My Life in Comics, Part 11: Gary Goes to Hollywood …

I had survived my first year as director of programming at Comic-Con, coming through it largely undamaged. It was a strange experience. As I recounted last time (click here to read it), my bosses had left me pretty much alone. However in my second year as head of programming, they paid a lot more attention to what I was doing. Maybe it was because I survived that first year, which might have been something unexpected.

My eight years as director of programming at Comic-Con are a blur, and only the craziest memories have stuck in my head. Most of them involve Hollywood movie and TV studios. Some of these I talked about on my recent appearance on the Unofficial SDCC Blog’s YouTube SDConCast show (the video is linked once again—because you know I’m going to flog this to death—at the bottom of this post). I realize I’m talking almost exclusively about Hollywood in this post, thus bolstering some people’s criticism of Comic-Con as being “not about comics anymore;” in my mind nothing could be further from the truth. To be honest, the movie and TV studios just dominate the news coming out of the show and employ an army of publicists to do so. Comic publishers, on the other hand, usually have just one point person that deals with publicity. I have only fond memories of the writers and artists I’ve met over the years (with a few exceptions, of course), and I’ve made quite a few friends in the comics industry. Hollywood … not so much. So here’s a bit of an anecdotal history of my time dealing with some of the crazier Hollywood requests and events at Comic-Con, from 2000-2007. Some names are unmentioned to protect the guilty. Let’s start with one big name, though …

Lucasfilm and Star Wars

When I first started at Comic-Con in 2000, my boss (executive director Fae Desmond) told me she wanted me to get Star Wars back to the show. Lucasfilm had a long history with Comic-Con, starting in 1976 when the company’s first publicist, Charlie Lippencott, brought a then-unknown film called Star Wars to the convention, a year before the movie premiered. Roy Thomas and Howard Chaykin also appeared that year to tout their Star Wars comics adaptation for Marvel, with Chaykin selling a first-look poster for the series, which became a rarity as pretty much the first piece of SW merchandise. In the late 1990s, as George Lucas re-released the original Star Wars trilogy to theaters with updated special effects and in advance of the new prequel trilogy, Lucasfilm sent their director of fan relations, Steve Sansweet, to Comic-Con to promote the films. At one point (1999, I think), Steve had a disastrous presentation due to the equipment in one of the big programming rooms malfunctioning, and it seemed like Comic-Con’s love affair with Star Wars might have been over.

I talked with Steve in early 2001 and he agreed to come back to promote the next Star Wars movie, Episode II: Attack of the Clones. I don’t think it was too difficult to get him to come back; he had something to promote and Comic-Con offered a big chance to win the fans over, especially since Episode I: The Phantom Menace, didn’t exactly hold the same appeal as the original trilogy. As I remember it, the panel was a big success, and Lucasfilm was back with its old flame, Comic-Con. Steve was instrumental in starting the huge Lucasfilm Pavilion at Comic-Con, which featured all kinds of Star Wars and Indiana Jones license holders in addition to their own displays of costumes, vehicles, and memorabilia from the movies. Comic-Con was also the site for the Star Wars Fan Film Awards in the off-years when there wasn’t a Star Wars Celebration convention.

(Left) Steve Sansweet reveals the T-shirt that caused a near-stampede in Hall H; (right) yours truly and senior director of programming Eddie Ibrahim flank Steve backstage in Ballroom 20 after giving him his Inkpot Award for Fandom Services in 2007. These are not the directors of programming you’re looking for …

But in 2004, Lucasfilm picked SDCC to be the place where Steve announced the title to Episode III. When Steve revealed the title (Revenge of the Sith), he took off his shirt to reveal a black T-shirt under it with the movie’s logo on it, and proudly announced that the T-shirt was now on sale in the Lucasfilm Pavilion … which of course resulted in a near-stampede as people emptied out of a full Hall H to try and get a shirt. But I forgive you, Steve … over the years, you were a great friend to and advocate for Comic-Con and I was proud to give you—alongside present senior director of programming Eddie Ibrahim—the Inkpot Award for fandom services during the final Fan Film Awards event at San Diego. (Steve runs a wonderful nonprofit museum in Petaluma, CA, Rancho Obi-Wan, which houses the Guinness Book of World Records certified largest Star Wars memorabilia collection in the world. Click here for more info.)

