Will the success formula of Comic-Con International work for a Mickey Mouse operation?
The leadership at Walt Disney Co. hopes so as it moves forward with the D23 Expo, a four-day event next month in Anaheim that will celebrate -- and sell -- all things Disney with celebrity appearances and slick sneak previews of upcoming films, television shows and theme park attractions.
The approach is pure Comic-Con, the pop-culture festival that has become one of Hollywood's most potent megaphones by providing hard-core fans with insider-access experiences that turn many of them into Internet apostles for movies, television shows and other projects.
Last month, more than 126,000 people attended Comic-Con in San Diego, and films such as "District 9" and "Avatar" enjoyed a strong surge in public awareness after putting stars and filmmakers in the same room as fans hard-wired into Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.
Disney was a key player at Comic-Con with Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton appearing before a cheering crowd to promote their 2010 release "Alice in Wonderland," but now the company is looking to separate itself by throwing its own pop-culture party in Disneyland's shadow.
Robert Iger, Disney's president and chief executive, said that the company has, more than any other entertainment outlet, enjoyed decades of support from "very passionate, very ardent" uber-fans, but now, in this digital age, that constituency has greater expectations as well as newfound tastemaker power.
"We will be much better served by serving them better," Iger said. "We live in a world where digital communication enables people to express their opinions about things to a much broader set of people. We call it the combustion of digital world of mouth . . . their ability to communicate with others is unlike anything we've seen at any time before."
It's a good time for Disney to reach out to fans -- the recession has been bruising, even for a company with a market cap of $49.8 billion. Disney's profits declined in the most recent quarter with tough times for television advertising, DVD sales and domestic theme park attendance. The film studio posted its first operating loss since 2005, despite the success of Pixar's "Up." Disney's ABC has also struggled, with declines in summer prime-time viewership landing the network in fourth place.
Still, company leaders are sunny about the potential of D23, which is a chance to preach to their most devoted choir, the fans who are true believers in the Disney marketing message, that the company creates touchstones, not just entertainment properties.
The event at the venerable Anaheim Convention Center will be a chance for Disney to promote feature films such as Burton's "Alice," "The Princess and the Frog" and "A Christmas Carol" but also will serve as a big tent for Disney's varied empire. Attendees will not only be offered the chance to buy new teen-pop CDs and vintage animation cels, for example, they also will be pitched travel packages for the Disney Cruise Line.
ABC Entertainment Group President Steve McPherson and stars Patricia Heaton, Kelsey Grammer and Ed O'Neill will be part of a major presence for the network, which has a screening room and an exhibit dedicated to "Lost."
The expo's schedule aspires to be all things to all Disney fans. The Disney Channel will bring the cast of "Wizards of Waverly Place," screen an upcoming episode and stage a musical performance. Pixar fans will be more interested in the final day's slate of events: a presentation by animation guru John Lasseter, a special "Toy Story 3" preview and a digital 3-D screening of the first two "Toy Story" films.
The expo will also try to stir interest in the reworking of California Adventure, the struggling Anaheim venture that is undergoing a $1 billion reworking and will, in 2012, have a new 12-acre attraction based on Pixar's "Cars." It may also be used to announce the major upgrade to "Star Tours," the somewhat creaky Disneyland ride based on "Star Wars."
The D23 Expo (the name alludes to 1923, when founder Walt Disney arrived in Hollywood) will begin Sept. 10 with an Iger speech about the future of the company. Iger may take the opportunity to share a favorite anecdote about a fan who stood up at a Disney shareholders meeting in New Mexico and said the company should give its most passionate fans more respect and special access.
"Some of these fans show up at those meetings," Iger said, "because, other than going to our parks, it's been the only way they can feel truly connected."
D23's corporate heritage sets it apart from Comic-Con, which started in 1970 as a scruffy merchant show in a hotel basement. Now bursting at the seams, it has become a world's fair for fanboys.
Conventions in New York and Chicago are cutting into the San Diego event's supremacy as far as Hollywood programming, and it's reasonable to wonder if Disney will also scale back its participation if it finds success in Anaheim. The D23 Expo is $35 a day (or less with multi-day passes) -- for programming that runs from 10 a.m. past 11 p.m.
Disney is not the first corporate entertainment power to create a major dedicated expo aimed at giving fans an insider experience. About 75,000 people attended Star Wars Celebration in 1999 in Denver, organized by LucasFilm, and there have been six editions of the event since, including a 2006 staging at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Lucasfilm is entertaining civic sweetheart deals now for a 2010 encore.
Like "Star Wars," Disney has a world-class array of toys and collectibles, and there will be 20,000 square feet at the expo devoted to merchandise new and old. A Disney Treasures exhibit will feature more than 100 rare items, among them artifacts such as Annette Funicello's sweater from "The Mickey Mouse Club" and Fess Parker's coonskin cap from "Davy Crockett." Iger said he was stunned during a warehouse tour of the pieces, especially a "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" prop of the Nautilus that he called "a jewel."
Iger said some components of D23 may eventually travel beyond Anaheim -- perhaps those vintage items, considering the success of the touring "Harry Potter" exhibit -- but overall the expo is viewed as an annual Anaheim tradition in the making.
The D23 brand goes beyond the expo. It's a new $75-a-year paid-membership fan club that launched in March to provide "a high-end, elite-level access" for intense Disney fans, according to Steven Clark, head of the initiative. It includes a glossy quarterly magazine and members-only special events and advance screenings.
The passion Disney is hoping to tap into is the same one that powers hundreds of blogs that obsess over Disney lore, theme park doings and daily corporate life of the company employing more than 150,000.
The D23 community got off to a slow start, according to Al Lutz, editor of the independent Disney blog MiceAge, but the expo seems to mark a turning point. "To their credit, they have really come to the ballpark," he said. "They've been responsive and listening to the fan community."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Here's the 411 on D23
The four-day expo has programming from 10 a.m. to past 11 p.m. There will be numerous film screenings, many with cast members and creators in attendance. Among them: "Darby O'Gill and the Little People" (Sept. 10), "The Shaggy Dog" (Sept. 11), "Sleeping Beauty" (Sept. 12) and a special digital 3-D screening of "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2" (Sept. 13).
There's been talk of a major overhaul of the "Star Wars"-themed "Star Tours" attraction at Disneyland, and actor Frank Oz confirmed to The Times earlier this year that he had recorded new dialogue for Yoda, who would be added to the somewhat dated ride. Lucasfilm and Disney won't comment, but the fact that a large Stormtroopers group is scheduled to appear at D23 suggests this might be the event where plans are announced.
Fans of Disney's hand-drawn animation can catch 30 minutes of footage from "The Princess and the Frog," which has never been seen publicly, during Chief Executive Bob Iger's presentation. Anika Noni Rose, the actress who voices the main character, Princess Tiana, is expected to join him onstage to perform a song from the movie.
Walt Disney Imagineering will preview its advanced audio-animatronic technology and discuss updates that were made to the Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln exhibit at Disneyland and how the Hall of Presidents at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Orlando was refurbished.
For the complete schedule of events, go to the Hero Complex blog latimes.com/herocomplex.