Comic-Con, Day 1: Hall H-E-double hockey sticks

Comic-Con, Day 1: Hall H-E-double hockey sticks

Scott Pilgrim vs. a too-big panel; also, gore-snapping piranhas - in 3D!

Any true Comic-Con experience is incomplete without a visit to Hall H. Obviously, if you want to avoid the behemoth space where major movie announcements are made, you can, but the big "news" that comes out of the Con? It's all being announced there, and if you want to find out that, say, Joss Whedon is confirmed to direct The Avengers or that, I don't know, Tron: Legacy looks pretty cool, it's the place to be. Getting into the place is also a massive, massive hassle, involving standing in line under tents and hot sun for hours on end until things crawl forward just enough to admit you. Comic-Con has improved the Hall H experience from last year to this year - the lines are now mostly housed underneath tents, and if you're not getting into a panel, they have a soothing Mr. Voice to let you know now, instead of some guy coming out and yelling at you - but Hall H is also still most of what's wrong with Comic-Con and, worse yet, everything the show cannot fix, no matter how big of a facility it moves to at the start of its next contract.

The dream of Comic-Con is maximum mobility. In this dream, you can be on the show floor one hour, hanging out with animation voice-over actor the next, meeting the cast of The Big Bang Theory the next, and watching Joss Whedon announce his new directorial gig the next. This, however, is basically impossible once you get up past about 25,000 people admitted. Considering that the event passed that number up long ago, the show has been creeping up toward standstill for a while now. One of the nice things about Comic-Con is the democratization. I have a press pass, and I have to stand in line just like everybody else, and those who buy four-day passes are no different from those who buy a one-day pass. It's a great system, in theory, but it also tends to unfairly bias toward those who are the most hyper-passionate.

Consider this: Friday in Ballroom 20 (the room for the big TV panels), there will be a ginormous Big Bang Theory panel. The show was one of the most popular at the Con last year, and now that it's broken out even more in its third season, it will likely be an even bigger draw. But later in the day is THE TV event of the Con, the True Blood panel. I overheard some girls who were planning to show up at 7 a.m., just to be certain they'd get front row center seats to see the True Blood folks. Which means they're going to sit through a whole day of other TV panels they couldn't care less about for the vampires.

Now, in and of itself, this isn't a bad thing. Four or five girls who really like True Blood aren't going to keep the vast majority of people who want to see Jim Parsons do his thing out of Ballroom 20, which is, after all, the second largest room at the Con. But multiply those four or five girls by a couple hundred, and the problems start to increase. I showed up last year to stand in line for Lost, the big TV event of that Con, at 8 a.m. There were already hundreds of people in line. Now, that panel was in Hall H, which is, again, the biggest room at the show, comfortably seating thousands. But at the same time, anyone who showed up even an hour before the panel - not unrealistic - probably didn't get a seat. I simply got lucky.

So what happens is a gradual stalemate. If I want to see True Blood, it gets more and more likely that I'm going to show up earlier and earlier in the day, sitting through a bunch of stuff I don't care about to get to what I do care about. And if I want to see The Big Bang Theory, I'm going to combat possibly getting crowded out by True Blood fans by also showing up early. So, potentially, tomorrow's first panel in Ballroom 20 - for Stargate Universe - is going to lock out anyone who just shows up and figures they can get in at the last minute.

Now, I don't think things are THIS bad just yet. I got in line for Hall H right after my interview at 4:15 and just missed out on The Expendables - which I had hoped to attend solely to see the slow morph of Sylvester Stallone into Liza Minnelli continue - at 5, then managed to get in for Scott Pilgrim at 6 (after being informed by Mr. Line Supervisor that it was unlikely it would happen). If you arrive a panel or two early for the thing you really want to see, you're likely to get in by the time that thing starts. So the nightmare scenario described above isn't happening at such a wide scale that it's really grinding things to a halt just yet (though this was one of the less attended days of the Con, and I already saw it happening).

But, again, the dream is mobility. I've got an interview at 4:30 tomorrow, and if I hope to catch True Blood at 5:15 to cover it for another publication, well, I've just gotta pray that I have a lot of luck. And forget about going from the Peanuts panel I'd like to see straight over to Joss Whedon, even though the two aren't scheduled at the same time. To go to the former is to miss the latter, and to make sure I make the latter will require sitting through something I don't terribly care about. I know this is pretty much a nerd whine no one will care about. I know that there's basically no better way Comic-Con could organize this, so long as it's devoted toward fitting in as many people as possible. But if there were a solution, it would make for a more intellectually diverse experience. If all I want to see for TV and movie panels tomorrow is True Blood and there's a way for me to make sure I get in even if I show up at 5, then I'm more likely to take chances on things like Stan Freberg. But that's an idyllic system, and, worse, one that there's no possible way to make come true. The way it is now is the way it will always be, and at some point, you just have to grin and bear it.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: I've been wondering if I should start to cover these panels as, basically, product launches. Now, obviously, something like Scott Pilgrim is close enough to release that this is less a launch and more a way to keep the fires of hype burning. But, the thing is, on either level, this panel was kind of a failure. There were some cute jokes and some fun moments, but they were absolutely swallowed up by the cavernous space of Hall H, which absolutely requires a major star or someone with an intuitive sense of how to work a room that large to make happen. (A friend who spent much of the afternoon there says that both Whedon and Stallone played to the room very well. Someone like Anna Kendrick, though, was completely lost.)

