Hollywood Second-Guessing Comic-Con, Could Viral Marketing Be Next?

The New York Times ran a piece yesterday about how movie studios are taking a more cautious approach to this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. After propelling the comic book convention into the mainstream in recent years, why are they turning away now? Also, what could this shift in priorities mean for viral marketing? Read my thoughts after the break.

The big news from the NY Times story is that Warner Bros. will not be presenting any of their movies at Comic-Con. This means no panels or booths for The Dark Knight Rises or The Man of Steel. Fortunately, Zack Snyder’s Superman film has next year’s Comic-Con to fall back on, since the film comes out that Christmas. Other studios are also pulling out of the 2011 convention, including Disney, Dreamworks, and The Weinstein Company. Even Marvel is considering sitting this one out, despite The Avengers coming out next year.

Why this sudden exodus from the mecca of geek culture? Like always, it comes down to money. The rabid fans at Comic-Con can also be the most critical, so a risk/reward assessment has to be made. Does the potential for good buzz outweigh the effort needed to battle bad buzz? Obviously, the studios mentioned above have their answers. Unfortunately, even good buzz isn’t even enough to validate the time and effort needed to make a splash at the convention. Movies like Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, and Sucker Punch all generated great buzz from Comic-Con but flopped at the box office.

The timing isn’t very good for films either, as the late July timeframe doesn’t help most films coming out that summer and may be too early for next summer’s blockbusters. As noted in the NY Times article, Television is starting to swoop in to the now vacant slots, since they are gearing up for the Fall season.

Fortunately, some studios look to take advantage as well, with Universal’s Cowboys & Aliens having a “serious stunt”, The Amazing Spiderman planning a big promotion, and other films from Paramount, Lionsgate, and Summit hosting panels.

What could this mean for viral marketing in general? Comic-Con is the Super Bowl for viral campaigning, so if movie studios don’t think that it works on that level, they may second guess their efforts on a smaller scale as well. For instance, 42 Entertainment pumped millions of dollars into the viral marketing campaign and ARG for Tron: Legacy (especially at Comic-Con), but the film opened up to a slightly disappointing $44 million weekend and barely made back its budget domestically. Super 8 is in a similar boat, having only a $37 million weekend despite being in prime summer slot.

However, from my experience, it seems that most of the time, the studios know that their viral campaign or ARG isn’t meant to attract the general public. Not everyone is interested in following; it takes a certain kind of fan to get into these extracurricular activities. So as long as they keep their budgets in check, everyone wins. The ARG players have their fun and spread the word, and the studios don’t have to answer to why they spent millions of dollars to appease a few thousand people.

What do you think about this news? Is Comic-Con doomed, or is this just a cooling off period? Would Comic-Con be better without Hollywood turning it mainstream? Does this have an effect on viral marketing in general?

UPDATE

Apparently, the “serious stunt” for Cowboys & Aliens is in fact the film’s world premiere.

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