What Happened to All the Movie Panels in Hall H?
There is something missing from Comic-Con this year, and it ain’t just the free wifi. Looking over the Comic-Con website I keep wondering: Where are all the movies?
According to the latest Comic-Con schedule there are, at most, 15 movies with presentations or panels in Hall H, San Diego Comic-Con’s biggest and most prestigious venue, and the traditional place where movies go to premiere their newest trailers and clips, and parade their stars before the assembled nerd throngs. (It’s “at most” 15 because Marvel hasn’t officially specified what they’re presenting on Saturday, and I’m assuming they bring at least three: Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Thor: Ragnarok).
Besides Marvel, there’s also a significant Warner Bros. panel featuring Wonder Woman, Suicide Squad, and LEGO Batman, plus presentations for DreamWorks’ Trolls, Snowden, and Luc Besson’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. There’s also an “Under the Radar” panel that will highlight recent genre films from the festival circuit. That’s pretty much it, besides a reunion for James Cameron’s Aliens, which turns 30 years old this month. There isn’t a single movie panel in Hall H on Friday, which is a first in recent years, and maybe a first in decades. (Shows like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Preacher will be featured instead.)
2016 continues the downward trend from Comic-Con 2015, when just 16 movies held Hall H panels, the lowest total in the last five years and 11 movies less than the 27 that appeared in Hall H in 2014. For the last decade, Comic-Con (and specifically Hall H) has been the place to kick off the marketing campaign for a major action, superhero, or sci-fi tentpole. Dozens of movies routinely competed for attention in Hall H. The types of films that would typically draw crowds at Comic-Con are still being made, but increasingly, they’re not plying their wares in San Diego, or at least not in Hall H.
For a brief period, Hall H became known as a kingmaker in the entertainment industry, capable of launching a previously niche property into the mainstream. The first trailer for Zack Snyder’s 300 received a rapturous response at Comic-Con in 2006 on the way to becoming one of 2007’s biggest surprise hits. Studios swarmed Hall H, hoping to capitalize on their own geek franchises in the same way, but soon discovered that catching lightning in a bottle in San Diego was harder than it looked.
Movies would get a wildly enthusiastic reception at Comic-Con and then fizzle out at the box office. TRON: Legacy sparked a frenzy in 2008 when Disney surprised Hall H with a sneak peak of a movie no one knew was even in production at that point. If you just listened to the reaction at Comic-Con, you’d think TRON: Legacy was a new Star Wars, a property that would dominate the pop cultural landscape for decades. Instead, the movie barely recouped its $170 million budget at the domestic box office. By 2011, according to a New York Times article that summer, studios were already “reassessing” their relationship to Comic-Con.
The studios might have reassessed their relationship, but they kept coming back to San Diego, at least until the last couple years. The precipitous decline in Hall H movie panels sent me on a deep dive into the room’s recent history. At an infographic glance, here’s what Hall H has produced (or at least hosted) in the last five years, from the number of movies, to the amount of box office generated, to the average gross in each of the last five years of a Hall H movie.
It’s worth noting that 2015’s average is so much higher than the rest for one simple reason: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the box-office juggernaut that grossed almost $1 billion in the U.S. alone. If you eliminate Star Wars from 2015’s Hall H lineup, the average drops more than $50 million, to $117.6 million per Hall H movie.
That still sounds like a pretty decent chunk of change. Who wouldn’t want their movie to make $117 million in the U.S. alone? In today’s marketplace, though, $100 million ain’t what it used to be. $117 million wouldn’t put you in the top ten movies of 2016 so far, and in several of the last five years, the average domestic gross of a Hall H movie would barely even qualify as a hit. The Hall H Class of 2011 earned an average of $65.5 million in U.S. theaters, a total that would rank as the 52nd biggest movie in the U.S. that year. That’s not exactly the sort of success that inspires movie studios to spend thousands of dollars on filmmaker accommodations and specially prepared trailers, on top of all the money for booths, staff, and the assorted swag Comic-Con attendees have come to expect as part of the San Diego experience.
