What We Learned From Comic-Con: Movies Were an Afterthought

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TV demonstrated its muscle, even during film studio panels

Gale Anne Hurd rose to the pinnacle of Hollywood by producing some of the biggest and brashest films in history, none more so than “The Terminator,” directed by her then-husband James Cameron. Yet when thinking about the current state of the movie business, Hurd referenced another one of Cameron’s movies – “Titanic.”

“They can see the iceberg coming,” Hurd told TheWrap at Comic-Con.

Hurd is no longer on the ship. She has moved on to television, producing “The Walking Dead,” the highest-rated cable show in America. She will have no involvement in the upcoming reboot of “The Terminator,” nor does she seem to have much interest.

Also read: Why Television Is Trouncing Film at Major Media Companies

The rise of TV in both power and prestige has been well-chronicled, and there is no questioning its importance from a financial perspective. Media companies rely on television to deliver the vast majority of their profits while movie studios are an afterthought in Fox’s pursuit of Time Warner, owner of HBO, TNT, TBS, CNN and a host of lucrative sports TV rights.

Comic-Con this year reinforced the changing balance of power. The buzz around movies was minimal compared to even last year, when “Batman v. Superman” was the big news.

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The loudest cheers at this year’s convention were reserved for TV shows such as “Game of Thrones” and “The Walking Dead,” and the actors who elicited the most felicity – even during movie panels — were TV-bred thespians such as Benedict Cumberbatch and Karen Gillan.

Also read: George R.R. Martin Speaks Out on ‘South Park’s’ ‘Game of Thrones’ Spoof: ‘I Am Not Obsessed With Weenies’ (Video)

Here comes the caveat: several movie studios left their big guns on the sidelines. Still licking its wounds from the decline of its “Spider-Man” franchise, Sony did not preview a third movie or its “Sinister Six” spin-off. Instead, it convened a panel for two of its non-comic-book movies, “Pixels” and “Goosebumps,” in the Indigo Ballroom, a smaller venue than Hall H, its normal home.

Fox left its “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four” in West L.A., opting to preview a number of movies all targeted at the same young, male demographic. Like Fox, Paramount offered up a taste of five upcoming movies, but none of them got much time to shine. The only one that did, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” opens in two weeks. The panel is part of its last-minute marketing push, not a tease of bigger things to come.

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Lionsgate brought “Divergent” to its booth and “The Hunger Games” to the Hard Rock, but neither entered Hall H, the cavernous atrium that hosts the event’s biggest panels.

The two exceptions to this rule were Marvel and Warner Bros., with Marvel in a class of its own. Fanboy excitement transformed Hall H into an Ohio State pep rally around 5:30 Pacific Time on Saturday evening. Fans clamored “We Want Marvel” and “We Will Rock You,” while others attempted to initiate the wave.

Also read: Marvel Brings ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ Cast For Comic-Con Tailgate (Video)

In an era when everything is on-demand, Marvel has crafted a strategy that is Netflix-proof. Some of that is intrinsic to its fans, but the studio has weaved together its storylines and created TV shows to sustain interest in the characters between each movie.

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Many other studios have tried to ape this formula by establishing “film universes” of their own, none more so than Warner Bros. The studio has dated its “Batman v. Superman” movie on the same date as Marvel’s “Captain America 3,” a direct challenge to its more established rival.

Warner Bros. devoted the majority of its Comic-Con panel to the final installment in its “Hobbit” trilogy, granting director Peter Jackson and his cast an hour to talk about the film, offer up a teaser and get in character.

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Yet the length of the panel also imbued it with a tone of farewell; this may be the last time Jackson appears in Hall H alongside Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis and Cate Blanchett. Though there is no telling what Jackson will make next, he has exhausted The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit books.

Those franchises have buoyed Warner Bros. six of the last 14 Decembers, ensuring that they would boast one of the year’s biggest movies. Warner Bros. split The Hobbit, a miniscule book, into three movies to maintain its ATM, frustrating many fans. Everyone except Colbert, who said Jackson now owed him six more Rings movies.

Also read: Stephen Colbert Dresses as Spy to Host ‘The Hobbit’ at Comic-Con

“If Warners could find the way to do that, they would certainly be very happy,” Jackson responded.

The joke holds within it a kernel of truth: Warner Bros is in need of new franchises. With the conclusion of “Harry Potter,” the departure of partner Legendary Pictures and denouement of the Tolkien movies, Warner Bros. cupboard is not as full as the studio likes it to be.

That is where DC comes in. Warner Bros. is banking on the Justice League to seed many new franchises, establishing a pipeline of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman movies for many years to come.

Also read: First Trailer for ‘The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies’ Hits the Web (Video)

Studios have sold their corporate bosses on the allure of prestige and spectacle. The Oscar still matters more than the Emmy, and no TV station can make a movie like “The Hobbit,” “Avatar” or “The Avengers.”

The prestige argument has faded in this golden age of television, as directors such as Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher and Guillermo Del Toro create TV shows and movies in equal number.

The spectacle argument has endured, if only by sheer will power. Movie studios have turned to 3D and comic books, handing Michael Bay, Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams the keys to the kingdom. (They all came out of TV and music videos, by the way.)

Also read: Legend3D Founder on 3D TVs: ‘It Was Too Much Too Fast’

Comic books facilitate sequels, which reduce risk thanks to pre-existing fans.  Sustaining fan interest is easier for television shows, which run for weeks on-end, but TV networks have also invested more in materials that ensure their loyalty.

“When ‘Walking Dead’ isn’t on the air, we have tons of behind the scenes footage, fan content, marathons and webisodes,” Hurd said. “In the offseason, it’s not like people aren’t learning new things or exploring new worlds in the show. We do think the movie companies should build out the universe a little bit more.”

The movie industry has begun to take this advice to heart. Both Fox and Legendary crafted virtual reality experiences for their movies in partnership with Oculus, the maker of the Rift headset.

Fans could visit Legendary’s booth to enter the cockpit of a Jaeger in “Pacific Rim: Jaegar Pilot” and stop by Fox’s booth to enter the world of Professor X, Charles Xavier.

Also read: Guillermo Del Toro Redesigns ‘Pacific Rim’ For Virtual Reality

“We’re invested in making ‘Pacific Rim’ a Transmedia franchise,” ‎Barnaby Legg, vice president of Theatrical Marketing at Legendary told TheWrap.”We don’t just want to make ancillary content.”

Though some tech enthusiasts have branded virtual reality the future of movies, Del Toro, the director of “Pacific Rim,” sounded less certain.

“It’s great for a single user,” Del Toro told TheWrap, citing video games as a better outlet. The Rift is an individualized experience for someone sitting at home. Movies still rely on a larger ship, something more like the Titanic.”