Reporter's Notebook: Comic-Con, Behind-The-Scenes, And On The Street

SAN DIEGO - You hear a lot about the 150,000-plus fan-boys and - girls who jam the massive San Diego Convention Center every year during Comic-Con. Most of them carry at least one digital communication device, and as they move through the hundreds of panels and presentations devoted to movies, television series, licensed characters of all kinds, video games, comic books and Web-based content, they furiously pump almost everything they take in right back out via Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare or other social networking platforms.

The result is something like a series of spectacular mushroom clouds of digitized information perpetually rising from the convention center, all of it directly targeting the most likely consumers for the entertainment product on powerful display throughout the Con.

Meanwhile, those same nerds and geeks are sought after on the surrounding streets of San Diego, as well. Media companies have expanded their Con promotional campaigns well beyond the confines of the convention center and into the adjacent and historic Gaslamp District. Costumed actors and hot models fill the sidewalks, handing out fliers and free promotional merchandise. Buses and panel trucks adorned with giant-sized images from movie and television series ad campaigns move about, tying up traffic at every turn. (This year's best: The "Walking Dead" truck, complete with bloodied arms sticking out from under the rear door.) The sides of buildings become outsized movie posters. (The giant "Cowboys & Aliens" poster art that stretched across much of one side of the towering San Diego Hilton Hotel was certainly hard to miss, but the image itself was too dark to make much of an impact, unlike the brightly colored campaign last year for "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World" that covered one side of the same building and was impossible to ignore.) They're all competing for attention as planes trailing big banners fly overhead. (This year "Captain America" owned the skies.)

Call it the best of the old and new. As far as I can tell, the digitally empowered fans make Con an unparalleled example of instant viral marketing, all of it specifically directed toward people who are most likely to accept it and embrace its many messages. Meanwhile, all that physical activity on the streets makes for countless unique impressions that stay with consumers. Ask any Con attendee and they will tell you: The sights, sounds and memories of a Con weekend don't readily fade away.

Of course, they don't automatically translate to back-end success, either. In recent years there have been many movies and television shows that received mammoth promotion at Con only to bomb at the box-office (think "Scott Pilgrim") or tank in the ratings. ("FlashForward," "V," "No Ordinary Family" and "The Event" come to mind.)

One sure-fire promotional strategy that continues to expand from Con-to-Con is the conversion of area bars, restaurants and other small businesses into four-day showplaces tied to entertainment product. Syfy continues to set the gold standard for this with its annual transformation of the centrally-located Hard Rock Café into the fictional Café Diem from its long-running series "Eureka." Inside and out, every square foot of the restaurant is utilized in a way that promotes at least one Syfy show. The laminated, custom-made menu, in which every Hard Rock food item is re-named as something having to do with a Syfy show, is a work of marketing art in itself.

This year, Syfy for one afternoon took over a second restaurant - Soleil @k in the ground floor of the Marriott Gaslamp - and staged a contest in which three make-up artists imaginatively competed for a single spot on the second season of the network's reality hit "Face Off." The event was taped and will be posted online so that viewers can vote for their favorite.

Also new in the neighborhood was a gallery that had been transformed by TBS into The Museum of Conan Art (also known as CocoMoca). It was filled with art that had been sent to Conan O'Brien by fans of his late night show. A line had already formed half-way down the block when I passed by the museum at 10 a.m. Sunday morning. O'Brien himself had a major presence at Con this year, making a surprise appearance during a panel for Cartoon Network's animated "Green Lantern" series (during which he introduced a trailer for an animated spoof titled "The Flaming C") and showing up at industry parties at night. As is increasingly evident, one need not be directly involved with a genre project to cause excitement at Con. It's enough simply to have proven geek cred.

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