The TV industry’s takeover of Comic-Con could reach a critical mass next month.
Over the last decade, television has crept more and more into the annual sci-fi and comics convention, which this year runs July 24-27. Following the lead of the movie business, networks and studios have been using the San Diego event to crank up the hype for genre shows such as “Lost” and “Battlestar Galactica.”
But this year, the definition of what makes for a Comic-Con-worthy project is expanding—in a big way.
There’s not one whit of mythology or a single bit of gadgetry in the CBS comedy “The Big Bang Theory.” But that’s not stopping Warner Bros. TV from bringing the show’s cast of science geeks to the Con (as veterans of the convention call the event).
Likewise, while you’d expect 20th Century Fox TV to make a big push on behalf of Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse”—it’s from the man who made “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” after all—the studio also is hoping to fill up ballrooms with panel discussions with the casts of “Prison Break,” “24” and “Bones.” And NBC Universal’s studio arm, Universal Media Studios, is assembling the writers—yes, the writers—of “The Office” for a July 26 Comic-Con panel.
Lisa Gregorian, executive VP of worldwide marketing for Warner Bros. Television Group, said the Con has moved beyond its sci-fi roots.
“For us, it’s about shows and properties that resonate with a strong fan community,” she said.
“It’s more about the fan mentality than the product itself.”
Twentieth Century Fox TV Chairman Gary Newman agreed, arguing that studios might just be “evolving the brand of Comic-Con.”
“We’re bringing shows that have cult followings as opposed to just genre programs,” he said, adding that the studio is “anticipating an enormous response” for shows such as “Bones.” (It helps that the forensic drama series stars David Boreanaz, beloved by the geek set for his roles on Mr. Whedon’s “Buffy” and “Angel.”)
David Glanzer, Comic-Con director of marketing and public relations, doesn’t see any problem with more television shows making the Con rounds, as art appreciation is just as important as the genre at the Con. He pointed to the Con’s hosting of director Frank Capra all the way back in 1971 as an example of its broader aspirations, even in its early years.
Mr. Glanzer credited TV types for talking and interacting with fans as opposed to just marketing to them, as the film world often does.
Giving fans backstage access or behind-the-scenes material is one of the more important things for a successful showing at Comic-Con, he added. “The studio or network that can capitalize on that walks away with the most Internet chatter,” he said.
TV executives have become almost obsessive in their love of Comic-Con, believing the convention can help make or break a show.
Mr. Newman, for example, believes his studio’s fall 2007 NBC drama “Journeyman” was hurt by not having a major presence at last summer’s Con. It’s one of the reasons 20th is more than doubling its presence at the show this year.
Ms. Gregorian said the Con is key in spreading word of mouth on a show, something more important than ever at a time in which the mainstream media is being overtaken by bloggers as crucial hype engines.
“Comic-Con really helps you find that core fan base that could potentially become your evangelists for a show,” she said. “With social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace, that one fan can now impact a lot of people. And if you have thousands of people, it can become very significant.”
Besides the scope of Comic-Con, the show continues to explode in size. The Con’s first edition in 1970 drew 300 people. Last year, it attracted 125,000. This is the first year that on-site tickets will not be sold for the show, since organizers fear the demand will be too great on the San Diego Convention Center.
Knowing there may be more demand than it has room for, Mr. Glanzer said, Comic-Con International scaled back its advertising efforts this year to only local ads.
The biggest problem for TV fans attending Comic-Con could be deciding between the slew of small-screen events planned for the four-day event. Dates and times of various panels are being kept under wraps until early July, but with so many shows headed south, conflicts are inevitable.
Among the major studio TV highlights:
--Warner Bros. Television will present panels for seven shows: “Chuck,” “Fringe,” “Pushing Daisies,” “Smallville,” “Supernatural,” “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” and “The Big Bang Theory.”
The studio is planning two on-site screenings of the “Fringe” pilot, as well as two off-site screenings at the UA Horton Plaza Theater. It will continue its tradition of handing out free tote bags at its massive booth on the floor of the convention, and its animation division will hold a major bash on July 25
--In addition to “Dollhouse,” “Prison Break” “Bones” and “24,” the 20th contingent will include “Life on Mars” and animated half-hours “Family Guy,” “The Simpsons,” “American Dad” and “Futurama.” Cast members and writers from most of the shows will sign autographs at the studio’s 600-square-foot booth, which it will share with several other News Corp. divisions.
The studio also will be selling original art from its animated series and giving away a premium item (details are still under wraps).
--Universal Media Studios will begin its Con push on July 24 with a screening of new drama “Kings” and a Q&A with the show’s cast and producers. The same day, it will offer a panel on its revival of “Knight Rider.”
In addition to the “Office” panel, which will be moderated by series star Rainn Wilson, the studio’s July 26 schedule includes one of the Con’s most-anticipated events: A panel previewing the third season of “Heroes.”
NBC Universal said Sci Fi shows “Battlestar Galactica,” “Eureka,” “Ghost Hunters” and “Stargate Atlantis” will have cast panels at Comic-Con.
“Galactica” and “Eureka” also will have a large presence at the Sci Fi booth, with giveaways and a large ice cream truck giving out free treats to promote “Eureka’s” third-season premiere at the end of July.
--ABC Studios will supplement its big “Lost” event with panels for “Ghost Whisperer,” “Kyle XY” and “Wizard’s First Rule.” It’s also co-presenting the “Life on Mars” panel.
(Andrew Krukowski contributed to this report).
(1:45 p.m.: Added NBC Universal plans)