At Comic-Con, Nerd Mentality Rules the Day

Even killer clowns gotta eat: Mike Miller, left, and Conrrado Lemus, dressed as
Even killer clowns gotta eat: Mike Miller, left, and Conrrado Lemus, dressed as "The Devil's Rejects" character Captain Spaulding, grab a snack. (Photos By Dave Gatley For The Washington Post)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 19, 2005

SAN DIEGO -- The lines outside the convention center went on and on, like a slow-motion perp walk of aliens gone AWOL: the robed, pimply Jedis standing next to the ankle-biter in the Batman cape, who followed the three middle-aged dad-dudes dressed as old-school Klingons, not too far from the wand-waving Harry Potters and the tattooed vixens in Vampirella goth gear, complete with bustier and fangs. Then there was the teen-girl with the black frame glasses, her dyed red hair up in barrettes, who wore a T-shirt that read: I {heart} NERDS.

Oh, yeah, big time. Comic-Con International is perhaps the largest gathering of nerds on the planet; nearly 100,000 of them attended the four-day fest that ended Sunday, and nobody loves them more than Hollywood, which has transformed the annual convention into a Cannes for Geeks, a Sundance for the fanboys (and girls) who can drive the success of the genre films of sci-fi, fantasy and horror, which are essentially the only movies making blockbuster money these days (think: "War of the Worlds," "Fantastic Four," "Batman Begins" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory").

When Comic-Con began 36 years ago, it was a few hundred people trading Golden Age issues of Flash and Green Lantern. Now, the actual comic books have been shoved to the perimeter of the cavernous downtown convention center, and movies and video games made about comic-book characters have taken over.

And if Comic-Con represents the nuclear reactor that generates early buzz for a film, the white-hot uranium core here has got to be Hall H, where hour after hour, attendees fought for one of the 6,500 seats to watch teasers and trailers and outtakes from upcoming attractions (many shown for the first time), and to hear the movie directors and actors on the panels promise the fans that they will deliver the goods. (Or else face the wrath of the nerd wronged.) Most of these films will not open for months, and some not until 2007.

This year, the talent making the trip to San Diego included Adrien Brody, Natalie Portman, Karl Urban, Kate Beckinsale, Jack Black, Charlize Theron, Naomi Watts and the Rock. Universal showed coming attractions for "Doom," the R-rated splatterflick based on the video game. The Rock pledged to Hall H that "the movie kicks [butt]." Then they showed the trailer. Audience reaction: good, not great. Then they showed a still-rough clip featuring Urban, filmed from his "Doom" character's point of view, in the "First-Person Shooter" mode of the video game, and the crowd went nuts as he blew the heads off of chain saw-wielding demons.

Disney gave a taste of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which won't be out until Christmas, and everyone watched to see how different it would look compared with the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy (since the New Zealand designers who did J.R.R. Tolkien are now tackling C.S. Lewis). Narnia looked plenty different, and the applause was enthusiastic, with some attendees on their feet.

And on it went: Warner Bros. featured a glimpse of "Superman Returns" and "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." Sony showed off "Ghost Rider." And Peter Jackson sent in a raw clip from his "King Kong," still in the works, that showed the big monkey taking a bite out of a T. rex , as if the dinosaur was a BK Broiler. (And so, early word in the Web chat rooms on Sunday? "Kong" could rock.)

"It's total geek central," explains Garth Franklin, founder and editor of the movie site http://darkhorizons.com , bloodshot and google-eyed, who basically lived in Hall H for four days. He says a movie's success can be made or destroyed by its reception at Comic-Con, where the fans are not only intimately knowledgeable about the source material (the game, the comic, the book; they know their Narnia), but are also fiercely protective of their superheroes and wizards. And because of the Internet, their opinions count. "They take all this very seriously," says Franklin, one of better known of the hundreds of online journalists covering the Con. "And they post," he says. (Hundreds of pictures taken with digital cameras at the convention are already wending their way around cyberspace.).

In a fierce marketplace for genre, sites like Darkhorizons and Ain't It Cool News and Bloody-Disgusting.com are king. Forget the New Yorker. Here, a teenager with strong opinions and text-messaging becomes Pauline-Kael-with-typos. Call it word of mouth or buzz or viral marketing, the studios now realize they must inoculate this fan population early and often if they hope to open big at the box office -- or go the way of "Catwoman," a certified flop and loathed by the Comic-Con community, which saw the movie as a crass exploitation of a beloved character. Plus, they didn't think Halle Berry was right for the role.

So into the maelstrom of the convention center on Saturday afternoon came director Rob Zombie and Lions Gate Films to launch "The Devil's Rejects," Zombie's super-violent road-rampager about a scary clown and his family of mass-murdering psychopaths. Here, they hope to find their audience.

"Because the people here are the real fans, the extreme fans," Zombie explains before he enters the hall, taking a few moments to sit with a reporter at the Omni Hotel next door. "Everybody is a fan of something, I know, but these people build their lives around it. It's a lifestyle. They talk about movies two years before they come out. If they hate something? Man, it's a hard hurdle to get over. And every genre movie lives or dies by the hardcore fans."

You might not have heard of Mr. Zombie (real name: Robert Cummings), lean and tousle-haired and etched in tattoos, but obviously enough members of the Comic-Con community know his work that he requires a pair of extra-large bodyguards, so as not to be mauled when he signs autographs. Zombie is both artist and entrepreneur -- he is the lead singer in the hardcore rock/punk hybrid band White Zombie, the director of dozens of musical videos, the creator of a comic book serial and the auteur behind the cult film "House of 1000 Corpses," which introduced the Firefly family, who make their return to the screen in "The Devil's Rejects."


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