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And the geek shall inherit the earth...

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2007-08-05 Sunday Express.jpg


(Don't believe us? Just ask any Hollywood producer)

THE WORLD'S largest pop culture convention has now overtaken Cannes and the Oscars as the single most influential event on the Hollywood calendar. Comic-Con is an annual gathering in San Diego, California of 130,000 obsessive fans, many dressed as their favourite screen characters. But the advance buzz from here can seriously hype or hurt a film's prospects.

Also known as "Woodstock for geeks", the giant event, just completed for 2007, sees Hollywood studios unveiling the first footage from their upcoming projects to an audience of amateur bloggers with laptops on their knees who instantly spread the word about what looks cool and what sucks.

Last year the biggest buzz surrounded three releases that went on to become massive hits - the films 300 and Borat and the TV series Heroes. Hoping to ride a similar wave of enthusiasm, this year America's NBC TV network held the first public screening of its glossy remake of The Bionic Woman starring ex-EastEnders actress Michelle Ryan. But it surprisingly backfired when the audience gave the show and its star a bionic bashing. In the Q&A session that followed, one after another stepped up to the microphone to slam the show as "not as much fun as the Lindsay Wagner version", "mired in darkness" and "a carbon copy of other female operative shows". Ryan looked a little bemused but kept her dignity, saying: "I just hope that people give it a chance."

The one TV series that did get a surprisingly rapturous response was Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, which is soon to launch in the States on the BBC America cable channel. Producer Chris Chibnall said: "It was worth flying across the Atlantic to see a fantastic reaction like that from the Comic-Con audience. We didn't expect that but then again there is no character on American television like John Barrowman's omnisexual 51st-century hero."

Big stars and big budgets are no guarantee of ratings or box-office success, but that didn't stop the A-listers stampeding to the convention this year.

Nicolas Cage, Gwyneth Paltrow, Clive Owen, Jessica Alba, Kate Beckinsale, Edward Norton and Liv Tyler all chatted to people in Batman T-shirts or dressed as Transformers in a bid to hawk their wares. Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford spoke to convention-goers live by satellite from the set of Indiana Jones 4.

But it was a film with no stars at all that intrigued this unpredictable audience the most. Lost creator, producer and director JJ Abrams took to the main stage to talk about his new Star Trek film but got even more interest with his other upcoming film, a low-budget monster movie so shrouded in secrecy that its title has not even been announced yet.

Fans cheered in appreciation of the trailer: grainily shot footage of a New York house party interrupted by a huge noise and the Statue of Liberty's head landing in the street outside. There was also a big thumbs-up for the poster - a shot of a headless Statue of Liberty in front of a devastated Manhattan.

Showing a mastery over how to intrigue the audience, Abrams said: "I wanted to make a monster movie for this generation. We had King Kong in the past, Japan has had Godzilla, we need something insane, intense and modern." But then he left the stage, refusing to show footage of the monster or take any questions. The bloggers went into overdrive, declaring his film, out next January, as a must-see.

The other movie they went mad for was Iron Man, starring Robert Downey Jnr. This comic-book hero, a weapons manufacturer who turns himself into a weapon, may not be as well known now as Spider-Man or Superman, but he will be next summer, judging by the standing ovation for the first footage.

Downey admitted afterwards the only reason he had made a family-friendly blockbuster like this was in a bid to copy the success of his contemporary, Johnny Depp. He explained: "I came up in the business with Johnny, always admired his wonderful choices and then I see him do the Pirates Of The Caribbean and he's great in them. Now he's got his face on the side of a drinks cup. I want my face on the side of a drinks cup."

Depp looks set for another success with Sweeney Todd, the first poster for which was given away free to fans attending Comic-Con.

Those fans clearly love movies and TV but they are a bizarre-looking bunch who don't all have the best personal hygiene and they inspire different reactions from the VIP guests.

Hollywood's hottest screenwriter, Judd Apatow - the man behind Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and latest hit Knocked Up - says: "When you walk around the hall, a lot of the time it smells like a fart. Just because you're dressed as a storm trooper doesn't mean you can break wind at will."

But Al Jean, producer of the smash hit The Simpsons Movie, reckons: "These are the people who put you where you are. A lot of them are dressed like Darth Vader but you still have to give them a great deal of respect."

COMIC-CON started out as a small gathering of comic-book lovers and its first convention in 1970, in the basement of a San Diego hotel, drew just 300 fans. George Lucas was the first to realise that courting such a fan base could help the box-office prospects of films and launched Star Wars there in 1976.

TV gradually jumped on the bandwagon and shows like The X-Files, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess all built a groundswell of support by previewing at Comic-Con. Heroes, created by Tim Kring, has become the biggest new global TV hit of the year and Kring says it all started at Comic-Con. "We screened the first episode and I stood in the back watching their enthusiastic reactions. It was a moment that will live with me the rest of my life."

At last the film world has caught on that this is the place that can make or break a project. Even more so after seeing warrior epic 300 make £226million at the international box office on the back of word of mouth and the push of a computer button at this festival last year.

Even those for whom the spotlight has long faded are guaranteed a warm reaction - and a decent pay day. TV's Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno, Darth Vader actor Dave Prowse and Marc Singer from V and The Beastmaster drew long queues as they sold their autographs to fans for £20 a time.

Then there are the personalities who would walk unnoticed at the Cannes Film Festival or the Academy Awards but are treated like gods here. They include Amanda Tapping, whose 10 years in the Stargate SG-1 TV series are a record for a sci-fi actress in a role.

She came to talk about the series 10 DVD but could hardly be heard above cheers from frenzied fans: "When I left theatre school I thought I'd only do important plays and never prostitute myself to do TV and yet here I am years later and it's, 'Woo, Amanda' everywhere I go here."

Comic-Con may not have the tuxedos, cocktail dresses and class of Cannes or the edgy sensibility of the Sundance Film Festival, but it's a fair bet it will have a much bigger influence over what we're all watching next year.


IT'S A SCREAM: The fans at Comic-Con may look bizarre but the buzz from this annual convention in San Diego can make or break a movie

RAPTURE: Dr Who spin-off Torchwood, starring John Barrowman, received a fantastic reception

FILM HITS: Lost creator JJ Abrams's unnamed monster movie and Sweeney Todd, below

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  • APA 6th ed.: Monetti, Sandro (2007-08-05). And the geek shall inherit the earth.... Sunday Express p. 71.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Monetti, Sandro. "And the geek shall inherit the earth...." Sunday Express [add city] 2007-08-05, 71. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Monetti, Sandro. "And the geek shall inherit the earth...." Sunday Express, edition, sec., 2007-08-05
  • Turabian: Monetti, Sandro. "And the geek shall inherit the earth...." Sunday Express, 2007-08-05, section, 71 edition.
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