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Psychology of Hall H Dweller

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Thoughts on Making a Better Hall H Presentation at Comic-Con

I remember the feeling I used to get going into a movie for the first time. Back in the olden days, before instant marketing campaigns for films on the internet, a single television commercial and a poster were the only information about a movie that were usually available prior to its release. The trailer usually set up the world, and rarely did anything else.

Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con is the place where I can rediscover a bit of the magic that comes from being out ahead of the ubiquitous film marketing machine. Long before the viral campaigns start, the instantly downloadable clips are offered, and the embargo-busting reviews are published, I get to get a first glance. It takes me back by putting me ahead of the buzz.

Me and Hall H

My history at the Comic-Con began in 2004, which also happened to be the first year that Hall H was used as a giant, 6,500-seat auditorium for large presentations by Hollywood studios. I’ve been there for all of the big moments since then. Being among the first to see footage from 300 and hearing the audience beg to see it again, watching James Cameron unveil his shiny new Avatar footage and kick off a revolution in 3D film making, and watching Samuel L. Jackson assemble the Avengers were pretty mind-blowing moments. Not only were they great pieces of theater for those in the audience, but they inspired the kind of buzz that helped propel each film to great success.

Not all Hall H panels are created equal, however. For every great memory, there have been plodding trips through blurry production art and much, much worse. Just like success in Hall H can help launch a film to box office magic, a bad panel can cast a pall over even highly anticipated films. If the same minds are behind the panel and the film, their being entertaining for 20 minutes in a panel should be easier to manage than the entire length of a movie. If that mission isn’t accomplished, why plunk down my cash on opening day and give them a second shot?

So, here are a few thoughts about what makes for a good Hall H presentation, as well as a few suggestions on how to improve the panels in general.

The Reel

If you’re going to spend the money and create a Hall H presentation, it pays to make it unique and chock full of memorable moments. This task usually starts with a sizzle reel of footage from the film that is, it’s often emphasized more than once, “created especially for those at Comic-Con and nobody else.” The first time I heard that phrase, I felt very special indeed to be among those who got to see the footage. The fourth panel on that same day that used the line had pretty much spent the special out of it. At this point in Comic-Con history, the audience would probably rather that you create such a reel, show it to us and only us, and not really make a big deal out of it.

Tron: Legacy tried hard but failed on this front a couple of years ago. Not that the footage didn’t have some drop-dead gorgeous work going on. Anybody who’s seen that trailer can testify to the fact that there are some beautiful visuals there. That, in fact, contributed to the problem: every neat shot that was in the reel was so irresistible that it was also included in the trailer that went public ten minutes after the panel ended. The feeling of exclusivity that the Hall H audience wants is stabbed in the heart when you show the same footage, or a slightly reworked version of it, to the world at large minutes later. It gives us nothing to go back and describe breathlessly in our blogs. If the marketing department feels like they absolutely must release that collection of footage, waiting a couple of weeks to let us feel special about it is a good idea.

You Must Be At Least This Awesome to Ride Hall H

The reel is your chance to demonstrate that you have something unique, so delivering on that front is of paramount importance. I understand that nobody sets out to make a bad movie. Still, there are an astonishing number of films that, from the vantage point of Hall H, appear to be pretty substandard judging both from the footage being shown and, more importantly, from the demeanor of the team being trotted out in front for the panel. It seems pretty clear from their lack of enthusiasm that they know the movie has problems, and that doesn’t exactly set the stage for an enjoyable panel experience.

So, a caveat might be useful: if you realize that your movie isn’t particularly good but hope that all of the swords, gore, and laser guns might distract the crowd into thinking otherwise, you might be better off without doing the panel at all. If there really are tastemakers in Hall H, pleasing them is no guarantee of box office gold (I will defend Scott Pilgrim to my dying breath), but the room has uncannily good sense when it comes to a movie that just doesn’t look very entertaining. Therefore, if you suspect you might not have the goods, the money might be better spent elsewhere.

The Reel: Sound

Use of the subwoofer during these reels cuts both ways. The sound system in Hall H may be a miracle of modern engineering, but if you’ve already mixed your material with every level pumped up to 11, the hefty subwoofer in the hall tends to go from exciting to punishing. Yes, you want to include a moment or two where the bass hits me in the chest so hard that I wish I had a defibrillator standing by, but overkill dulls the effect and has the added disadvantage of making every spoken line unintelligible. The Expendables is, admittedly, not really going to be a movie that I see for the dialogue. And yet somebody took some time to write that bon mot that I should be chuckling at, yet cannot because they are being strangled to death by the subwoofer.

