful niche group, but still a niche. The tweets from Hall H help promote a TV show or movie, but the title must also have strong appeal to those who have never heard of Comic-Con to really take advantage of the buzz.

In other words: Comic-Con is arguably most effective, oddly enough, when a project isn’t merely “perfect for Comic-Con.”

Oh, and there’s one more Comic-Con benefit, and it’s only appropriate that this man points it out: “Yes, it matters,” writes Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof. “Who knows if it has a marketing impact in terms of ratings or box office, but if they LIKE it, bringing a project to the Con establishes a relationship with the fans… A relationship that is intimate and lasting and intense… And although they will occasionally grumble, these are the very same loyal folks that will save your show if it’s on the cancellation ropes — or even Kickstart your movie.”

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