Opening today in theaters in select cities and available in the home market via OnDemand is Morgan Spurlock's latest documentary, Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope.
In 1976, San Diego Comic-Con was holding its 7th summer convention when marketing for an upcoming film project was introduced there to the world. The film was Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, a title which its studio, 20th Century Fox, demanded be shortened to just “Star Wars”, and wouldn't reinstate its full title until 3 years after its unfathomable success. The film's novelization, based on George Lucas' shooting script but ghostwritten by science fiction author Alan Dean Foster, wouldn't be released for another 5 months, the film itself 10 months after its Comic-Con debut, and the Marvel comics adaptation carrying a publication date exactly a year after Lucasfilm's Charles Lippincott brought the first message of Star Wars to that July 1976 Comic-Con.
Lippincott's action was taken when nobody at the studio thought there was any hope of marketing the film – Lippincott however had an understanding in the Comic-Con convention-goers, knowing that with just some word-of-mouth, a slideshow panel, a Howard Chaykin poster which was the basis of the artist's early Marvel Star Wars art that Lippincott sold for just under two bucks, and that special Comic-Con energy would be enough to get the ball rolling. It was a daring and at the time unique ploy, but it paid off – Star Wars would slowly build fans months before its release thanks to a series of 1976 convention appearances, the December release of the novelization, and the early release of the comic book; the film eventually opens in May of 1977 in just a handful of theaters but to record-smashing crowds, and its popularity exploded almost overnight. Since that very first 1976 convention appearance, Star Wars has enjoyed enormous success and even its own day (Friday) at San Diego Comic-Cons which followed, the Lucasfilm Star Wars pavilion at the convention is the largest booth in the con's 460,000-square-foot exhibit hall.
It is with perhaps no irony then that “Supersize Me” director and guinea pig Morgan Spurlock has titled his latest documentary about San Diego Comic-Con Interational “Comic-Con Episode Four: A Fan's Hope”. Shot during the 2010 Comic-Con - a convention notorious for a crowd over 120,000 people, surprisingly mild weather (it even lightly rained the first 2 days despite being July in Southern California), and an unfortunate eye-stabbing over seating accommodations in the convention's infamous Hall H - Spurlock's film takes a look at the annual gathering of all things geek from the point of view of a handful of con-goers, each looking to participate in the 5-day event for their own unique reasons – whether it's to see the sights, show off their artistic skills, get that special collectible, or even *gasp* buy and sell comic books.
Along the way, the film narrates and punctuates the journey with talking-head comments from movie-makers, fans, comic-book icons, and others, shot on a white background yet during the convention-proper, an impressive feat considering it was all shot at a one of the most-crowded and -attended events in the western hemisphere – where space is so limited that lines and events routinely get capped by the fire marshal, and the city of San Diego had to build an add-on extension to double the size of their then-decade-old convention center, that it has a minimum of 5 separate lines stretching outside the building at all day hours, that it has been forced to annex signifcant portions of the massive hotels flanking its north and south, and that is now looking to build a second extension a decade after that one just to keep the people from having to walk on each other's shoulders.
While the film gets high marks for having a high-quality look, I do have to take issue with a few elements of its presentation. Firstly, the comic-book cut-aways bridging story to story gets me down, the execution is fine, but it feels cliché, like something we've seen far too often in the last few years – basically just slapping a photoshop filter onto the last frame of a segment to turn it into a comic book art panel, pulling out to reveal the panel with its dialogue balloon is part of a larger page, and flipping to another page – it's something genre fans will certainly have seen too much of by now, and even mainstream audiences might note as old hat. Also, while I'm impressed that they were able to get high-quality talking-head interviews with so many people during the con, having interviewees just talking to the camera on that white background is akin to one of those “I'm a Mac / I'm a PC” commercials, it feels off-note and awkward. Most important in my eyes, the camera work doesn't capture the scope of the convention and its crowd experiences – the cameras are low and get a personal view of events but with a lens that compacts the area around it, Hall H holds 6,000 people and is almost always at capacity, yet scenes shot in the gigantic theater often look a small wedge of a few hundred people; room 6A, the Marvel panel seen in the documentary, holds 1,000 people yet looks a tenth of that on-screen. To truly show Comic-Con as it is today, one needs to show vast seas of people at every turn, each line or exhibit hall as epic as any movie ever promoted there. I think too that the San Diego Convention Center doesn't get enough of its unique character displayed in the film, there aren't enough views showing the architecture and its oddities that are part of the modern Comic-Con experience, nor the flavor of the surrounding area as it's transformed into geek central, with San Diego's Gaslamp district transformed into a massive party and advert arena, its trolley system packed with feet-weary fans, and the hucksterism of the pedicabs and non-sanctioned events.
The documentary's main subjects are each presented a bit whimsically, their stories don't all make it to the end of the picture, and not everybody learns the lessons of their con experience, but thankfully Spurlock never makes fun of his subjects, the film never tells the audience to look down on the diverse group of fans. I would have liked to have spent more time with these subjects, to see more of who they were, more of how their convention experiences went beyond a few key or funny moments here and there, and even how their lives are affected in the days after the show – the film does at least present post-script cards for a few of its subjects.