Test your mix, therefore, to make sure it’s both loud and able to be understood. My impression is that Comic-Con gives studios a chance to do a dry run before the slavering crowds enter the hall. Checking audio levels then is a great idea.

Final Reel Notes

Do not ask if we want to see your footage again. It comes off as desperate, even if you have your moderator do it. For the length of the panel, he’s on your team and having him beg for more adoration is unbecoming. I realize that when the audience first demanded a second look at the 300 footage, this was seen as a instant indicator of success, but the returns are greatly diminished when the second viewing of your footage is a scripted event rather than a grass-roots movement. The number of times I’ve seen a moderator ask “Do you want to see that amazing trailer again?” to have the audience return a rather lukewarm “meh” is too numerous and embarrassing to mention.

Also, if you are a comedy, the person editing your sizzle should have attended at least one Hall H panel in the audience. 6,500 people definitely do not react like a smaller crowd does. Hall H is an ungainly beast of a crowd and howls of laughter take much longer to die down than they would in a normal movie theatre. If you cut a trailer too tightly, the best of your jokes will get stepped on by the laughter from the bit before.

Q&A

You’ve no doubt been told that Q&A is what sets Comic-Con apart from other gatherings. It’s a real opportunity for a lowly civilian to make a life memory and interact with somebody famous. That is certainly true.

What isn’t true is that Q&A is what makes a Hall H panel. I don’t know whether the idea of spending large amounts of time in Q&A comes from Comic-Con International or the studios, but it needs to stop. There’s no denying that there is an occasional moment that comes from Q&A. Ryan Reynolds signing a copy of the giveaway Green Lantern comic for a young boy was, indeed, so sweet a moment that I needed a metformin afterward. The problem is that these moment happen about twice a convention at most. In the meantime, Q&A is mostly miserable.

The misery flows for several reasons. First, the interaction is a moment focused a single audience member in a theatre full of 6,499 other people. Second, it’s a long-distance exchange where the fan is standing half a football field away from the star. Third, Comic-Con has taken pains to screen out and cleanse potentially embarrassing or pointed questions. It takes some real skullduggery now for somebody to manage the rude equivalent of the year that director Mark Steven Johnson was asked how he planned not to screw up Ghost Rider the way that he did Daredevil. Was this a fun moment for the director? I’m sure it wasn’t. He actually handled it with aplomb, though, and everybody had a good laugh. Regardless of what you think of the Ghost Rider film the resulted, the moment was a net public relations win because, no matter how rude the question might have been, it’s one that every fan there wanted to know the answer to.

The result of this question screening is a steady stream of actor process (“How did you prepare to play Ant-Man?”), personal trivia (“What is your favorite role you’ve played?”), and other kinds of minutiae that very few people are interested in. Mostly these milquetoast questions are pretext for the questioner to interact with a star. In the worst cases, the person asking the question doesn’t even really care which star answers the question, so long as he appears on the big screens at the front of Hall H and anybody famous interacts with them. Even when the questions do get interesting, they are either well-prepared jokes (Bob!) or the incredibly rare question that leads to an official confirmation of a rumor (“Yes, I will be playing Invincible!”).

Upshot, you’d do well to limit Q&A to a couple of minutes if this is a con-required element in Hall H and, if not, ditch it completely.

Moderators

One popular way to eliminate the Q&A from the audience is to invite your own moderator to conduct it for you. There’s some danger inherent in this approach, though, and it stems mostly from the choice of moderator. It’s not hard for a moderator to turn into a pitchman who comes off like a desperate huckster.

Among the good moderators, there are a few schools: journalists, interested insiders, and the nerds for hire. Each has its own requirements for success, and brings to the table some advantages that the others may not have at all.

Journalists

The true journalist moderators who are not affiliated with the production tend to ask questions of the same type they would for their news outlet, and the net result can be a fascinating exchange. The best of these by far are Jeff “Doc” Jensen of Entertainment Weekly and Geoff Boucher of the LA Times. Their preparation and professionalism shine, but it is also clear that they are serious fanboys who love nerd culture, and that buys a lot of goodwill with the likeminded mass that make up the audience.

