At Comic-Con, Geeks Wield Power

Geeks have most definitely arrived. Armed with laptops and blogs and money to spend on collectibles, they gathered in large numbers last week at the annual Comic-Con International, the largest pop-culture convention in the world catering to fans of horror, animation and fantasy.

Movie and TV producers know where these geeks are — and want their support badly.

From its start in 1970, when 300 comic book fans gathered in the bowels of San Diego’s U.S. Grant Hotel, to last year, when 123,000-plus mobbed the San Diego Convention Center, Comic-Con has increasingly become a place where Hollywood makes direct appeals to fans.

This year, those fans booked early, selling out the event in advance. Organizers might have to change venues again, as they’ve run out of space.

The power of Comic-Con was evident at the Television Critics Association gathering in Beverly Hills, Calif., last month, when Lost producers tried to withhold news about the show from a group of TV critics, instead saving it for a big reveal in Comic-Con Ballroom 20 (seating capacity: 4,500).

ABC Entertainment chief Steve McPherson ended up disclosing at TCA that character “Michael,” played by Harold Perrineau, will rejoin Lost. But the point was made: these fan gatherings are important places for programmers to release “news,” too.

Cable networks have long made Comic-Con a must-be destination. Independent Film Channel, Spike TV, Sci Fi Channel, BET, G4, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, BBC America and ABC Family placed booths on the convention floor and/or flew in stars and producers to attend panels in the big rooms upstairs.

G4 constructed a small studio for their Attack of the Show convention coverage. Every Comic-Con attendee received a program — tucked inside an ABC Family Kyle XY bag.

Fans queued hours in advance to hear about BBC America’s Dr. Who spinoff, Torchwood. The room, with a capacity of 1,500 people, was packed and hundreds were turned away. The network ran clips of the pilot episode and when the openly gay lead actor John Barrowman — who plays the heroic, omnisexual Capt. Jack Harkness — appeared on screen, the crowd went wild.

Sci Fi Channel’s futuristic, interactive booth drew fans like a beacon. Leading up to the booth, the network lined the convention floor with yellow brick road carpet, to tout Tin Man — its upcoming December miniseries, a reimagining of The Wizard of Oz.

Sci Fi and Entertainment Weekly partnered for a Saturday night bash at Hotel Solamar, a hot Comic-Con ticket. Casts and creatives were in-house and celebs showed up in force — including Stan Lee, Robert Downey Jr., Ed Norton, Liv Tyler, Jon Favreau, Seth Green, J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, Sarah Silverman and even Playboy TV’s Jenna Jameson.

The Battlestar and Stargate events, held in Ballroom 20, were convention highlights. Sci Fi touted the women of Battlestar. The line for the panel snaked a quarter mile through the convention hallways and out onto a hot, sunny patio. Hundreds baked in the sun; thousands, apparently, were turned away.

The big Battlestar news: Lucy Lawless returns to the cast for a minimum of two episodes. At the Sci Fi/EW party, Lawless said that ABC/Touchstone Television extended her option for the American iteration of Footballers’ Wives, so further Battlestar participation could be limited.

The Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis panels were raucous, moderated by Gary Jones, a Toronto Second City improv vet who plays the beloved “GateGuy” (Chief Master Sgt. Walter Harriman) on SG-1.

No such event would be complete without a fan protest. When an audience member asked the Stargate producers “what they have against doctors,” the 4,500-strong crowd roared and hundreds of little Scottish flags fluttered in the air.

Earlier, a fan named Michelle from San Francisco had distributed the keepsakes in support of returning Dr. Carson Beckett (Paul McGillion) to the Atlantis cast. The character, a Scot and a medical doctor, was killed off last season.

The producers tried to deflect the issue with humor. “It’s not doctors we have a problem with,” executive producer Robert Cooper quipped. “It’s Scottish people.” Atlantis showrunner Joe Mallozzi assured the crowd he loved Scottish people and instructed them to redirect their “hate e-mail to Rob Cooper. My inbox is full.”

Later, in the hallways, fans dressed in kilts played a dirge on bagpipes.

BET screened the uncensored version of Read a Book, a popular music video that aired on the network (and on You Tube before Viacom ordered it taken down). The network also unveiled the Vin Diesel-produced animated series Hannibal, The Conquerer and touted Orlando Jones’s animated sketch comedy BUFU.

“We’re creating a black mythology,” senior vice president of animation Denys Cowan declared. European culture has “Conan and Superman,” he said. “Hannibal is North African … and it’s vitally important to us as a people. It’s a real mission for us.”

But the networks aren’t the only the only outlets for content with Comic-Con appeal — not when producers can take their shows (in addition to news about shows) directly to fans.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios continues to invest heavily in the wholly owned Stargate franchise even though Stargate SG-1 was dumped by Sci Fi after a decade on cable. (Sister series Atlantis lives on.)

City buses plastered with Stargate images ran continuously in front of the convention center. At the Sci Fi/EW bash, MGM’s senior executive vice president of finance and corporate development Charlie Cohen said the studio decorated 10 buses and has already reserved the vehicles for next year.

MGM has two direct-to-DVD SG-1 movies in production — Continuum and Ark of Truth — that cost about $7 million each to make, and there are plans to crank out more, Cohen said. And he revealed MGM has just wrapped a direct-to-DVD movie of the long-canceled (by Showtime) Dead Like Me.

Cohen also indicated Stargate producers are incubating a third spin-off series, based on the “ninth chevron,” a symbol imbedded in the stargate. “It will take some Stargate group to an awesome, complex region of space that will allow for many great stories,” Cohen said.

Stories that MGM hopes will appeal to the fans — OK, geeks — like those that can be found at ComicCon.