Cannes or cons? WonderCon and Hollywood’s new conventional thinking

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This is a longer version of my cover story in today’s edition of the Los Angeles Times Calendar section. I flew up to the Bay Area to moderate some panels at WonderCon and between the time at the microphone I jotted down notes and wrote up this piece. It’s been updated with this intro, another photo and video.

If there is anyone in Hollywood who shouldn’t be startled by loud noises, it’s Jerry Bruckheimer. Still, on Saturday, the producer behind thundering movies such as ‘Armageddon,’ ‘The Rock’ and the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ series looked positively startled by the crowd roar that greeted him at the Moscone Center during the event called WonderCon.

After struggling to find his properly assigned seat on stage, Bruckheimer surveyed the 4,500 fans and blinked into the flares and flashes of hundreds of snapping cameras. ‘This is my first big convention, so I’m really thrilled about it,’ Bruckheimer said as the fans bellowed even louder.


Hollywood knows far more about Cannes than cons, but more and more industry veterans will be finding themselves in a similar position to Bruckheimer as Hollywood’s interest in pop-culture conventions deepens and spreads beyond Comic-Con International in San Diego, the granddaddy of them all with 126,000 fans attending last year.

WonderCon is one of the dozens of pop-culture conventions around the country that began as a gathering of comic-book fans and merchants and morphed into something much broader. WonderCon appeared on track to break its attendance record of 34,000 from last year, but it’s far, far smaller than Comic-Con. The events are run by the same company, San Diego Comic Convention Inc., but they are hardly the only ones, with counterpart events run by rivals in Chicago, New York and other cities.

Bruckheimer flew to the Bay Area with the directors and stars of his Disney summer films, ‘The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time’ (May 28) and ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ (July 16), which both open before the San Diego expo.

Others in attendance over the weekend included actors Jake Gyllenhaal, Nicolas Cage, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Zoe Saldana and filmmakers Christopher Nolan, Mike Newell and Jon Turteltaub.

The convention has merchants and panels of all sorts, but the considerable press coverage was focused almost solely on the Hollywood stars and clips presented in a setting that was as arty as a car show and as relaxed as a beauty-pageant dressing room.

The big hit of the weekend was clearly ‘Kick-Ass,’ the audacious and profane Lionsgate comedy that takes a ‘Taxi Driver’ attitude toward superhero cinema. The big loser? Well, the boos for ‘The Twilight Saga: Eclipse’ had Hollywood types cringing backstage and noting that the crowd was definitely more fanboy than fangirl in its allegiances. Hours after leaving the WonderCon stage, Bruckheimer was all grins. ‘This was great. I’m a believer.’

Hollywood took note when films such as ‘Iron Man’ and ‘District 9’ set off wildfires of fan interest at San Diego’s Comic-Con with panel discussions that echoed for months across YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere. And Disney, in fact, decided to make the film ‘Tron: Legacy’ based in large part on the robust response to test footage shown there.

Watching the Comic_con impact on Hollywood, the Walt Disney Co. decided to build a tailored convention of its own; the D23 Expo debuted last year at the Anaheim Convention Center with stars such as Johnny Depp and Miley Cyrus. But success is easier to recognize than it is to reproduce; the company’s leadership declared the event a success but then announced that it will skip it this year and carry forward as a biennial event.

Instead of duplicating Comic-Con International, some people just want to import it. Los Angeles and Anaheim have made proposals to take away the giant event, which is locked in through only 2012 in San Diego. Convention organizers covet more meeting space and cheaper hotel rooms (or at least bargaining leverage), and the bidding cities long for the $60 million reportedly spent every year on hotels, meals, transportation, etc. during the gathering.

Even if Comic-Con International isn’t going up, up and away from San Diego, there are competitors looking to carve up its pop-culture sweet spot. Wizard Entertainment, publisher of Wizard magazine, a sort of Entertainment Weekly for the comics world, has a convention tour underway that plans a stop in Anaheim April 16-18 that will feature comic-book legend Stan Lee, co-creator of Spider-Man, the X-Men, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four.

The tour isn’t new but it is making its first-ever stop in Southern California with the April 16-18 event called the Anaheim Comic Con (the term ‘Comic Con’ has never been exclusive to the San Diego event and, in fact, has an even longer history of use on the East Coast). The footstep into the turf of the dominant convention that lies further south on Interstate 5 suggests that Comic-Con may be unique but its hardly alone.

Wizard books ‘legacy’ names such as ‘Star Trek’ icon William Shatner and 1960s ‘Batman’ star Adam West instead of today’s A-list movie stars, but Gareb Shamus, the CEO of Wizard, said Monday that the reach and duration of the 12-city schedule is alluring to publishers, studios and game makers who might get lost in the din of the San Diego scene.

We want to create an atmosphere that’s different than San Diego, one that has real access to the stars and is about celebrating these characters in many media, which includes Hollywood films but goes well beyond that,’ Shamus said. ‘San Diego has done a spectacular job. It took them 40 years to build it up to what it is. But there’s other ways of doing things, and people are responding to that. We have 12 shows that we started or bought, and next year we expect it to be 20 to 25. There’s a lot more coming.’

-- Geoff Boucher


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PHOTOS: Top, Jake Gyllenhaal at WonderCon. (Getty) Middle, Niclas Cage at WonderCon (Getty).