The lack of an arms race between the major studios at Comic-Con International 2011 -- Warner Bros., Disney and DreamWorks are all sitting out this year's convention -- has cleared room for smaller players to earn bigger buzz for themselves.
Lionsgate and Relativity Media, two medium-sized movie studios, are promoting at least four titles apiece at this year's Comic-Con.
Lionsgate -- a Comic-Con veteran after using the gathering to promote films such as "Kick-Ass," "The Expendables" and the "Saw" franchise -- screened its July 29 release, "The Devil's Double," on Wednesday. An interactive media wall at its exhibit booth features content from upcoming releases "Warrior," "Conan the Barbarian," "Abduction" and "The Hunger Games" (although that last isn't due out until next March). Relativity, the upstart distribution arm of producer Ryan Kavanaugh's film-financing company, is plugging its films "Immortals," "Haywire," "The Raven" and "Shark Night" through various panels and events.
Even they point out that Comic-Con isn't the only place to reach sci-fi, fantasy and comic book fans. "To look at a Comic-Con effort and say, 'Did that work or didn't it work?' to any great degree is sort of a fallacy," said Terry Curtin, president-theatrical marketing for Relativity Media. She's a Comic-Con vet from her previous role at entertainment marketing firm Cimarron Group, where she helped promote movies and TV shows such as "The Vampire Diaries," "Monsters Vs. Aliens" and the "Twilight" series.
"It's like introducing two people and thinking that 's the full picture of the relationship," Ms. Curtin said. "Comic-Con is one of the steps in a much longer campaign."
Many studios were reticent to go big at Comic-Con this year after watching Universal spend millions of dollars there to market "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," which fizzled at the box office a month later, with an opening weekend of only $10 million. Disney's "Tron Legacy," another heavily hyped film that earned a lot of favorable chatter among the Comic-Con crowd, was a domestic disappointment upon its December release, barely recouping its $170 million budget in the U.S. (though it grossed an additional $228 million overseas).
Lionsgate, for its part, learned a harsh lesson about translating festival buzz into box-office revenue last year when "Kick-Ass," an acquisition from 2009's Comic-Con film festival, grossed a disappointing $48 million in ticket sales.
Many studios have also grown wary of the Comic-Con crowd's capacity to quickly generate negative buzz. Solid product is essential, said Tim Palen, Lionsgate's president for theatrical marketing.
"If the fans don't think something is cool, they will let you know -- instantly, and passionately," Mr. Palen told Ad Age . "So if you come to Comic-Con, you'd better have the goods, because there are other opportunities to launch, and it's very hard to recover from bad Comic Con buzz."
Both Relativity and Lionsgate are also marketing partners for the Los Angeles Times' Hero Complex, a blog for fans of comic books, sci-fi and fantasy film and TV that is distributing free copies of its first print edition, a 24-page "Street Guide" to Comic-Con.
This year's Comic-Con is not entirely devoid of blockbusters. Sony's "The Amazing Spider-Man," a tentpole release for summer 2012, has one of the week's most-hyped panels. Sony is also advertising its "Ghost Rider" sequel with big banner ads around the Convention Center.
Summit's Thursday morning panel for "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn" had lines outside the door by Wednesday afternoon. Universal's "Cowboys and Aliens" is hosting its world premiere at the festival Saturday night, with cast members Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wilde expected to appear.
Paramount screened "Captain America: The First Avenger" with the cast Thursday morning and then throughout the remainder of the day. The studio's "Adventures of Tintin," a Christmas 2011 release, is also hosting a panel featuring director Steven Spielberg's first Comic-Con appearance on Friday.
Entertainment Weekly is also expanding its Comic-Con coverage this year, with three separate issues covering the festival and live streams of panels and parties. Not only has the Comic-Con coverage been an endemic play for EW among movie studios and video-game marketers, it's also helped the magazine attract sponsorships from consumer brands such as Toshiba and Hilton Hotels.
"This has without question become so mainstream, and the fan has become so important for marketers to reach," said Jason Wagenheim, Entertainment Weekly's publisher. "This is the Super Bowl of pop culture and our brand is right in the middle of that conversation."