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Comic-Con, because the studios are listening

Times Staff Writer

Shannon Page, 18, an aspiring actress and self-proclaimed “nerd” from Carlsbad, took a step toward breaking into the movies this weekend.

She joined would-be record producer Stephen Matteson, 20, of Chula Vista and scores of others performing in “video auditions” at Comic-Con International, the annual gathering of youth-entertainment purveyors and customers. Their goal was to win a walk-on part in a reimagining of the 1984 film “Revenge of the Nerds,” underway at Fox Atomic, the youth-focused division of Fox Filmed Entertainment.

“This is my beginning, my break,” Page said. “Thank you, Comic-Con!”

Here on the crowded convention floor, Comic-Con devotees mixed with movie stars, filmmakers, comics creators, gamesmen, toy manufacturers, even a former Playmate of the Month. About 100,000 attended the four-day fest, which ended Sunday.

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For established studios and indies, Comic-Con has become a must. And the fans -- those derided as nerds and geeks by the jocks and cheerleaders in school -- are the sought-after buzz-makers and ticket buyers.

“Comic-Con is huge,” said John Hegeman, chief operating officer of Fox Atomic. “It represents the core, the people who are just fanatic about this kind of entertainment. If you’re in the 17-to-24 age-group market, this is where you have to be.”

This is an audience that likes to be thought of as an in-crowd and now is demanding to be involved in the process of making the movies.

A high-water mark was set by the soon-to-be-released “Snakes on a Plane,” starring Samuel L. Jackson. Reacting to online comments during filming, the filmmakers added more gore, more sex and more snakes biting more people.

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As a reward, Comic-Con fans were treated to a 10-minute preview of the film Friday night. And they were further treated to Jackson, delighting the fans as he spewed his trademark four-syllable curse word, as in “There are ... snakes on this ... plane.” The 6,000-plus fans packed into the largest of the lecture rooms went wild.

And the roars of approval were heard again when Jackson told the group that the pre-release feedback that shaped “Snakes” is the future for the ... movie business.

If that’s the case, Fox Atomic may be at the forefront. Through its website, FoxAtomic.com, the studio had been advertising the chance for “15 gigs of fame” and a possible walk-on.

“This is where the magic can happen,” said a Fox Atomic barker, beckoning fans to mug and coo for the camera. “This is where we release the inner nerd.”

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With individual passwords, the auditioner can access his or her clip and download for distribution to buddies or posting on MySpace.com. Later the Fox Atomic site will let fans vote on who should get the walk-ons.

Each tryout got a Nerd T-shirt, passed out by young women wearing tight-fitting, low-cut shirts reading, “Talk Nerd to Me.”

If nerd is a badge of honor, slacker is not far behind.

The most anticipated of the sneaks and lectures was Saturday afternoon’s “Clerks II” session with director Kevin Smith. The line formed hours in advance and trailed outside the convention center and down several blocks, with fans waiting patiently in the oppressive sun.

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In true slacker style, Smith was late.

Also on the roster was David Arquette, writer and director of “The Tripper,” starring Paul Reubens. He described his movie as “a political horror film about a person who’s obsessed with Ronald Reagan, and he attacks hippies at an outdoor music festival.”

For stars who couldn’t travel to San Diego, video greetings served as a stand-in. Jack Black sent greetings and a plug for his upcoming “Tenacious D in: The Pick of Destiny.”

Adding to the party atmosphere were the crashers. “Crashing” is de rigueur at Comic-Con, where stars, unannounced, just happen to be in the neighborhood and drop in.

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In-your-face comedian Lewis Black crashed a panel discussion and snarled a personal greeting. He said he hopes fans like “Accepted,” in which he plays a high school principal to a slacker student who fakes acceptance to a phony college to trick his parents and impress his girlfriend.

If the Comic-Con audience doesn’t like “Accepted” or Black? Then, "... you,” the comedian said, drawing the customary raucous reaction when the expletive or a variant was used.

To be sure, Comic-Con is not a venue for most kinds of movies. This is not the crowd for “The Devil Wears Prada” or a movie treatment of a Henry James novel. But for slasher, sci-fi, fantasy, heavy-action or horror movies -- or anything that is seen as a sarcasm-fueled attack on the adult world of rules, political correctness and full-time jobs -- Comic-Con is ready made.

There were movie collectibles to buy. For $1,500, the metal razor armature used by Freddy Krueger in “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare” could be yours.

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The “Star” productions -- “Wars” and “Trek” -- remain the starter dough for much of Comic-Con. The most common costumes donned by convention-goers were from “Trek.” Men with spreading bald spots were seen discussing the intricacies of lightsabers.

On the exhibit floor, fans who bought $20 of “Star Trek” stuff received a free ticket good for one photograph of themselves sitting in a replica of Capt. Kirk’s chair.

“Go Where No Fan Has Gone Before,” said the come-on.

Comic-Con has grown exponentially since it started as a gathering of comic-book fans in the basement of a downtown hotel in 1970s. It has also evolved.

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The growing presence of the movie industry is one example of that evolution. So too is the shift away from being almost exclusively a male event; more women are attending, making up maybe a third of the assemblage.

“This is good,” Ben Karson, executive producer of StupidVideos.com, said of the increase in female attendees. His company has a working relationship with Fox Atomic.

At its heart, Comic-Con represents an American contradiction: being an individual by paying to join a mass movement.

Amore Nichols, 23, of Redondo Beach, loves the sci-fi fantasy novels of Laurel K. Hamilton and has a saying from one tattooed on her arm: “If you offer the roses violence, they will return the favor.”

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She feels comfortable at Comic-Con. “Nobody mentions my hair,” she said, describing its color as magenta.

A small group came dressed as characters from “Hellsing,” the Japanese anime series about a secret British agency that fights vampires and other species of undead. The costumes were military.

“The modern dynamic between the military and zombie hunters is always interesting,” said Duane Ackley, 24, a computer builder from Santee.

For many of the Comic-Con fans, the end of this year’s fest only begins the countdown for next year’s. Organizers keep in touch with their fans, with more frequent updates as the event approaches.

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“Every year it gets bigger and with more stuff,” said Ethan Gee, 18, of San Marcos, dressed in a “Star Trek” costume. “Comic-Con is the only time I can be with people like me, who like what I like. It’s the only time I can really be myself.”


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