Permanent Damage

Fri, May 7th, 2010 at 1:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

An open letter to Comic-Con International:

Steven makes the argument for CCI to stay in San Diego

I see from the feature here on Comic Book Resources that the Los Angeles Convention Center is making a concerted effort to draw Comic-Con to their venue.

Let me say the fast-talking salesman from the LA Convention Center is across the board full of, let's be polite, crap. At his Comics Reporter site, even as he said how impressed he was by the pitch, Tom Spurgeon noted the lie therein about distances and access to other Los Angeles venues from the LACC. While I'm told downtown Los Angeles has changed somewhat from the office buildings and bars where the sidewalks rolled up by 6PM that it was when I lived in the town, the convention center remains in a fairly remote corner of downtown. So these questions must be asked: does the renovated downtown Los Angeles yet have the breadth and volume of restaurants, stores and other facilities that can be found in San Diego's Gaslamp? How easily available are they from the LACC? How equipped are they to handle a sudden onslaught of some 150,000+ people? Can attendees walk to these venues as easily as they can walk to similar venues in San Diego from the convention center there, or are shuttle buses necessary, or taxis, or the cars necessary to get to anywhere else in Los Angeles? (The idea of Los Angeles' auto-centric environment mixed with the levels of alcohol traditionally consumed during an average San Diego Con scares me half to death.)

As near as I can tell, the key logic is that Hollywood's increased presence San Diego has increased the number of attendees beyond the San Diego Convention Center's capacity to deal with them, and a move to the LA facility will give Hollywood easier access to the Con and accommodate the increase in attendees.

My prediction, should such a move take place: it will not work out that way.

I know a lot of Hollywood producers, I've talked to a lot more, and more than a few people connected to the studios, in San Diego over the years. Almost everything they've ever said on the matter indicates a move to Los Angeles would spell the end of Hollywood's interest in CCI. The nearness of the LA Convention Center isn't a plus for any of them, for two reasons. 1) They've all been to the LACC, and pretty much everyone who has ever been there hates the place. Just loathes it. It's a really unpleasant building. 2) Downtown San Diego during Comic-Con is a party town, and going to San Diego, for most Hollywood guys, is like going to a festival. It's a vacation you can write off on your taxes. Going to Los Angeles is like going to work. It will kill any sense of "specialness," that sense the film industry has that Comic-Con is the new Cannes (Comic-Cannes?) and the place to be to be seen. It'll just be another show in a neighborhood of Los Angeles they have no interest in.

In fact, the Los Angeles Convention Center has hosted many comics conventions over the years, the most recent that I'm aware of being WizardWorld Los Angeles. How many WizardWorlds L.A.s have there been since that first show? One? None? The times I was at the convention center were all for comics conventions. How many of those made a go of it? (Hint: you can count them on no fingers.) It may have been redesigned since I left Los Angeles in the '90s, but underneath it's still the foreboding concrete box the LACC has always been. Everyone I've ever known who went down there for any reason hated the place.

The fact is, too, that, despite their efforts of the past decade or so to change the situation, "San Diego" is the brand name, not "Comic-Con International." It's the golden goose of brand names when it to comics conventions, and CCI cannot expect to kill the goose yet keep the gold. Virtually anyone now who hears the phrase "Comic-Con" thinks San Diego, whether they follow comics or not. For many, the association works both ways: say "San Diego" in the right context, and they know you're talking about Comic-Con. A move to Los Angeles would flush that. At minimum they'd need to spend several years building up a new one. A worst case scenario would be a jump in expenses to underwrite the move, combined with a plunge in popular interest, and if the latter occurred the con's value to the film industry would likewise plunge. If such a move appeals to the selection committee, presumably cutting their own throats with a chainsaw also appeals to them, because it amounts to the same thing.

