Posts Tagged ‘San Diego Comic-Con’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
San Diego Comic-Con International is next week, July 22-25.
Sunday programming at the convention is traditionally fairly thin. I usually plan four or five panels for the day and, by the second or third, am so sore and tired that I end up walking the show floor instead.
Sunday, July 25
10:00-11:00 Smallville Screening and Q&A— Ballroom 20 – this should be something of a farewell lovefest between the showrunners and the Comic-Con crowd.
10:30-11:30 ABC’s Castle: Nathan Fillion & Stana Katic— Room 6BCF
11:15-12:30 Cartoon Voices II— Room 6A – I love this panel every year. Mark Evanier, animation director and con bedrock, does an amazing job both putting together and moderating what is a hybrid between a panel about voice acting, and a panel demonstrating how it is done. In past years, he’s brought scripts from old radio plays and runs the actors through their paces. I almost hate to highlight this panel since it’s a bit of a hidden gem, but it’s well worth your time to catch this one.
12:30-1:15 American Dad— Ballroom 20 – Somebody please take a moment and count the number of Comic-Con panels Seth MacFarlane appears in during this convention. When does the guy have time to even take a potty break?
1:00-2:00 Unnatural History Episode Screening and Q&A— Room 6BCF
1:30-2:30 Glee— Ballroom 20 – with most of the cast and the creative team in attendance, this panel is sure to be popular. Going early and getting a seat at the panel before is highly recommended.
2:00-3:00 Business of Cartoon Voices— Room 25ABC – although I’ll probably be at Glee, I am tempted to hit this panel instead. Mark Evanier’s last panel of this year’s convention sounds quite a lot like the way he’s about 10 minutes of the Cartoon Voices panel in the past: a how-to guide for those interested in getting into the business. Inevitably this will turn into war stories from the guests, which can’t help but be a little slice of awesome.
2:45-3:45 FX: Sons of Anarchy and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia— Ballroom 20 – having just blasted through the first disc of the Sons of Anarchy’s first season and being a long-standing fan of Sunny, this is going to be a fun one. I hope there’s no violence between the two casts. If there is, smart money is on the wild card.
San Diego Comic-Con International is next week, July 22-25.
One last shameless beg: I’m hoping to do some live blogging of the panels I attend, but need a netbook in order to pull it off. If you have a hookup, please drop me a line. Time is running out!
I don’t know who I’m kidding when it comes to Saturday: though I have some panels I’d like to see that are scattered around, I’m going to be camped in Hall H all day. The lineup looks solid. In fact, there’s only a hole or two (I’m looking at you, Resident Evil:Afterlife). Count this as my official vote for the SDCC programming folks to act on the perpetual rumor that they’re going to limit Hall H to a couple of days every year. While we’re voting, please make one on Thursday, when crowds are more manageable. And get me a free pony while you’re at it.
Sometime between now and next Wednesday, I’ll sit down and figure out exactly what I’ll be attending. Here are the highlights:
Saturday, July 24 (Happy Pioneer Day!)
10:00-11:00 Mad about MAD!— Room 7AB
11:15-12:15 The Event: World-Premiere Pilot Screening and Q&A with Cast and Producers— this has quite a large chunk of the cast expected to be there.
11:15-12:15 Spotlight on Gerard Way— Room 6DE – Lead singer of My Chemical Romance. Squee, I say.
11:45-1:15 Warner Bros.: Green Lantern, Sucker Punch, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows— Hall H – we couldn’t have gotten rid of half of yesterday’s Hall H programming and let Green Lantern and Harry Potter each have their own panel?
12:00-1:00 The Venture Bros.— Indigo Ballroom, San Diego Hilton Bayfront
12:30-1:45 Quick Draw!— Room 6BCF
1:30-2:15 The Simpsons— Ballroom 20
1:30-2:30 Behind the Scenes with Sid & Marty Krofft: A Look at the Past, Present and Future— Room 24ABC
1:30-2:30 Overture: Let Me In— Hall H
1:45-3:15 Cartoon Voices I— Room 6BCF – the first of Mark Evanier‘s two-part animation voices extravaganza during the convention. If you aren’t a Hall H type and enjoy animation at all, this is where you should be. Mark does a great job of keeping things running, and gathers together the most talented group of actors whose names you likely don’t recognize. Not only are they gathered up, but Mark puts them through their paces. I can’t recommend this panel highly enough. It’s companion panel is on Sunday morning and, since I’ll be holding down the fort in Hall H on Saturday, I’ll be going to the sequel.
2:00-3:00 The Guild— Indigo Ballroom, San Diego Hilton Bayfront
4:00-4:45 Screen Gems: Resident Evil: Afterlife— Hall H – I swear this is a retread of last year’s panel. And last year, there was 3D content. It’s hard to imagine what exactly needs to be said a full year later, since there was a decent amount of footage last time, if memory serves.
4:30-5:30 Spotlight on J. Michael Straczynski— Room 6A – even though the project has passed into the hands of a new writer, I’d still like to hear what JMS has to say about the state of World War Z. He’s always entertaining.
4:30-5:30 Disney Epic Mickey— Room 9
5:00-6:00 G4: Attack of the Show— Indigo Ballroom, San Diego Hilton Bayfront
5:30-6:30 Why So Critical? Celebrating 25 Years of Film Threat— Room 24ABC
5:30-6:30 Avatar Press and Max Brooks— Room 26AB
7:15-8:15 MythBusters— Room 6BCF
7:30-8:30 World Premiere of Legend of Neil, Season 3— Room 7AB
8:00-9:00 Troma Troma Troma— Room 8
8:30-10:30 With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story— Room 6BCF
8:30-9:30 World Premiere of The House That Drips Blood on Alex: An Evening With Tommy Wiseau— Room 7AB
10:00-12:00 Kevin Smith presents Cop Out in “Maximum Comedy Mode”— Indigo Ballroom, San Diego Hilton Bayfront – say what you will about Mssr. Smith, he does have a good handle on what a live crowd wants, and probably realizes that it isn’t to merely watch a DVD of his last movie with him. I suspect there will be surprises here.
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.
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