Interested Insiders

Interested insiders like Jon Favreau, Edgar Wright, or Guillermo del Toro are fun because they have the behind-the-scenes access to know where the bodies are buried and, most importantly, seem hard-wired to want to entertain a live crowd. Having somebody associated with or clearly friendly to the production allows you to get your message out while maintaining a level of control. However, it’s a rare director or producer who is entertaining enough to pull this off. The aforementioned clearly want to put on a show and are great at it, but in the absence of a peculiarly skilled asset, going this route will generally fail.

Nerds for Hire

And then there are the nerds for hire like Patton Oswalt or Chris Hardwick. They bring with them a level of geek credit that puts you ahead of the game by their mere appearance. They also have knowledge of pop culture and sometimes even your particular property that will help lend credibility to the film. Oswalt did amazing, spontaneous work one year with the Disney panel, riffing on what he was seeing up on the big screens, the contents of the reels, and the con experience in general. The next year he returned, but somebody seemed to have the bright idea of giving him a script to stick to, which seemed like a waste of brilliant improvisational skills. Not having every moment carefully orchestrated can be a powerful tool in a Hall H panel, especially if you have the right moderator.

Other Notes on Moderators

If the movie is a adaptation of a comic or graphic novel, you would do well to make sure that your moderator knows the source material. The less venerable and obscure the source material, the more this is important. Sending the moderator your show or series bible will be worth it when he’s not mispronouncing the title character’s name or asking questions that even casual fans already know the answer to. In general, the rule for film plots works well here: you do not want the audience to be out ahead of the material. So, having a moderator who is completely wired into the material helps you avoid any credibility gaps.

Stars

Short version, have them. The mainstream media obviously love the opportunity to interview them and the Hall H audience appreciates greatly their showing up and supporting the film. It speaks volumes, actually, about the overall quality of the film. One helpful hint: if you wish to keep a guest’s appearance on a panel as a surprise, you might want to consider not putting their Comic-Con placard out at their seat before the panel starts. This happens quite a lot.

For stars, if you’re going to try to blend in as part of the Comic-Con tribe and drop what you think is a reference that’s going to resonate with the crowd, you have two options. The first is to actually be a part of the tribe. The second, for fakers, is to make sure you vet your reference with a certified tribe member. Otherwise, you end up sounding a bit desperate and more than a little confused, like the time one star, while talking about her undying love of video games, referred to “first player shooters.” Ugh. Don’t be this person.

Conclusion

Success in Hall H is a moving target. One year’s fantastic surprise of sending a taped regret message from a star only to have him walk out five minutes later is going to come off the next year as derivative and derision-worthy. The best advice for success in Hall H is this: know what has come before and top it.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World

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I’m feeling lucky. I’m about to rave about how well-conceived and executed Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World is, and lavish praise on it about how impressively it captures the feeling of source material which should have been much more elusive. I’d hate to feel like I’d been bought.

If I had been bought, though, here’s what the price would have been.

It’s the final Thursday panel in Hall H at the San Diego Comic-Con. Small tin buttons, my least favorite convention swag, are being distributed through the crowd. Naturally, I end up with two, an extra making it to the end of our row and is unwanted by my neighbor. Director Edgar Wright steps out onto stage and immediately begs our pardon: he’s got so much ground to cover that he’ll not only be serving as the panel moderator, but will also have to interview himself. He asks himself a question, answers, and begins to introduce his cast.

In all, 13 members of the cast are introduced with a short video and music sting, take a seat, and are asked a single question by Wright. He stipulates that, again due to time concerns, they must answer in a single word. Edgar Wright clearly knows how to keep a panel moving, as this and most of his comedic bits totally work.

What doesn’t work is the entrance of the final actor, Michael Cera. He walks in wearing an ill-fitted Captain America costume, complete with ill-fitting cowl. Unfortunately for him, Will Ferrell bombed with a similar gag eight hours earlier in the day’s first panel for Megamind. In fact, a version of it seems to be attempted by somebody at least once a year. Not only is it a failure of originality, but also in general concept. Yes, some people wear costumes to Comic-Con. Yes, some of the getups are fairly bad. Yes, I realize this is some attempt at creating solidarity with the audience. Mostly, though, it comes off as mildly condescending. Fortunately, I love the guy, and most of the crowd seems to forgive the botched gag instantly.

