Actress Natalie Portman knows something about the dark side -- she was Mrs. Darth Vader, after all -- and for a moment on Friday she came face to face with it.
The setting was the International Comic-Con, which began life three decades ago as a gathering where mostly young men rummaged through cardboard boxes for vintage comic books. But as Hollywood increasingly bases its movies on comics and graphic novels, the gathering has turned into a sort of Cannes for geeks: They carry such clout that the likes of Portman and other A-list celebrities make the pilgrimage here each year to work the crowd.
The fans at this weekend’s four-day convention -- their number is expected to far exceed the 75,000 at last year’s festival -- represent a double-edged sword for the movie industry. The true-believer audience is eager to embrace the big-screen adaptations of its heroes but is equally ready to reject them.
Either way, the fans are poised to spread the word to legions of fellow fans via the Internet.
On Friday, Portman and producer Joel Silver appeared for a question-and-answer panel before a crowd already skeptical about their new film, “V for Vendetta,” based on the 1980s Orwellian graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. The more than 7,000 savvy “Vendetta” followers were well aware of the recent decision to switch the male lead actor in mid-production (from James Purefoy to Hugo Weaving) and the move by Moore -- a towering figure in comics -- to publicly disassociate himself from the film.
After waiting two hours to get into Comic-Con’s movie preview showroom, they cheered in response to the world premiere of the sleek trailer. But when Portman, Silver and others from the movie met the audience, fan largesse lasted exactly two questions. The third fan to reach the microphone elicited robust applause when he pointedly said: “I wonder why Alan Moore hasn’t signed up for this.”
But instead of blowing up, the issue was quickly defused by panel members ready to answer it. “Alan has his own views of things,” said Lloyd, who was also in attendance and praised the film’s “very good script.” And for the moment, at least, “V for Vendetta,” due for a Nov. 5 release, seemed to be off the hook.
The makers of “Vendetta,” whose film touches on such hot-button topics as terrorism and bombings in London, aren’t the only ones to face the Comic-Con gantlet. In addition to Portman, the four-day schedule includes Oscar-winner Charlize Theron, on hand to promote another sci-fi film, “Aeon Flux,” as well as Jack Black, Kate Beckinsale, the Rock and directors Tony Scott, David Cronenberg and John Landis, among others, touting assorted projects that orbit the fan planet.
Movie studios are so serious about courting these tastemakers that they routinely spend big money on giving them the first-look, specially edited previews of films and special souvenirs (such as the “V” mask handed out Friday to people who saw the preview). They also pay to deliver the films’ stars and props from all points of the globe.
“You might see studios spend a quarter of a million dollars on Comic-Con now,” says John Hegeman of Lions Gate Entertainment, the film distributor that this year footed the bill for a lavish Friday night masquerade ball and for bringing in the entire cast of the company’s upcoming horror film “The Devil’s Rejects.”
Comic-Con has become a big enough tent to include not only superheroes but also samurai warriors, slasher film villains, gnomes and all manner of other fantastical folk.
“For us, Comic-Con is everything,” said Hegeman, Lions Gate Entertainment’s president of worldwide marketing. “It’s the Holy Grail, as far as reaching the concentrated genre fans that we need to communicate with.”
That said, the allure of big-budget science fiction and hero movies these days goes well beyond niche audiences. Since 1999, 11 of the 15 most successful films at the U.S. box office have fallen squarely inside the genre turf of Comic-Con superheroes, science fiction and fantasy. Such franchises as “The Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars” and “Spider-Man” show that a one-time win can be parlayed into seasons of success.
Comic-book fans were once a deeply frustrated constituency. Hollywood typically mauled their beloved heroes in screen adaptations and injected a camp sensibility that chafed the fans who, above all, hated to be mocked.
That has changed as films as diverse as “Men in Black,” “The Mask,” “Sin City” and “Road to Perdition” have found success with deeply faithful renderings of the comic-book pages. With success, though, the long-suffering comics fans are quick to be indignant when they don’t like what they see.
“If they think you are lying to them or that you are letting them down, they will let you have it,” says Avi Arad, president and chief executive of Marvel Studios, which has guided such characters as Spider-Man, Blade and the X-Men to box-office heroics. “Don’t tell them you read the comic book if you didn’t; they’ll ask you about what happened on Page 11 of Issue No. 6. If they don’t like what they see and hear, they spread word on the Internet.”