Worse, the entirety of the panel was obviously building up toward a screening of the full film. The panel was scheduled for the end of the day, which meant that nothing would be in Hall H afterward. The fact that basically every cast member was on hand and so many hadn't seen the film itself suggested they would get an opportunity to do so very soon. And the way that director Edgar Wright kept teasing bits of non-information as major developments similarly suggested that something bigger was coming. And since the movie is less than a month away from release and promotional materials already permeate the pop cultural landscape, there was basically nothing left but to show us the damn thing.

And here's the thing: They DID show the full movie. Just to a select few, who either wrote for specific press outlets (not this one, sadly) or happened to draw the right button in an elaborate giveaway system. I don't begrudge this system. For whatever reason, Comic-Con is unwilling to utilize Hall H in this fashion (or they may be forced to vacate by a certain time by the convention center), and they DID show the movie and schedule two additional show times for those who did not draw the right button and still wanted to see it, free of charge. It was the best way to get around an unworkable situation. It just left the rest of the panel feeling like a long drum roll with no climax. Those guys got to see the movie (and, apparently, Metric). We got to watch ... a music video. When you're launching or hyping a product, that's a death knell.

This is not to say that the rest of the panel was terrible. Michael Cera came out in an elaborate Captain America costume that was basically the best sight gag ever (you can see a fuzzy photo I took of it here). Jason Schwartzman had a ridiculous mustache. There were more than enough laugh lines from everyone present - including a curious number of them from Brandon Routh - and I think Alison Pill managed to interject a sarcastic aside every time the panel was in danger of losing momentum. Wright was ebullient and fun as a host, and the various clip montages used to introduce all of the panelists were well-edited, feeling for all the world like the nominee rolls at the MTV Movie Awards, only cooler.

But the film had brought 14 panelists. Hall H is a cavernous space, basically something very like a cathedral, and it has a tendency to force everyone into a seat where the only way to see the action is to watch it on one of the video screens. Fine. It works as a way to get a bunch of people in to see what's happening. But on a panel this large, half the fun comes from cast interaction, and the camera operators whose feeds tie in to the video screens tend to frame anyone who's speaking in close-up. So if Cera is speaking, and Pill interjects something funny, and Aubrey Plaza makes a face, all we're going to see is Cera staring down the table at his colleagues. (Since the venue uses multiple cameras, it might be easier to keep one in a wide shot and cut to it whenever anything interesting is happening involving interaction. But that might prove too complicated to handle, logistically.) Plus with 14 panelists, any number of them were going to get short shrift. I'm not sure Kendrick talked beyond her initial introduction, and much of the burden of tossing to people who weren't talking fell to Wright, who was also trying to build the event to his climax.

Still, the event was a success in one measure: It made me more interested to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World than I had been going in. On the other hand, I was pretty much a skeptic about the whole project in the first place, which meant that all the movie had to do was not look terrible to turn my skepticism into slightly less hardened skepticism. It's not pre-emptively my favorite film ever, and I do think the panel was a bit of a botch, but something in the understood chemistry in the actors (so understood because I couldn't really see them, just the giant screen representations of them) and the clips shown made me think the film could be something special. Or maybe it was just Schwartzman's mustache.

Piranha 3D: And then Dimension decided the best course of action was to get the cast of Piranha 3D in a room with a bunch of journalists and the few fans who found out about the screening of footage and do a sort of unofficial Comic-Con panel (the Con itself rejected the footage shown for being ridiculously gory and, well, featuring naked breasts). I was so out of it by this point - around 11 p.m. - that I spent much of the screening of the footage giggling exhaustedly at the ludicrousness of the footage - which features everything from Richard Dreyfus puttering around in a little boat to women making out underwater to a girl getting her face ripped off to Ving Rhames using a boat motor as an improvised solution to the piranha menace. It's not going to be my thing, but for gorehounds and people who love the ridiculously over-the-top, it's probably going to hit the spot. It's sensationalistic and trashy and way, way over the top, and the assembled cast and crew seemed oddly proud of the fact that it was this ridiculous. (My favorite moment came when director Alex Aja said that he had "fallen in love" with a story of ancient piranha being unleashed from a crack underneath Lake Havasu - Lake "Victoria" in the movie - after an earthquake. Eli Roth, sitting next to him, struggled to keep a straight face.) Piranha 3D looks stupid, but it's pleased that it is, and I suppose it's nice that it's not self-serious in the least.

Tomorrow: No, seriously: Peanuts or Whedon? I've got more interviews, too, but I'm definitely checking out the panel for the Walking Dead TV show, which is turning into one of my most anticipated of the fall season. Anything else you guys see?

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