How Television Won SDCC 2014

The dust has settled in Comic-Con, and after a week of pop culture fantasia, it seems genre television walked away with the whole thing.

From the Hilton Bayfront Hotel to the Marriot Marquis & Marina; from the downtown Gaslamp Quarter to the steps of the Convention Center; from Lobby A to Hall H (especially in Hall H), there was only one thing on Comic-Con attendees’ lips: Television’s presence was really big this year.

In fact, it wasn’t just big—television won San Diego Comic-Con in 2014. Handily.

For over a decade, the ostensibly “comic book” themed convention has become an international destination for Hollywood filmmakers and the fans who devour their product. Be they superhero movies, vampire-populated Young Adult fiction, or even the rare original genre film, big budget Hollywood has turned Comic-Con into a blockbuster fantasia for fans who don’t mind sleeping outside for four nights in a row.

And yet, this year was markedly different. To be sure, the summer movie 2015 (and even 2016) calendar left a sizeable imprint on San Diego, but for the first time since this event became an annual Geek Mecca for more than just comic book purists, the television hoof markings dwarfed it.

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This is felt nowhere more clearly than in the superhero genre. As the obvious bread and butter for the comic industry over the last 75 years, they have become the fiduciary bloodline to movie studios as well in the 21st century. They were expectedly out in force in all the most expected ways. Indeed, the only thing unexpected about the superhero franchise news-making out of San Diego this week is how we knew everything going in, and not a drop more. Kevin Feige introducing the cast of next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man along with an undoubtedly scorching sizzle reel? Check. Zack Snyder making a “surprise” appearance in Hall H to show off footage of Ben Affleck in bulky Frank Miller Batman casual, plus a poster of Gal Gadot rocking Wonder Woman’s warrior princess chic? Double-check.

But after several months of build-up, including Dwayne Johnson apparently admitting he’s playing a Shazam,Jason Momoa all but confirming he’s Aquaman,and a week of rampant (and suspicious) Doctor Strange casting news, all Hall H hopefuls left with is what they knew going in.

The reason for this unanticipated empty feeling for superhero movie fans is a story unto itself—which my friend Mike Cecchini has aptly already written!—however the flipside of this coin is that fans of superheroes and comic books that also happen to own a television set likely left extremely satisfied.

That is because while the DC movie universe gave Comic-Con goers the requisite Wonder Woman reveal, the brand’s multiple television universes (three and counting) were full of nothing but giddy surprises. Any journalist who spent time in the sizeable pressrooms for CW’s The Flash and Arrow, Fox’s Gotham, and NBC’s Constantine can attest to this. But beyond the media presence, these shows offered a literal party for fans to get their geeky jam on to.

After Comic-Con golden boy Marvel Studios finished its 20-minute late panel that failed to capitalize on the six Marvel movies that the studio had slated in the last week (one of them 48 hours before the presentation), Warner Brothers’ television arm strutted into Hall H like it was Saturday night in West Hollywood. Arrow star Stephen Amell didn’t just moderate the three-hour panel, he MC’d it like Joel Grey on a Berlin stage. And why not? There was nothing but things to celebrate for DC fans that night.

During the three-hour event, Amell helped introduce fans to his charisma, his abs, and also three different TV pilots for the new season. Hall H revelers didn’t just get a glimpse of what to expect from Gotham, The Flash, and Constantine…they got the whole damn pilot for each of them. And while movie studios can’t just give away an hour of entertainment from their movies (most of which are still in production), some of the biggest superhero news out of Saturday, which included Diana’s first poster and footage from The Avengers 2, easily was that Ra’s Al Ghul would be making appearance as the big baddie on season three of Arrow. And unlike those aforementioned films, the nature of immediacy in the television format allowed the Ra’s Al Ghul sizzle reel to go online within minutes of its Hall H debut.

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A year ago, fans couldn’t believe Batman would be in a Superman movie. This year, they’d rather talk about a Batman villain in a show free of capes and cowls when Ben Affleck had his footage debut in the storied costume.

Meanwhile, on the Marvel side of things, Agent Carter, based off the fan favorite character from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), received an enthusiastic reaction at the Marvel TV panel, beginning with three Peggy Carter cosplayers in a row lining up for questions (“Next year it’ll be twenty,” Agent Carter director Louis D’Esposito promised us after the panel). Unlike its movie counterpart, the Marvel TV panel broke major news when it was revealed that Captain America directors Joe Johnston, and Joe and Anthony Russo will be making guest directorial spots for the upcoming series.

This contrast encapsulates the advantage that the burgeoning market genre television enjoys when building ravenous fanbases. And it also is just the tip of the iceberg. Outside of the superhero movie revelations on Saturday, the filmic side could at best be described as lackluster all week. Meanwhile, the picturesque reveal of ABC’s own new star princess, Georgina Haig as Frozen’s Elsa on Once Upon a Time, got almost as much fanfare as Wonder Woman did. And they had a clip for fans to stoke the hype again a few days later in the panel too.