Studio publicity and marketing people still refer to the Comic-Con clientele as “the F&Gs;” -- it’s short for “freaks and geeks” -- but now they do it quietly or with a measure of affection. The studios also monitor the intense fan chatter on the Internet and woo convention crowds as if they were studio company shareholders.
“It’s unbelievable how things have changed.... The fans have the power now,” said Otis Chambliss of Rancho Cucamonga, one of thousands of fans in attendance Friday.
“It’s the advent of the Internet,” film producer Silver said. “These days, you can have a guy sitting on a couch somewhere writing good or bad things about a movie and it makes a difference. At Comic-Con, you have 6,000 guys in one room.”
Fans toting laptops have been known to race online to be the first to spread word about the latest sneak peek or juicy tidbit that Hollywood unveils at Comic-Con, in part to gauge the crowd’s early reaction.
“You have to go and you have to show them what you have,” said director Bryan Singer. He has pulled himself away from the tight filming schedule of “Superman Returns” in Sydney to be in San Diego today with footage from the planned summer 2006 release.
There are many reasons for the surge in the fantastical at theaters, most of them technology-based. There’s the digitalization of special effects, which makes it far easier to believe a man can fly (or ignite his body, stretch his limbs, etc.), as well as the explosive profit growth of video games, which has made studios mindful of the value of good guy-versus-bad guy fare.
On a more human level, many in the current generation of filmmakers -- including the Wachowski brothers (of “Matrix” fame) and Sam Raimi (now priming for his third “Spider-Man” film) -- grew up revering comics.
Packing theaters across the country requires wide appeal, but the first step to reaching that broad base is satisfying the core aficionados who will zealously celebrate -- or tirelessly punish -- movies that speak to their interests.
Marvel’s Arad said the reactions in the room carry weight. So what would happen if there were unanimous jeers at Comic-Con to a concept or casting decision? “If it was, like, 90% of the room? I would change my plans,” Arad said. “You would be a fool not to.”
Sometimes there are howls. Comic-Con even warns registered speakers about heckling.
In the question-and-answer sessions, the tone from the audience microphone can veer from embarrassingly reverential to stingingly hostile. Such big-studio superhero adaptations as “Elektra,” “The Hulk,” “The Core” and “Catwoman” began their inglorious public lives with clunker showings at Comic-Con. One rival studio executive remembered that the reactions to Warner Bros.’ “Catwoman” felt like “some episode of ‘When Animals Attack.’ ”
No exaggeration: The fates of those films were put in motion at Comic-Con, Lions Gate’s Hegeman believes.
“ ‘Elektra’ completely died there, just died,” Hegeman said. “The same thing with ‘Catwoman.’ The people in those rooms don’t just react, they react and they spread the word, good or bad.”
Hollywood’s strange romancing of the genre fans is amazing to watch for Michael Uslan, an executive producer of “Batman Begins,” “Constantine” and other comic-book adaptations.
Uslan was a seventh-grader at the New York Comic Book Convention of 1964, held in a shabby hotel in the Bowery and acknowledged as the first of its kind. “It was the first comic-book convention ever, and I remember there were rats and bums in the doorways,” Uslan said. “A copy of Action Comics No. 1, the first Superman comic book, was auctioned off for, like, $40. It’s going for $1 million now.”
There has been a similarly dramatic surge in the value of fans and their conventions in the eyes of Hollywood, Uslan said.
“It’s a sea change,” Uslan said. “For so long there was a struggle to get respect, and now there is respect. The Internet has been a liberating force, and the success of these films has changed the relationship. The fans have power now, and they know it.”
Do they ever. The fans who will come from all 50 states and beyond for the convention typically fall into the expected categories: Young, male and hyper-focused on their fiction of devotion.
But every year it gets more diverse. Sandy Flores of San Diego was just one of the empowered fans in attendance Friday, relishing the clout she holds. “They have to show me why I should go see this movie,” she said of “V for Vendetta.”
Anwar Ganama, who flew in from Hamburg, Germany, for the convention, was another. “Moore is the guy who wrote the book, and if his name is not on the movie, I want to know why.”
It’s a message Hollywood has heard, loud and clear. When a fan asked Portman on Friday how “her liberal arts education at Harvard University had prepared her for her career in acting,” the petite actress smiled coyly.
“It made me good at not offending anybody with my answers,” Portman said.