Many provocative questions arose at Comic-Con International this year. Why was Spider-Man playing drums in the Lego Rock Band booth? Was that dog-eared copy of “The Vault of Horror” really worth $5,400? And who in the world was that guy clanging through downtown on a sweaty summer evening in a full suit of chain-mail armor?
As interesting as those topics might be, the more important query for Hollywood is this: Which movies (and, to a growing extent, television shows) benefited the most from their visits to the mammoth pop-culture carnival that folded up tents Sunday night, and which ones left San Diego the worse for wear?
Comic-Con unquestionably represents a critical testing ground for mass-appeal movies, particularly those playing to fantasy fiction enthusiasts. “It all started here,” Jon Favreau, director of “Iron Man,” said of 2006’s Comic-Con launch of his first superhero blockbuster while he was previewing footage Saturday for next summer’s sequel to an ardent crowd. “Nobody cared before you did.”
Like at any film festival, the Comic-Con crowd can be so grateful to see footage from even the most minor movie that it’s possible to leave San Diego with a false impression of how well a movie played. But after spending more than a few hours in the convention’s 6,500-seat Hall H, it became obvious which presentations fared better than others.
Here’s a report on not only which projects performed well, but also which gained the most (or fell) from their previous standing, along with some observations about the ever-evolving Comic-Con culture and lifestyle:
“District 9.” Though Megan Fox’s promotional appearance for Fox’s “Jennifer’s Body” in a hotel ballroom certainly sparked interest Thursday night, it was the screening of Sony’s sci-fi thriller in another part of the festival that generated the most heat that evening. Twitter blasts from the room were proclaiming “District 9" to be among the best of its genre in a long, long time. With the film due to hit theaters Aug. 14, the buzz generated at Comic-Con (where Sony started an enigmatic marketing campaign for the film a year ago) is certain to give “District 9" even more momentum, and it hardly hurt that producer Peter Jackson’s first-ever Comic-Con visit felt like a Beatles concert.
The environment. Hollywood loves to share its passion over global warming with anyone and everyone, but when it comes to Comic-Con, Earth Day is a distant memory. Though many studio executives (Summit’s Rob Friedman) and actors (take a bow, Breckin Meyer) took the train from Los Angeles to San Diego, more than a few -- Cameron Diaz, for one -- made the 100-mile trip in private jets. Other pollutant-spewing studio types used car services to drive five blocks from their hotels to the San Diego Convention Center (which, due to traffic, took twice as long as walking), later leaving their empty SUVs idling in parking lots much of the afternoon with the air-conditioning blasting. But what does it matter? According to Roland Emmerich’s “2012,” the world will be facing cataclysm in three years anyway.
“Avatar.” It would difficult to think of a movie better suited to the Comic-Con crowd than James Cameron’s Dec. 18 sci-fi spectacular, which thus set the “Avatar” bar very high; had the writer-director’s 25 minutes of footage disappointed, the word of mouth could have been ruinous. That didn’t come close to happening: The approving Internet buzz was instantly deafening. As much as the audience (many waited multiple hours to get into the presentation) was thrilled with the sneak, the throngs seemed equally excited over the news that on Aug. 21, Cameron will show “Avatar” footage for free in Imax and 3-D theaters across the country.
“The Twilight Saga: New Moon.” The teen vampire sequel didn’t disappoint the cultish crowd, many of whose members camped out overnight for a scream-filled (not for scares, but for star Robert Pattinson) presentation in Hall H. Director Chris Weitz said the fan base is excited no matter the setting, including during production of the Nov. 20 “Twilight” follow-up: “There was a moment where I had to go to the bathroom, and there was not a cafe I could go into without being mobbed. Not because I’m me, but people wanted to know if I could set up meetings with Rob.” And lest anyone forget there is more than one vampire-themed phenomenon in the pop-culture universe right now, HBO’s “True Blood” also engaged with its own legion of devotees.
Swag. One of Comic-Con’s distinguishing characteristics is its egalitarianism: It’s impossible to cut lines, and those with disabilities are accommodated everywhere. But just as the Sundance Film Festival was spoiled by the advent of swag suites, the same elitist lifestyle boutiques are starting to flourish all around the convention. The Wired Cafe -- invitation only, please! -- had as much snobby attitude as Cafe Bustelo coffee and Patron tequila had free samples.
Movies without distribution. Comic-Con is typically a destination for high-profile studio releases backed by big-budget marketing blitzes. But two under-the-radar films -- Michael Dougherty’s “Trick ‘r Treat” and Matthew Vaughn’s “Kick-Ass” -- were received warmly even though neither arrived with traditional distribution in place. Dougherty’s Halloween thriller was originally going to be released theatrically by Warner Bros., which is now shipping it directly to video in October, and Vaughn’s violent comic-book adaptation, which every Hollywood financier he approached passed on making, is now looking for a U.S. distributor. Despite featuring the late Heath Ledger’s last film performance, Terry Gilliam’s “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” didn’t get the kind of passionate greeting that could help its distribution prospects.
“9.” You could call this a potential sleeper hit that woke up at Comic-Con. Impossible to describe with a straight face, Shane Acker’s Sept. 9 post-apocalyptic animated movie more than intrigued the audience, which saw the strange, other-worldly clip about rag dolls in a “stitch punk” setting. It’s the kind of movie that might benefit tremendously from its Comic-Con buzz.
Other animated movies. Publicity-shy “Ponyo” filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki received a standing ovation in Hall H, but most of the animated movies that played there (“Disney’s A Christmas Carol,” Sony’s “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”) couldn’t compare to the reaction generated by their live-action brethren. Though some of the 3-D animated footage went over well, the 2-D feedback was cooler, including the reaction to Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog.” Overall, Comic-Con’s 3-D debut, for both animation and live action, wasn’t that big a deal -- the movies lived on their content, not their format.
Johnny Depp. The actor’s surprise appearance for Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” due out from Disney on March 5, almost created a riot. A brief 3-D teaser bore all the hallmarks of Burton’s singular visual style, and scenes of Depp’s flame-haired Mad Hatter whipped up some early excitement for the fantastical film.
Robert Downey Jr. The actor earned a wild welcome when he took the stage for the Paramount-Marvel Studios “Iron Man 2" panel (the reaction was equally favorable for a brief glimpse of new cast member Don Cheadle as the bullet-spewing War Machine) and Downey’s appearance promoting Warner Bros.’ “Sherlock Holmes” was possibly even stronger. “I love you guys so much,” he told the raucous “Sherlock Holmes” crowd, which appeared to share the feeling. The reception wasn’t quite as enthusiastic for Warner Bros.’ “The Book of Eli,” due Jan. 15, and “Where the Wild Things Are,” coming Oct. 16.
“Lost.” It’s the sixth and final season for ABC’s smash and therefore the producers’ farewell to Comic-Con. They revealed absolutely nothing about the upcoming season. “We will be as honest and forthcoming as we never were,” producer Damon Lindelof joked. The “Lost” boys turned their panel into “fan appreciation” day, with surprise walk-ons, fan-made films and special gag clips (that will no doubt end up on a future DVD). But the enthusiasts ate it up and the scene became emblematic of Comic-Con at its purest: In the end, it’s all about the fans.
Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Alex Pham, Gina McIntyre, Denise Martin, Jevon Phillips and Scott Collins.