A bit of a change-up here at We Can Fix It: although last week we promised to take a look at the unpleasantness that was Robocop 3, San Diego Comic Con 2011 made us change our minds. Robocop 3 is getting pushed back a week, because we definitely think we can fix Comic Con.
Comic Con may not be “broken,” per se, but it is certainly damaged. I’m only going to speak for the movie side of things here, since my responsibilities to covering the convention for CRAVE Online prevented me from experiencing any other kind of panel last weekend. But Hall H itself was full of enough problems, and fixable problems at that, that I have to take this opportunity – while people are still listening – to explain how to make the experience more enjoyable for all… or at least, those of us who are in it for the movies themselves.
First, a few commendations: Hall H used to have even more problems than it does now (although not necessarily the same ones), and the folks running Comic Con have done a pretty good job of fixing many of them. For starters, they’re doing a better job at screening out fans who get up in front of 6,000 people to interrupt the panel for a selfish attempt to snag an autograph, souvenir or photo with the celebrities in attendance. They still manage to make it up there sometimes, but it’s not as common an occurrence, and I know that everyone in attendance thanks the management for that. Over the last couple of years they also finally started putting tents outside the hall to make the sometimes-interminable wait to get in a little more pleasant, which is much appreciated. The people running the show and the studios running the panels aren’t screwing everything up, they just still have a long way to go.
Here then are CRAVE Online’s suggestions for how to fix the movie panels in Hall H, which were once one of the biggest draws for the entire convention and now are suffering from borderline malaise.
1. TO HELL WITH THE CHILDREN
Let’s start with the worst, most offensive and even outright dangerous mistake that Comic Con has started making.
On several occasions in Hall H this year, a panel member’s swearing was reprimanded with a reminder – and a verbatim reading – of a warning they were given that many individuals in the audience may be under the age of 18. In this context, that’s nothing short of censorship. Comic Con may welcome all ages but it’s also a place where Little Lulu comics can be found at a booth next to one showing a video of a guy getting his face ripped off. These panels are not being publicized on network television, where anybody can just accidentally run into something they might understandably find offensive. It’s an event that people have to pay to see, and they know that they run the risk of encountering something that might arguably be considered offensive. If not, as Guillermo del Toro said when he was admonished for his particularly colorful language at the Film District panel, “They should have known what they were @#$%ing getting into.”
That’s not to say that everyone should swear up a storm for no reason. The Aardman Animation panel is arguably no place for pornographic metaphors, but that decision should be left up to the people giving the panel, and neither discouraged nor held accountable by the convention itself. Again, you paid to see this. You know what you want. If you don’t want to see an R-rated movie, then odds are you aren’t in a panel for one. Or at the very least you really shouldn’t be.
Don’t censor yourself, Comic Con. There’s no MPAA breathing down your back, and no Bureau of Standards and Practices. You’re here for the fans, not the masses, and the fans can take hearing Toni Collette use the “F-word” in preview footage of Fright Night, a term which was offensively edited out of said footage for no (good) reason.
2. SCREEN THE ACTUAL QUESTIONS NEXT TIME
As stated above, the show-runners are doing a much better job of making certain that the autograph junkies aren’t stealing time from the rest of the hall. Each panel only has so much time to interact with the audience and whenever somebody just wants an autograph it takes a couple minutes to do so, assuming the talent even goes for it, which adds up very quickly. But really, those are technically “requests.” What Comic Con needs to do better is screen the actual questions.
Here’s a few questions we heard this year at Hall H (many of them culled from the Twilight panel, but variations could be found in every single presentation): “What’s it like working with such hot co-stars?” “How did you prepare for the role?” “What’s it like working with so-and-so?” These are fluff questions. I know because I actually work as an interviewer. They’re the kind of questions you fall back on when you don’t know the interviewee’s work very well, or when you lose your place in your notes and just want to keep the momentum of the conversation going. They fill time but, unless the interviewee is really on their “A” game, they never elicit an interesting answer. So why ask them, if you only have one shot to ask a celebrity a question? Because you just want to talk to a celebrity.
Let’s not encourage that. While you’re filtering out requests for autographs, de-prioritize the meaningless drivel. You don’t need to kick them out of the line entirely, just move them to the back of it so that more substantial prompts get priority. One bloke asked Steven Soderbergh if there was a planned DVD release of his classic film King of the Hill (no relation to the animated series). That’s a good one. Someone else asked Tarsem Singh about the quality of the 3D in Immortals, since audiences have been burned by bad 3D in the past. These are perfectly decent questions. Prioritize them, and leave the fluff for the end if there’s time to cover them.
3. DON’T GET HUNG UP ON FOOTAGE
At his panel for Total Recall, director Len Wiseman said that none of his footage was “ready,” but he brought some anyway because he knows how frustrating it can be for the audience not to see anything. This sentiment is familiar, but depending on the project, it’s very, very wrong. Ignoring for the fact that Wiseman’s presentation for Total Recall failed to sell us on the film – and indeed early footage can often have that negative consequence – it also appears to have affected other filmmakers who didn’t even bother having a panel for that same reason.
