What value, Comic-Con

The other day day Cinematical editor-in-chief Erik Davis tweeted the following:

“It amazes me that Comic-Con can sell out tickets in 40 seconds, but still can’t sell a movie.”

While it was actually seven hours, the comment struck me as interesting for a couple of reasons.

First, Comic-Con, like SXSW, always seems to be either preparing, in motion or wrapping up. SXSW began soliciting ideas for panels somewhere back in April 2010 for the 2011 conference, which happens in March – so just a month after the event itself. Likewise Comic-Con is in an endless cycle of talk about when tickets go on sale, what the hotel situation is going to be for next year and so on. They’re like the hockey season: There’s rarely a time when they’re *not* happening.

Second, Comic-Con has become an event better known for movies, it seems, than comics in recent years. Studios are there with everything from sci-fi heavy blockbusters, a seemingly natural fit for the geek-heavy audience that made the convention what it was orginally, to the latest family sitcom that’s debuting on network television.

The fact that there are so many panel discussions on such a broad swath of entertainment properties is what’s to blame for both aspects of Davis’ comment. Because there are so many different types of shows, movies and more (including even a few comics-related things) there are more areas of journalists – both professional and amateur – trying to get in. And because there are so many more journalists trying to get in the average comics/movie fan is squeezed out. Put that together and you have attendees made up of people who aren’t representative of the audience as a whole. So movies play like gangbusters at Comic-Con (or SXSW Film) because the people there are predisposed to like them since they come from the loyal fringe and not form the mainstream.

I’ve said it many times: A movie will never attract an audience bigger than the one it’s supposed to have. That might sound simplistic, but it means that movies like Scott Pilgrim, Snakes on a Plane and others that get all the commentators fired up and talking like there’s no tomorrow never really had a shot at breaking out beyond those crowds. Scott Pilgrim was a movie made for the people in Hall H and not for the parents looking for a relaxing way to spend their weekend evening.

Similarly, a great screening of 15 minutes of footage won’t save a clunker of a movie. I remember a couple years ago there was ton of Comic-Con buzz around the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still but the box-office was dead as the movie struggled to make back its production budget in domestic theaters. There are countless other examples.

On the other hand movies like Iron Man have seriously benefited from getting attendees at the convention excited. Green Lantern is likely hoping to also be on that side of the ledger, as is The Avengers, which had its formal coming out party at last year’s event.

Eventually there are two possibilities that will play out: Either studios will wise up and scale back their Comic-Con efforts for all but a small number of titles that are more inline with what the traditional audience has been or things will continue to ramp up as no one wants to be the one who *doesn’t* go and then has to justify that decision if the movie tanks. Either way there are now, at this point, enough case studies for marketers to look at and see if the return on the investment that’s being seen there is great enough to continue putting so much effort into Comic-Con panels and appearances.