In 2010, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”) was given unfettered access to capture the scene and spirit of Comic-Con, which generates a torrent of media coverage and attracts thousands of pop culture geeks to San Diego every year.
The product of that access is his new documentary, “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope,” which opens today in select cities and via OnDemand, and April 13 at D.C.’s West End Cinema. During a recent phone conversation, Spurlock shared a few insights about what the convention says about contemporary fandom and whether Comic-Con has reached a tipping point.
After interviewing so many fans for this documentary, what do you think explains the intensity of pop cultural devotion among the people who attend Comic-Con?
Spurlock: I think we’re at an interesting time in pop culture where, you know, for years loving these things was almost looked down upon. This whole idea of grow up, become an adult, was something that was kind of preached at us and instilled upon us. What [filmmaker] Eli Roth says [in the movie] is I think pretty accurate. We were kind of the first generation that has now grown up who not only kept our toys, but it’s okay to keep your toys. It’s okay to have these things because these things are representative of something else. Number one, they’re a kind of connection to your past, connection to your passions, the thing you love. It’s what makes you who you are.
And now there’s a real kind of business in the world around those things, whereas before, toys were toys. People who made toys weren’t seen as people who were that successful or cool. And now people who make video games and toys and movies and TV shows — there’s a tremendous amount of acceptance around this type of culture. ... Now you have these people who, at one time, were very fringe, who are now very popular. And their ideas and things they love are very popular.
For me ... what I’m interested in now and what I find to be exciting is how that’s transforming our society in a lot of ways.
You mention the business opportunities geekdom represents. Comic-Con and geek culture is increasingly driven by commerce. But fans also are very savvy about when they’re being sold something that doesn’t come from an authentically nerdy place.
You can recognize as a fan when somebody is just trying to make a buck. I think that’s very evident. But I don’t think anybody faults someone who — like a Marvel who kind of lives and breathes this business — Marvel coming in to sell you something about a character or a world or genre that you love. You’re not as upset by it because Marvel’s been doing it forever.
It’s suddenly when someone comes in just to piggyback on, like a “Twilight” franchise or something, just to sell you that new widget that you’re going to take home with Robert Pattinson’s face on it. I think that’s when it gets a little more incestuous. I think a lot of the fans can smell out a rat very easily.
Are we at a tipping point with this event? Last year, the year after you shot your film, a number of movie studios didn’t come to Comic-Con or didn’t do presentations around the franchises one might have expected.
Yeah, but I think there weren’t a lot of the bigger films for last year. Or most of them were coming out — a lot of those bigger movies came out before Comic-Con.
Well, the studios normally bring projects to Comic-Con more than a year before their release.
Sure. I think that what they realized is you need to take things that are ready to show and that you need to have a conversation around. You don’t want to take footage that’s kind of half-baked. You don’t want to tease things that aren’t quite there. I think a lot of people have learned their lessons in terms of showing things before their time.
Last year with what it was — people were like, we’re not going to show things that don’t make sense yet. We don’t need to be there. I don’t think Hollywood is retreating. I think this year, that will be very evident. I think the box office is also going to be evidence of that this year. This is going to be the biggest year for these types of movies, probably in history, with “The Hunger Games” and “Avengers” and “Spider-Man” and “Batman.”
So studios are more careful because they don’t want to show up and make a mistake.
These are fans who will express their distaste really quickly and easily. There’s another conversation people love to have all the time — what do you think, are movies destroying Comic-Con? Is the movie industry coming in here and destroying what Comic-Con is? Or they’re taking over Comic-Con — that’s the bigger one you hear. Movies are taking over Comic-Con.
The only thing that movies take over is press coverage of Comic-Con. Because somehow we’ve convinced ourselves that this is what everyone in America wants to know. Everybody in the world wants to know that Angelina showed up to promote her new movie. So there’s that side of the conversation. There’s, “Here’s Angelina Jolie promoting her new film” and “Oh, look at those freaks in costume.” This is the coverage of Comic-Con. Like, that’s what we get.
And what the film does a great job of showing is really deepening that conversation and showing there’s so much more going on there. I mean, there’s 6,000 people in Hall H [where the high-profile Hollywood panels are held], but there’s 144,000 other people at Comic-Con that aren’t in Hall H.
You had been to Comic-Con before shooting this film, right?
The first time I was there was the year before, in 2009. I’d been wanting to go for so long. I had been to other Cons. I had never been to San Diego.
I’d wanted to go for years and years, and I was just hired to do “The Simpsons” 20th anniversary special for Fox. As soon as we got hired for that job, I was like, we’re going to Comic-Con. We’re going to Comic-Con and we’re going to cast for “Simpsons” superfans, we’re going to have people come out and profess their love for all things Homer. If we’re going to find “Simpsons” fans, they’re going to be there. And I was really — I had such a great time, and I just felt, there’s a bigger story to be told about this place. Because I felt like there’s so much that isn’t talked about at Comic-Con. Then later that night, I met Stan Lee and that’s when Stan said, “We should make a movie about Comic-Con.” And I said, “Yes, we should, Mr. Lee.”
A year later, there we were at Comic-Con making a movie with Stan Lee and Joss Whedon and Thomas Tull and Harry Knowles — I mean, it was amazing. Things like that don’t happen.
They normally don’t let people capture footage to the extent that you were able to do.
They’ll let news crews come in but in terms of giving the access to the extent that we got — which was pretty much carte blanche across the board, anywhere we wanted to shoot, from loading docks to interior, exteriors, meetings, conversations — it was remarkable. And it’s the first time ever. When I spoke to the board of trustees, a friend of mine who’s on the board and has been there for 25 years said, every year, somebody’s come and asked for permission to make a documentary about Comic-Con. And they’ve always said no. And I think they would have said no to me as well had I not already had Stan and Joss on board.
It gave a tremendous credibility right from the beginning. Here was the old guard and the new guard basically saying we believe and trust this guy’s going to tell the story we all believe is the right one.
If someone has never been to Comic-Con, why would this movie interest him or her?
I think what you realize is that in today’s culture, there is something at Comic-Con for all of us. Like, I could take my mom to Comic-Con now and she would be ecstatic about something. “Oh my God, there’s Ray Bradbury signing an autograph. Is that George Takei from ‘Star Trek?’ ”
There would be things there that would get her so excited. I think that there’s a world of people who already know and love this very well. There’s a world of people who never go to Comic-Con, who want to go that would want to see this. Separate from that, I think there are people who are part of this culture but don’t have the ability to openly express it, and I think this film is for the geek in all of us. Believe it or not, there is a geek in every single one of us.