Peter Jackson and Joss Whedon, both present at Comic Con for other panels, didn’t bring any footage for The Hobbit or The Avengers. Christopher Nolan didn’t have anything ready for The Dark Knight. While yes, it would have been nice to see something, not having a panel at all is actually worse; for high-profile projects like those if nothing else. Simply being present to have an open dialogue with the fans is enough to placate us. I assure all of those filmmakers that not being available to answer questions or encourage us that the productions are going in a favorable direction was more frustrating than merely showing up without footage would have been. Comic Con is, as I’ve said time and time again, a rare opportunity to interact with the target demographic and make them feel like part of the creative process. Don’t take that away from us, or we’ll genuinely miss it.
4. BRING BACK THE SWAG
Film panels used to have more swag, damn it. I remember going to the Spider-Man and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone panels in 2001 (why yes, I am feeling old, thank you for asking), and everybody coming home with Daily Bugle baseball caps and custom t-shirts from the Hogwarts house of their choice. (Having not read the books I just asked for the “evil” one, but now I sincerely regret not getting a Ravenclaw tee instead. C’est la vie.) On one hand, this is a greedy attempt on my part to get free stuff. But hey, audiences like free stuff. And a happy audience is… well, a happy audience. That’s the goal, right?
But swag was also a reward for staying in Hall H (and the smaller halls that were its predecessors) all day, thereby forgoing valuable time on the convention floor proper. The audience is taking the hours away from shopping for awesome stuff to attend your panel. A paltry token of appreciation to reward them for their interest isn’t required, per se, but it’s a nice way of saying “Thank you.” Bring it back, please. Besides Francis Ford Coppola’s nifty 3D Edgar Allan Poe masks, we got squat this year.
5. IF YOU HAVE MORE THAN ONE MOVIE PER PANEL, THEN PUT THEM ON AT THE SAME TIME
This one hadn’t occurred to us until this year’s Film District panel came out and did it, but boy howdy was it a great idea. Many film studios have more than one film to promote at their Comic Con panels, but the balance is often off. Often they have one awesome movie that everyone’s excited about, like Sony did with Spider-Man in 2001, and one kinda neat movie that could use some extra support, like Sony’s Ghosts of Mars that same year. But usually they hold one mini-panel after the other. The result is either that the big movie goes first and half the audience leaves before the second one starts, or the audience is so restless to get through the first one that they start to resent the smaller film taking up so much time (which is exactly what happened with said 2001 Sony panel, in which the audience got downright belligerent about it).
So Film District said, “Screw it, we’re having both panels at the same time.” They brought out the talent from both Drive and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and apparently encouraged the filmmakers to interact with each other to promote both films. For whatever reason Drive became the focus of the day, but a more hands-on moderator could have taken the curse off of that. Either way, if there’s space, having both panels on at once fixed the audience problem: they stayed throughout the whole panel, were promoted a second movie they might not otherwise have been interested in, and didn’t have to wait to watch the panel for either one. This is clever stuff, and we hope to see more of it in the future.
6. STOP TRYING TO BE ‘300’
Relativity’s Immortals panel was an awkward experience, as I’ve written before. The film – which doesn’t look all that bad, necessarily – bears distinct stylistic similarities to 300, ranging from the setting, the ultra-violence and the extensive slow motion to the just plain overall manliness of the thing. 300, as you’ll recall, was an enormous Comic Con success. Audiences came into Hall H expecting little, but left the hall with boundless enthusiasm that translated into box office success months later upon 300’s release. The reason why this happened is because the footage of 300 that screened was unlike anything most of the audience had seen before, and they got so stoked that there was even a call to watch the same footage twice.
Yeah… That’s not going to happen again. Or at the very least, you can’t plan for it.
Under the guise of distancing themselves from 300, the Immortals panel intentionally name-checked Zack Snyder’s film multiple times, and – and this is the kicker – showed the same, similar-to-300 footage twice. This time, nobody asked for it. The reason is simple: they weren’t excited for 300 because it was a manly Greek epic, they were excited because it represented something new. Immortals, however good or bad it may be, doesn’t qualify. You can’t capture lightning in a bottle, and it’s extremely naïve to try to capture somebody else’s lightning to boot. Show us something exciting and fresh and we’ll respond. Don’t trump up what you have with unnecessary name-checking or even over-the-top theatricality, like the shamelessly dramatic presentation for Amazing Spider-Man, which tried so hard to wow the audience with its “spontaneity” that it almost distracted us from how disconcerting the actual footage was. That may have been the whole idea, but improving the actual footage is the better way to go.
That’s it for our special Comic Con edition of We Can Fix It. I’m sure we left something out so if you have any suggestions on how to fix Comic Con for next year please leave them in the comments below. Next week we’ll be back with Robocop 3… for realz.