For the next four days, geek will be chic — at least in the vicinity of downtown San Diego.
Starting Thursday morning, some 130,000 people of all ages — many clad in superhero tights or wielding homemade phasers and battle axes — will descend upon the San Diego Convention Center in the annual pop-culture pilgrimage known as Comic-Con International. And Hollywood will be out in force to greet them.
For Comic-Con attendees, the convention will offer a chance to catch early glimpses of some of the most highly anticipated sci-fi, fantasy and comic-book films coming down the pike, including "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" and the final installment in the "Hunger Games" series. For studios and TV networks, it will offer a critical opportunity to plant seeds of buzz that could bear fruit later in ticket sales and ratings.
Still, even as some of the industry's biggest stars and filmmakers court the faithful, a few faces will be missing. One of the 800-pound gorillas of past conventions, Marvel Studios, is sitting this year out, as are Paramount and Sony, robbing fans of their chance to get up close and personal with such much-loved characters as Iron Man, Captain America, the Transformers and Spider-Man, but providing an opening for other studios to grab a bigger share of the limelight. Marvel, which has only one film opening in the near future, this month's "Ant-Man," will tease its upcoming slate at the Walt Disney Co.'s D23 Expo next month in Anaheim.
A wide variety of film and TV projects — many having nothing to do with capes or cowls, such as Quentin Tarantino's western "The Hateful Eight" and HBO's "Game of Thrones" — will rush in to fill any perceived void.
Marvel's absence is a particular boon to Warner Bros., as the studio prepares to unveil its ambitious slate of DC superhero titles. At a panel Saturday morning in the convention center's cavernous Hall H — a storied venue that can be either a movie marketer's best friend or worst enemy — the studio will bring out the big guns behind next year's superhero mash-up "Batman v Superman," including stars Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill and Gal Galdot and director Zack Snyder. The studio may also tease its other comic-book movies in the works, including "Suicide Squad" and "Wonder Woman."
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Given that nearly every one of the 6,000-odd fans in Hall H will have a cellphone tucked away somewhere in the folds of his or her costume, the potential reach of the presentation — which will also highlight the Peter Pan origin story "Pan" and the big-screen reboot of 1960s espionage series "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." — is magnified exponentially.
"Our goal has always been to surpass even [fans'] high expectations, but with the rise of social media, the impact of a strong showing can truly reach around the world," said Sue Kroll, president of worldwide marketing and international distribution at Warner Bros. Pictures.
Much of the excitement that might otherwise have centered on Marvel will also flow toward the "Star Wars" film saga, which is being relaunched in December with director J.J. Abrams' new installment.
In April, Lucasfilm and Disney drummed up excitement for the film at the Star Wars Celebration convention in Anaheim. At a panel Friday afternoon at Comic-Con featuring Abrams, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, producer and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and unnamed "special guests" (including possibly Harrison Ford, if the Force is with the fans), they will get another swing of the lightsaber.
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"After Star Wars Celebration, the fan community is already hooked," said writer-director Kyle Newman, who made a 2009 comedy about rabid "Star Wars" fans called "Fanboys." "Now, Comic-Con is Lucasfilm's opportunity to get people more familiar with some of the actors and some of the new characters. They know this is the biggest fan event on the planet and 'Star Wars' is going to be scrutinized, so I think there will be some reveals that will get a lot of chatter."
In terms of superhero movies, the other major player at this year's Comic-Con is 20th Century Fox, which will seek to turn the tide of less-than-fantastic buzz around its reboot of the "Fantastic Four" franchise, opening in August. The studio may also pull back the curtain on the next installment in its long-running "X-Men" franchise, which is currently shooting, and offer early teases of two other comic-book properties in the works, "Deadpool" and "Gambit."
Actor James McAvoy, who will reprise his role as professor Charles Xavier in "X-Men: Apocalypse," will be among the stars on hand at Fox's panel Saturday, sharing the stage with former "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe to tout another of the studio's upcoming releases, "Victor Frankenstein," which offers a fresh take on Mary Shelley's classic novel.
"I hope people take away that the movie is a really fun time, but it's also got quite a deep relationship between Victor Frankenstein and Igor," said McAvoy, who plays the seminal mad scientist. "It's not just an excuse to have a bit of crash-bang-wallop." Asked what Fox may have in store for "X-Men," McAvoy demurred with a laugh: "I just go where they point me and 'dance, monkey, dance' whenever they tell me to."
Indeed, there are plenty of high-profile films beyond the superhero genre clamoring for attention at this year's Comic-Con, including the sequel to "The Maze Runner," Guillermo del Toro's gothic horror film "Crimson Peak" and a big-screen take on the wildly popular video game "World of Warcraft."
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For "Warcraft" director Duncan Jones, the convention represents a critical battlefield in the film's overall marketing campaign. "This is where we're going to see how people who are not necessarily hard-core Warcraft fans but are genre fans react to the film," Jones said. "Comic-Con is the perfect place to do that."
Though big-screen comic-book fare and sci-fi extravaganzas take up a lot of the oxygen, Comic-Con is about far more than movies, of course. The TV industry has made increasingly strong showings at the convention in recent years, and the trend will continue this year.
Longtime fan favorites like "The Walking Dead," "Doctor Who" and "Game of Thrones" will be on hand, as will newer small-screen comic-book fare like "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," "Agent Carter," "The Flash" and CBS' upcoming "Supergirl" series.
No matter fans' particular flavor of obsession, their eyes will be on San Diego until the hoopla winds down Sunday. Even Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, though he's not attending, will have his spider-sense tuned for the latest news out of Comic-Con.
Asked last week whether it felt strange to be skipping the convention this year, Feige said, "It doesn't feel strange yet. I think it'll be strange when I'm reading all the cool stuff that's happening down there on my Twitter feed."