When you look closer at the movies that have played Comic-Con in the last five years, you see how the seemingly impressive box office totals are pulled up by blockbusters that would have made huge sums of money even if Comic-Con never existed, and dragged down by a lot of would-be blockbusters whose Hall H bump was negligible at best. A prime slot in Hall H in 2014 (not to mention a starring role for Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe) couldn’t lift Horns out of a six-figure box office total. (It made less than $200,000 in the United States.) Legendary pimped Warcraft and Crimson Peak at two consecutive Comic-Cons; neither movie has earned $50 million domestically.
A Hall H panel and its attendant buzz don’t even guarantee a theatrical release; Francis Ford Coppola showed up at Comic-Con in 2011 with Twixt, starring Val Kilmer, Elle Fanning, and future Han Solo, Alden Ehrenreich. Coppola came with the bold idea to “remix” the movie for each screening so that, according to one report on the panel, “depending upon where and when you see the presentation, you might see a totally different telling of the story than others.” The response, according to people in the room, was very positive; people still talk about it as one of the great moments in the history of Comic-Con. Almost two years later to the day, Twixt had its U.S. premiere — on DVD and Blu-ray.
I tried to come up with a rubric that would allow me to compare movies that played Comic-Con to movies that didn’t, but there are just too many outside variables to consider to make it useful. Clearly, though, geeky movies don’t need to show up at Comic-Con to find success with its audience. Two-thirds of the 50 biggest movies of the last five years never appeared in Hall H, a list that includes Comic-Con-friendly titles like Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Martian, Maleficent, Big Hero 6, and Jurassic World.
And that more than anything else is the reason the movies have fled Comic-Con just as quickly as they flocked to it; the only quantifiable winner in Hall H is Comic-Con itself. There may be fewer movies at Comic-Con, but there are more attendees than ever; one recent estimate put the number of 2016 attendees at 160,000 geeks, nerds, and dweebs. On the Thursday night of Comic-Con last year, I walked the line for Hall H from end to end with a pedometer; it stretched almost a mile and a half. There is a reason San Diego Comic-Con has been called geek Mecca.
Fans keep lining up in the hope of witnessing a moment like the one Universal pulled off in 2010, when they ended the panel for Scott Pilgrim vs. the World by inviting the Hall H crowd to get up and walk to a nearby theater for a free screening of the full movie. Technically, it was the film’s world premiere.
The surprise garnered obscenely positive buzz, as did the screening, which featured an additional surprise: A live performance by the band Metric. Reviews out of Comic-Con were great, but they didn’t do much to move the needle on the public’s perception of the film; it made $31.5 million at the domestic box office.
I wonder if all the pomp and circumstance actually hurt the film, instead of helping it. I couldn’t make it to San Diego in 2010; hearing colleagues’ stories about the Scott Pilgrim hullabaloo didn’t make me want to rush out to see the movie. It made me want to go back to Comic-Con. How could a boring old screening in a dumpy multiplex hold a candle to the Comic-Con experience? As advertising for movies, the effectiveness of Hall H’s panels is debatable. As advertising for coming to Comic-Con, the effectiveness of Hall H’s panels is inarguable.
Their panels may be the star attraction at Comic-Con, but the studios are largely there as the convention’s guests. The real money at Comic-Con is in ticketing those 160,000 paying customers; if you want to know where the movies went, look to the Comic-Con-style events now owned by the studios themselves. Disney has its own D23 Expo, and their Star Wars properties just wrapped up the latest Star Wars Celebration convention in England. (Next year’s Star Wars Celebration, by the way, is in Orlando, which means Disney will also profit on all the attendees who stay at their hotels and frequent their theme parks as part of their trip.)
Expect more companies and brands to follow suit. Why provide content to an outside organization (one that doesn’t even give its guests free wifi to promote your movies on social media) when you can control the message and make a little money on top of it? It’s hard to say with certainty how many movie tickets Comic-Con has sold over the years. But Hall H is pretty much a guaranteed sellout every single time.