The desire to tap into Comic-Con's powerful nerd demographic is luring Hollywood to the San Diego event - at the expense of ShoWest. Jeremy Kay reports.

The flurry of key studio casting announcements on 2008 tentpoles that emanated from Comic-Con last week will have been closely monitored by industry watchers. In recent years, the annual pop culture gathering has become noteworthy for the way it has accommodated a growing Hollywood presence.

Increasingly, the top studio brass are capitalising on the breadth and power of viral communication and are using the San Diego event to host star-studded panels, screen early footage and make declarations far in advance of a film's release to generate early buzz.

During last week's event (July 26-29), Paramount unveiled Leonard Nimoy and Zachary Quinto, from the hit US TV series Heroes, as the older and younger versions of Mr Spock in JJ Abrams' upcoming Star Trek project.

Meanwhile, Steven Spielberg announced that Karen Allen will reprise her role in the upcoming Indiana Jones 4 as the feisty Marion Ravenwood, Harrison Ford's love interest in Raiders Of The Lost Ark 26 years ago.

News also leaked that Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley and Billy Crudup will be among the principal characters on Zack Snyder's eagerly awaited graphic novel adaptation Watchmen for Warner Bros. Each of these stories hit the world's newswires within minutes of breaking.

Glamour and prestige
Comic-Con's ascendancy to the role of global headline-grabber means it must now rank as North America's most prominent showcase for Hollywood talent outside of festivals and awards shows. In terms of sheer glamour and prestige, it has overtaken ShoWest, although the latter remains an important business-to-business event for the studios and their exhibitor partners.

'I've been going to Comic-Con for eight or nine years and each year it's become more of a marketing vehicle,' says Amy Powell, Paramount's senior vice-president of interactive marketing. 'This year we were so excited about all of our movies so it made sense to get out in front of our core audience and show them footage first.

'You go when you have the goods and the film-makers are happy to show the materials. But you really have to be comfortable with putting your materials out there so far in advance of the movie's release. Then you analyse the blogs and look at the online tracking.'

Comic-Con has become the studios' direct line to key constituents where genre films and, more recently, comedy titles targeted at younger demographics, are concerned. The fact that so many attendees are netizens and bloggers only serves to get the word out sooner.

'What's great about the blogosphere is someone in Europe or Asia can jump online and read news or see materials almost as soon as they're uploaded or discussed in a public forum across the world,' Powell says.

'As long as we believe in our materials before we unleash them, the results can be amazing. We wanted to make Comic-Con the launch pad for our longer-lead films.'

Each of the majors, except Twentieth Century Fox and Universal, had a major presence this year: Paramount was touting Star Trek and Indiana Jones 4, among others, as well as Beowulf, which it shares with Warner Bros, which dispatched talent to talk up Watchmen (pictured above) and Speed Racer. Disney showcased footage from Prince Caspian and Wall-E, New Line screened Shoot 'Em Up and Sony promoted Resident Evil: Extinction.

'Lionsgate had an incredible launch at Comic-Con of its upcoming tentpole releases Good Luck Chuck (Sony is partnering on most international territories), 3:10 To Yuma, Midnight Meat Train (which Lakeshore is producing) and Saw IV,' says Stephanie Denton, Lionsgate's international chief.

'In terms of international, it's becoming increasingly significant as more international distributors attend and it's also a great way for us to incorporate a sneak peek for international press. Most of the major international territories send (TV) crews to cover the event.'

Once a film's release date approaches, the traditional theatrical campaigns kick in. 'It's like concentric circles,' Powell says. 'We start out long lead with our core audience and expand to those people that may not have been online or read the blogs or heard about the movie.

'And Comic-Con isn't the only event like this we look at - there's WonderCon in the first quarter in San Francisco and Wizard Con in March in Los Angeles, not to mention international events.'