It’s more or less the same story of a week dominated by panels for shows like Penny Dreadful, Sleepy Hollow, Salem, The Strain, Archer, American Horror Story, Falling Skies, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones. To name but a few.

The most watched trailer to come out of Comic-Con 2014 thus far belongs to The Walking Dead, and the biggest casting announcement revolved around Game of Thrones, which introduced the cast for the Martell Family (Sandsnakes!!!) like it was the official Justice League roster. When HBO ended its video surprise (that also went online immediately afterwards) with an announcement that Jonathan Pryce would be embodying King’s Landing’s High Septon, the fan eruption might have caused one to suspect that Joaquin Phoenix and Benedict Cumberbatch had strolled onstage to announce their joint-casting as Doctor Strange.

More than production schedule advantages for fan servicing, this demonstrates a commitment by HBO to own Hall H and Comic-Con the way that is usually only reserved for Marvel. Similarly, Comic-Con personnel reflected disbelieving shock to me when they saw the triple-snaking hallway line to get into the American Horror Story panel in Room 6DE. One of the smaller convention rooms in the labyrinthine building, it was allocated to the FX creepy-crawly anthology likely because it was AHS’ first Comic-Con during a year full of television. But fans flooded into the room, leaving a sizeable portion outside, just to hear which members of the cast of Coven will be appearing in this fall’s American Horror Story: Freak Show.

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Conversely, Lionsgate’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 was a complete no-show, save for a Samsung Galaxy exclusive that let certain Comic-Con goers with the right gizmo, from a company with the deepest pockets, watch the Hunger Games trailer a few days early. Despite Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, and the rest of Panem’s prestigious cast making appearances at the last two Comic-Cons, they felt no need to go for the hat trick this year.

Then again, since The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 will most likely be the first uncontested film to cross $100 million in 2014, it is understandable why Lionsgate and its stars felt no reason to show up to Nerd Prom in heavy force for a third consecutive year.

So, what’s Terminator: Genesis, Jurassic World, and The Fantastic Four’s excuse? All three of those movies are seeking to reboot or rejuvenate franchises that have long been dormant, all of which ended with a bitter taste for critics and even fans (right, Terminator: Salvation, Jurassic Park III, and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer)? This Comic-Con could have been the first stop on a rebranding and rebuilding tour. Not unlike how the Sleepy Hollow pilot built strong buzz for the series last year at Comic-Con (turning this year into a triumphant victory lap for the hometown hero).

Instead, a colleague quizzically mused to me this week that The Fantastic Four is the Argo of superhero movies: they say they’re making it, there’s a cast, but don’t expect to see any pictures or footage. In illuminating comparison, 20th Century Fox headlined their Comic-Con panel in 2013 with a teaser trailer for the ambitious X-Men: Days of Future Past that was received so rapturously that they more or less released the same marketing reel again five months later in December 2013 as the positive buzz continued to build. In 2014, the closing headliner was Kingsman: The Secret Service, which, while promising, has already had a trailer and a long well established cast to herald its October 2014 release.

There was a clear shift this year where the movie studios curiously didn’t show up. That is why the two biggest, and welcomed, movie surprises were Paramount’s unexpected presentation of a new Interstellar trailer, alongside Christopher Nolan and Matthew McConaughey’s first Comic-Con appearance, and WB showing off footage from George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road with Tom Hardy and Chralize Theron. Both look fantastic, and Interstellar has long been my most anticipated movie of 2014. However, neither were the marquee names of Paramount or WB’s presentations (which were Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, respectively).

Interstellar was such a surprise that Hall H wasn’t filled to capacity by fans who would have otherwise been all too happy to greet Mr. Nolan’s first trip to the San Diego madhouse. Also, neither are “brand friendly” enough to capture geeks’ imagination like superheroes, dinosaurs, and whatever else cosplayers are into on the convention floor these days. With that said, as a longtime Nolan and Miller fan, these were highlights.

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But for most Comic-Con goers who arrive dressed as anime, video game, and Star Wars characters, the star attraction probably was the plethora of television shows that announced their imminent arrival, and then delivered casting news, unexpected surprise appearances, and an experience that had even the most battle-hardened surprised by the lines out of the door.

It has often been said that we are currently living in a golden age of television due to the more enriching creative opportunities allotted to the medium by premium cable and budgets that don’t require corporate micromanaging to the umpteenth degree. After this Comic-Con, that golden age might encompass geek culture too. Because with the variety of genre programming that can fill the booths and panels of San Diego Comic-Con alone, for the first time in forever a handful of quarter-billion dollar superhero movies slated for the next two summers showing up to the party looks rather paltry in comparison. Meanwhile, TV is dancing through the night.

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