A long video sequence, jokes about previous panels during the day, and a hilarious and completely throwaway appearance by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost follow. The video stokes my appetite for this movie, which is already my last and most anticipated of the summer. I am dying to see this movie. There are questions from the crowd, most of which are so generic and uninteresting that they should bring what is a fast, breezy pace of the panel to a screeching halt. Somewhere between the enthusiasm of the cast and Wright’s rather brilliant moderating, they don’t.

Wright then asks who would like to see another clip from the film. The crowd cheers. “Or, would you rather see the entire movie right now?” Crowd pops even harder. I immediately wonder if they’re going to screen a large chunk of it right there in the panel. I glance at my watch – there’s not enough time.

And then he drops the bomb. The movie is screening in 45 minutes at a local theatre. Those with a button with 1UP on it are invited. I hear something vaguely approximating “I win!!” slip through my lips as I grab the second button out of my bag. I doubt I really said that because I’m far too calm and cool for such an outburst.

In what feels like the most spontaneous moment I’ve seen at Comic-Con in a long time, Wright cues the second video clip as a consolation prize for those without the golden tickets, walks off the stage, through the crowd, and drags us all trailing behind him to the movie. It feels like all the fun of the Flynn’s Arcade scavenger hunt from 2009 times a hundred.

Arriving at the theatre, I’m offered free drinks and popcorn. I walk into the auditorium and see two DJs spinning on the stage. I am neither hip nor young enough to know that they are Dan the Automator and Kid Koala, but I enjoy their work as the crowd files in. They stage a pillow fight between two audience members, complete with MIDI sound effects.

Eventually Wright greets us all, thanks us for coming, and asks us to stay after the movie because not only do the cast want to say hello, but Metric will play a short set after that. He leaves to thunderous applause, the lights dim, and the film starts.

What a fun movie.

If you were born after 1970 and have even a passing familiarity with video games, you are going to love on this film so hard that you may be at risk of suffocating it. References to and sound cues from classic video games abound in telling the story of Scott Pilgrim, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Canadian slacker and guitarist in the band Sex Bob-omb.

Pilgrim dreams about and then meets Ramona Flowers, only to find that in order to date her, he has to defeat her Seven Evil Exes in boss battles ripped straight from a video game. Each ex, when defeated, pops and turns into coins. The fights are bright, strongly kinetic, and frenetically paced. Think of them as the moment in a musical where a character, unable to properly communicate the emotion of the moment in words, breaks into song. Only here, a fight breaks out. If that doesn’t strike you as brilliant, you might be outside the target demographic of this movie.

The heart of this film exists in the world of old school, 8-bit video gaming. As if that wasn’t enough of a cultural touchstone to appeal to the gamer in me, it’s filled with great music and a fast-paced, lighthearted coming-of-age story. I was not in a band in my 20’s. I never dated anybody with colored hair. I certainly never had emotional moments so powerful that I broke out into epic fights inspired by video games. Yet this movie captures perfectly that post-teenage feeling of being untethered, unsure of how to act and who to be, and yet feeling very much at the center of the universe.

Michael Cera is perfect as Pilgrim. He takes what on the surface could be an unlikeable character and turns him endearing. Pilgrim may have a string of broken hearts behind him, but Cera plays him so that we know it wasn’t out of malice or even selfishness: Scott is just totally oblivious.

The rest of the cast is equally great. Of note is Kieran Culkin’s Wallace Wells, Pilgrim’s gay roommate and confidante. Wright’s confident and clear direction keeps the entire cast in the same movie which is, given how outlandish the gaming culture-soaked conceit is, no mean task. The movie is paced so quickly that it is almost over too fast – which feels like the biggest compliment I can pay lately, having sat in some 90 minute movies that felt interminable.

The second biggest compliment I can pay: I’ll be there again opening day. Beyond a fun story, great action sequences, and some great acting, there is simply too much going on for a dedicated gamer to catch in one sitting. I’m also buying my lifetime pass to the Edgar Wright show, and really hope he ends up with the Ant Man gig. Given what a home run of an adaptation Scott Pilgrim is, I can’t wait to see what he might get up to working on the tiniest Avenger.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World Poster

Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World Poster

San Diego Comic-Con 2010 – Thursday Programming Preview

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July 22 through 25 marks 41st year of the San Diego Comic-Con International, the world’s most famous popular culture convention. It’ll be my seventh year as an attendee.