The bottom line is that downtown San Diego is fun. People don't - Hollywood doesn't - just go to Comic-Con for the show, or to pimp their wares, they go for the entire experience. It's not an experience that can be had in Los Angeles. The latter town is just not set up that way. Eliminate the experience, and you eliminate much of the incentive for Hollywood to show up. (Eliminate Hollywood, and you're back to "just" a comics/anime/toy convention, and while that would please a lot of comics fans and pros, though not necessarily publishers, it would also mean an attenuation of general interest and Comic-Con no longer enjoying the lifestyle to which it has become accustomed.) Before CCI starts self-justifying any move as somehow getting closer to the film industry, they should look carefully at how Hollywood thinks, not at what they presume Hollywood would think. As most who've dealt with Hollywood can tell you, the two are rarely the same thing, and fortunes have been lost by assuming they are.  Frankly, if I were a running a comics convention, I'd start negotiating now with the City Of San Diego to take over their slot if Comic-Con pulls out. If someone can put on a good show and provide continuity, I expect they'd overnight become the new king on the block.

By the way, IRON MAN 2 is arguably better than the first, which was the most successful translation of one of their characters to film Marvel has generated. Much of the credit must go to a clever script by Justin Theroux and to director Jon Favreau - also reprising his Happy Hogan role, with considerably more screen time than he had in the first film - who managed to rein in the frequent excesses of Mickey Roarke, Scarlett Johansson (surprisingly good as the Black Widow, though she's never called that) and Samuel Jackson to the point that the actors mostly vanish, successfully, into their characters. Don Cheadle's terrific taking over the role of Jim Rhodes, and MAD MEN's John Slattery has a note perfect cameo as Tony Stark's deceased dad, living again through the miracle of 40 year old 8mm film. The story's mostly an excuse for big explosions and the daddy issues Hollywood's currently obsessed with, and some James Bond-y moments like a Monaco car race, but it all works fine.

It also raises a couple of red flags.

A lot of the pleasure of watching the film is due to Robert Downey Jr, who may be the most watchable actor on screen now. To wit: a big chunk in the middle of the film is devoted to Tony Stark basically doing nothing. By Hollywood standards, this is an extreme gaffe, something that should never be done – but it turns out that watching Downey basically doing nothing is pretty entertaining. That Iron Man has become a major film franchise when throughout his existence in comics he has barely constituted a franchise at all - even in the Stan Lee heyday sales were never all that strong – is largely due to Downey's performance, an almost perfect balance of runamuck ego and compulsive self-deprecation, of seriousness and tongue-in-cheek mockery. When Tony Stark at the film's start declares to a Congressional committee (great to see Gary Shandling back in action), "I am Iron Man," yeah, there's no doubt: Downey is Iron Man.

Yet there is the later suggestion, contradicting the opening, that when the long-planned AVENGERS film finally lenses, it won't be Downey in the suit. Whether that's the plan – I could see Marvel not willing to meet the salaries of several highly paid equally billed actors in one film, though odds are Ed Norton wouldn't return as the Hulk anyway – or just a fail-safe should negotiations fall apart (I'd assume Downey's contract requires him to do three IM films – that's pretty common – but THE AVENGERS would be separately negotiated) it's conceivable that Marvel is now bringing its longstanding unspoken policy about characters and talent – the former are everything, the latter essentially interchangeable, and however one feels about it, balance books make it a pretty devastating argument – to film. But would audiences, accustomed now to Downey as Iron Man, accept another actor in the role? The decline of the '90s Batman film franchise was largely due to a revolving door policy involving lead actors, combined with a mundane shift in directoral visions. I suppose the first big test will be the all-new, no Tobey/Sam Spider-Man film, should it ever get made. But the extent to which Marvel stresses "name" actors in their films, which is the right move, the more they put their film franchises at the mercy of those actors; they can't assume it's their characters and not the actors' portrayals that audiences come to see. While once in awhile replacing a lead actor in a recurring role works out (e.g. James Bond) more commonly it drives viewers away (e.g. Robocop).

In the meantime, IRON MAN 2: work of art? Mmmmmmm... probably not. Worth a trip to the cinema? Sure. It's a good popcorn film, and I wouldn't bet a better one is likely to appear this summer.

TAGS:  permanent damage, steven grant, cci, comic-con international, iron man 2

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