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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.

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7 Responses

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  1. Well done, well written. May I add Will Wheaton as one of the “Nerds for Hire?” I have yet to see a boring panel with him moderating. Also…I would like to re-emphasize the rule about asking questions in the Q&A: Think carefully about what you are asking, and make sure that it is something every fangirl or boy wants to know. Otherwise, don’t waste everybody’s time.

    Jennifer

    June 14, 2012 at 6:32pm

    • Great points on both fronts, Jennifer. Wil belongs on that list for sure. Q&A would definitely be a better time if those asking questions followed your rule. Alas, they mostly do not.

      Thanks for the comment!

      ireviewsomething

      June 14, 2012 at 7:00pm

  2. Great synopsis of the joys and terrors of Hall H. This needs to go to every marketing person at every studio and the Comic-Con folks NOW, before they trundle out some weak dog and pony show that will likely embarrass them. If the stars don’t want to be there, don’t make them come. And don’t make them pretend to want to be there. We geeks are a savvy lot. Favreau makes hosting a panel look easy and I’ll eat up anything he throws at us. He’s a much better director than he is an actor, so we know his enthusiasm is real. And it translates to the audience, whether what he has to show us is good (Iron Man) or not so good (Cowboys & Aliens). Either way, we are excited to see more of it when it comes to the theaters. What people in Hall H, who have stood in line for endless hours and are now sitting shoulder to shoulder with our barely-washed brethren for even more hours, really want from the Hall H experience (and this pretty much goes for every other panel room) is that they’re part of something special, something exciting and fun and holy $%#@, I can’t believe we just saw that! There are days I spend the entire day in Hall H. And there are days I skip it completely. I’ve sat through 2 Twilight panels and lost my hearing from all the screaming. I’ve seen actors so bored and resentful of the audience that it was good that they weren’t armed (but hey, they gave out new iPhones before they ran from the stage). I’ve seen the crowd boo a moderator for being too crazy-eyed cheerful. In some ways it’s the easiest and the hardest room you could put your product into. It’s not the Apollo, but it’s damn close.

    One thing I would suggest including: swag. While it’s ancillary to the experience, I actually enjoy the goodie bags that WB hands out when we walk in. And I love collecting those tickets to trade in for random swag a half mile away through the maddening maze at the Marriott. I’m not sure how sad it is that half of my t-shirts have the Comic-Con logo on it…

    Again, great commentary on Hall H. I’ll be sharing it with my followers at http://sdccsurvivalguide.com

    doug
    the Unauthorized San Diego Comic-Con Survival Guide

    dmk238

    June 15, 2012 at 11:41am

    • Great thoughts, Doug, and most appreciated.

      On your swag suggestion, it seems that handing out a bag at the door, in my experience, means that any t-shirts contained therein have a lower chance of actually being worn than going the ticket route because of the size issue. I recall some Hall H panel trying to do sizes right there at the door, but most of the time it’s a “stuff it in your hands and get you going to a seat” kind of affair instead.

      That route seems pretty sure to fail as far as the marketing purpose of the shirt goes: if I’m going to wear a shirt, I am only going to do it if it’s my size. I realize that this might represent a disconnect between the marketing folks who create and pay for the shirts who undoubtedly want each and every person who gets a shirt to wear it at home and give them free advertising, and the people on the ground who are tasked with getting the shirts into people’s hands who are mostly concerned with getting the line processed efficiently.

      ireviewsomething

      June 15, 2012 at 12:19pm

      • Yeah, I don’t wear it if it’s not my size either. But just the concept of swag in general makes me happy.

        dougkline

        June 15, 2012 at 1:18pm

  3. On the other hand, I’ve routinely — and I mean routinely — seen journalists whose idea of panel moderating is to just pump the panelists for spoilers as if they are trying to get a scoop for their outlet. That type of moderating is mostly just insulting and usually just a waste of everyone’s time.

    Whatever the type of moderator, they need to understand that they are there to serve the experience and understanding of the audience, not themselves. And they’d better have the skills — and the desire — to make sure they aren’t focusing just on their favorite panelists, and are drawing out the participation of panelists who might not be the most outgoing personalities on the stage.

    Moderator type is mostly irrelevant. What matters is whether or not they bring whatever their particular niche or skill set might be to bear upon serving the audience, who after all are the ones who paid to be there, and waited in line to get in.

    • Good point, Bix. Moderators have to walk a fine line between being so glad to be there that they are nothing but cheerleaders and wearing their day-job hat a little too tightly. Begging for spoilers is a pretty rotten way to go.

      I’d say that any prospective moderator would be well served by watching a panel or three, just to get the flavor of what plays and what doesn’t.

      While I think you can have a great panel with any type of moderator, I also think that some panels are best served by a moderator who is at least interested in the source material. In addition to bringing whatever background and expertise they have, they need to have enough imagination to serve as the audience proxy and ask the questions that everybody wants to know about.

      Thanks for the comment!

      ireviewsomething

      June 15, 2012 at 1:05pm


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