There is some time devoted in the film to the argument – made largely by the interviewees - that Hollywood is ruining the con with its big-money panels and booths which marginalizes the comic-book fans who are the classic essence of the show, while no counterpoint is given that the integration of movies, collectibles, and games was always Comic-Con creator Shel Dorf's intentions, and one doesn't need to look further than this documentary's titular reference to Star Wars with its 1976 Comic-Con's presence for proof that there is a flip side to the anti-movie argument. I would have liked to have seen some argument pointing out that 4 of the 12 largest booths at last year's con were comic companies, and that on Thursday of 2011's con 71 of the 144 regular panels were dedicated strictly to comic books, and that's not including “comic-interest games and movies”, and that the issue of “not enough interest in comics” isn't the studios, but the diversity of the interests of the attendees.
Star Wars itself doesn't dominate Spurlock's film, there are no stories told of its massive fandom here, no die-hard collectors, no costumed fans' journeys, instead taking a broader approach. Interestingly, and in my eyes most telling of the San Diego Comic-Con experience, one of the moments in the film which does highlight Star Wars has a group of fans marching through the convention lobby to take a group photo on the convention center's stairs and one of the group of people truging along as part of that group is a man in a noteworthy hat with an impish face, he shows up several times in shots but is never the focus, and yet he's Dave Filoni. Filoni, for those who don't know, is not only the show-runner for Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Lucasfilm's first real hit cartoon based on the movie series, but also was the directors on the highly popular Nickelodeon cartoon epic Avatar: The Last Airbender which made its own strong impact on Comic-Con during its run a few years ago – yet Filoni is merely another guy to the camera, just as many con-goers have experienced standing in line or passing in the halls unnoticedly the many artists, actors, and directors that frequent Comic-Con, one man's nobody can be another's idol. Lucasfilm's then-fan relations director and long-time Star Wars uber-fan Steve Sansweet shows up in a talking-head at least.
I think “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope” as a documentary doesn't really get across enough of whatever message its documentarians were intending or finding. It's not a film for outsiders to get a true sense of the convention and the people who attend, nor is it an expose for those Comic-Con die-hards of how their beloved show really works. It doesn't fully capture the scope of the event, nor the camaraderie of the attendees, nor the affect the giant show has on the lives of the Comic-Con-faithful, on the large exhibitors wasting money on projects that don't equal the marketing cash dumped into the con, nor the mighty financial impact on the city which has hosted the con for 40 years. The film gives a little taste of most elements, though sadly the myriad of panels smaller than Hall H don't appear in the film despite many an attendee finding their desired panels scheduled against other desired panels – part of the very heartbreak and joy symbiosis which is so much a part of the Comic-Con experience. Another area which newcomers don't get to see is the struggle to balance fans and security and volunteers, another utterly complex aspect which gives the con flavor; nor is there any of the madness of camping in lines, staying in panels until midnight, or of the difficulties of just getting tickets for the event.
That's not to say I think “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope” is a bad film. It is fairly relatable, it has a good amount of genuine laughs, a lot of amusing moments and anecdotes, and it doesn't treat its subjects or anybody it sees as “less-thans” the way the average national newscast covering the con often does. For convention attendees, the film also is fun to look for themselves and say “I was there, I saw that, yeah it's like that but even worse!” with a smile – I can personally attest to keeping an eye out for my friends and me, I didn't catch us but some friends and I were in attendance for one of the film's key moments, a con-goer proposing to his girlfriend during a huge panel. Stan Lee - one of the film's producers - shows with ease the comic book-god charm and bravado he carries at all times to both self-promote and to use as a character mask to buffer reality. And if nothing else, Kevin Smith practically steals the show with his numerous talking-head moments (and not just because of his always-odd “Commie-Con” pronunciation), Smith proves yet again that just standing there and talking about geek-culture and -experience is his wheelhouse, the man riffs and spins yarns about everything that feels so true to Comic-Con even with the side-references in a conversation between his adult and 11-year-old selves. The human stories that are here at least highlight the essence of those who really love the con, jumping from big name Hollywood talents and comic-book legendary talents to regular fans only to show how much they are really one in the same.
As a documentary, however, there's no human experience fully realized, there's not enough drama in the stories told – I found the two comic artist-hopefuls to be most interesting yet each limped to their different endings without enough soul exposed, especially Skip who is like plenty of con-goers I've met, they stick to their message and don't fully take advantage of the feedback their getting from comic industry pros. The energy of the fans who wait in impossible lines, who suffer Twilight and Glee panels, who spend thousands of dollars to achieve simple childhood desires, that doesn't coelesce here into the film it hints at being, instead staying closer to a love-letter to fandom than a documentation of them opened to a greater audinece. I think Spurlock misses the mark a bit from the perspective of being a documentary, leaving this more a light piece of fluff, well-made and fun, but not showing the actual convention and the greater drive behind those attendees that make it so special.
Learn more about the film, where it's playing, how to order it OnDemand, and more at their website, ComicConMovie.com