My first year at Comic-Con coincided with the first year that programming was held in Hall H, the frigid, 6500-seat theatre at the end of the San Diego Convention Center where most of the panels about upcoming movies are held. Because of the size of the venue, deciding to join the masses in Hall H is basically a day-long sentence: in order to get a decent seat on the hall, you really do need to show up hours early and sit in line. Leaving pretty much guarantees your being in the back, watching the proceedings on a screen and, if there is a popular panel, likely means you can’t get back in at all.

Provided I can pull together the hardware I need, I’m hoping to post my instant impressions of each panel I attend as they happen.

The panels for this year were released last week. Here’s my list of panels that look neat. Sometime between now and next Wednesday, I’ll sit down and figure out exactly what I’ll be attending.

Thursday, July 22

10:00-11:00 DreamWorks Animation: Megamind – Hall H – This is a really early start on Thursday for Hall H. The first panel on Saturday won’t start until 11:45, presumably to let the dignitaries in town sleep in after a Friday night debauch.

10:30-11:30 Danny Elfman— Room 6BCF

10:30-11:30 TheOneRing.net Talks The Hobbit movies— Room 7AB – Since Guillermo del Toro left the project, I’d be interested to hear what scoops these guys have on a start date. If anybody will have one, it’s likely the TORN folks.

11:00-12:00 That Chris Gore Show— Room 5AB

11:15-12:45 Walt Disney Pictures: TRON: Legacy— Hall H – After an impressive viral campaign which kicked off at last year’s Comic-Con, I’m really excited to finally see the goods in this panel.

12:00-1:00 X-Play LIVE: A Show on Television— Room 5AB

12:30-1:30 Batman: The Widening Gyre— Room 4 – Kevin Smith, who’s been writing the scripts for this series, is expected to attend this one, which will be interesting since the room they’ve set it up in is tiny. He’s appearing a few other times during the weekend.

1:00-2:00 Digital Bits: Blu-ray Producers 2010— Room 32AB – I’ve attending this panel almost every year. Bill Hunt and his crew always have a great lineup for DVD producers. At the top of the bill is always Charlie de Lauzirika who, if you like film enough to have favorite DVDs, was likely the mastermind behind most of them.

1:00-2:00 Sony Pictures Entertainment: Battle: Los Angeles and Salt— Hall H

2:15-3:15 Summit Entertainment: RED— Hall H – One of the best pieces of news in this year’s programming? No Twilight panels or the scary women that accompany them. Summit makes another appearance later in the convention in Hall H.

3:00-4:00 Masters of the Web— Room 32AB – I’m tempted by this panel not only to see why they’ve pressed Roberto Orci into service as the moderator, but also because they’re giving away a year’s worth of movies at AMC theatres.

3:30-4:30 Entertainment Weekly: The Visionaries— Hall H – Hey, look at that: one of my least favorite directors that I’m supposed to really love, and Joss Whedon, who is rather hit and miss for me as well, but is a pretty impressive raconteur. Were it not for The Expendables panel afterward, I might duck out.

4:45-5:45 Lionsgate: The Expendables— Hall H – We’ll see if Lionsgate can pull off a second coup after last year’s buzz-drenched Kick-Ass panel.

5:00-6:00 Adult Swim: Childrens’ Hospital— Room 25ABC

6:00-7:00 Showtime’s Dexter— Ballroom 20

6:00-7:00 Universal: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World— Hall H – This is one of my two or three most anticipated panels of the convention. I love the trailer, and also have an unnatural affinity for Edgar Wright’s work. I was first introduced to he and Simon Pegg my first year at Comic-Con, where I got to attend a screening of Shaun of the Dead, congratulate them both on the way out the door, and then enjoy a panel the next day where they screened 15 minutes of Spaced highlights.

7:30-8:30 Penn + Teller: 35 Years of Magic & BS!— San Diego Hilton Bayfront

8:15-9:15 The Sushi Typhoon: The Best in Japanese Genre Movies— Room 5AB

8:15-11:15 Superhero Kung Fu Extravaganza— Room 6BCF – Ric Meyers is always entertaining and insightful in his yearly showcase of mostly unseen martials arts films.

9:30-11:45 Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated Screening and Panel Discussion— Room 5AB

Comic-Con International

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