Be Careful What You Ask For …

Also in 2001, Sony brought a big panel featuring John Carpenter and his new film Ghosts of Mars, and Sam Raimi with a little movie called Spider-Man. At that point, we were still using 6CDEF as our biggest programming room (it fit a little over 2,000 people), and we had to end programming by 5:00 PM or so on Saturday so the room could be combined with 6AB to get ready for the Masquerade. I remember Sam wanted to sit in the audience to watch John Carpenter’s portion of the panel and someone dressed as Sgt. Kabukiman was in the room (God knows why; Troma always did various forms of guerrilla marketing at Comic-Con, often to annoying effect) and proceeded to dance around Sam in the audience until I shooed him away. At one point, it was time for Carpenter to wrap up his presentation and he kind of hedged a bit about getting off stage, asking the audience who they’d rather see, him or Spider-Man. I remember standing off to the side, and thinking out loud, “Ohhh … don’t ask that.” Well, like I said … be careful what you ask for. Needless to say, Sam Raimi and Spidey were a big hit with the first inside look at the new film, released the following year in 2002 and starring Tobey Maguire. Sony would return with Spider-Man 2 in 2003, featuring Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus in Ballroom 20. In 2008, I was sitting in the holding area for Hall H when a man in a Phantom of the Opera costume walked up and stood next to me and said “Hi, Gary.” He proceeded to take off his gloves, cape, and half-mask and I was shocked to see it was Sam Raimi, who walked the Exhibit Hall in disguise, getting ready for his panel for Spider-Man 3. I was flattered that he remembered me.

Might As Well Jump …

By 2003, we were using Ballroom 20 in the new Convention Center expansion as the largest programming room. When the expansion was completed in 2001, post 9/11, Comic-Con’s original plan was to take over an additional hall every two years. That quickly went out the window and by 2004, Comic-Con occupied Halls A through G on the ground floor with Exhibit Hall space. Board president John Rogers made the decision to create a giant programming room in Hall H, one that seated close to 6,000 attendees. But in 2003, Ballroom 20 was the room reserved for the biggest programs and the Saturday evening Masquerade.

We were approached that year with a different kind of presentation. One of the major studios wanted to bring a major star to promote an upcoming action-adventure film and they wanted the star to bungie jump (or come down on a rope) from a helicopter hovering over the San Diego Convention Center roof. I tried my best to discourage this for a number of reasons, the main one being both the safety of the star and the Comic-Con attendees. No one wanted to see a “Helicopter Crashes into Convention Center” headline. I used the fact that we were only a couple years beyond 9/11 and the Navy has a huge base right across the bay in Coronado and probably would not want to see a helicopter hovering in their airspace. “The Navy is on board with this and wants to help us,” I was told by the studio publicist. I was sure the Convention Center wouldn’t go for this, but I was told “The Convention Center is allowing us to do a run-through.” The studio had done an end-run around Comic-Con before they even mentioned it to us.

I could never figure out why they wanted to do this thing or how they would get the star off the roof and into Ballroom 20. If the desired effect was to show this spectacle to the audience inside, it would require some kind of live camera hook-up to the room, a pricey undertaking. I tried my best to convince the studio publicist that the real moment is when the star walks out on stage—particularly THIS star, who was very big at the time and had never been at Comic-Con before—and the audience goes nuts, but to no avail. And then it was suddenly dropped, and there was no more talk of stars jumping from helicopters and running into the room. I could only guess that for all their planning they finally went to the star who said “There’s no fucking way I’m going to do that.” I don’t know that for sure, but that’s my guess.

And when the moment came, and the star walked out on stage, the audience went wild. I was standing off to the side with the publicist and I leaned over and said, “See? That’s the moment I was telling you about.” And he replied “Yeah,” and after a long pause said, “but that helicopter thing sure would have been somethin’.”

I’ve told this story at both a Comic-Con 50th anniversary panel in 2019 and on the Unofficial Blog’s SDConCast show and I’ve never revealed the star. But in doing research for this post to confirm the year in which this happened, I found the story about the star and the helicopter mentioned online—you just have to know the right words to search to find it. No, it isn’t Tom Cruise. Everyone always guesses Tom Cruise because it sounds like something Tom Cruise would do. In fact, it sounds like something Tom Cruise would suggest.

The truth is it was Angelina Jolie for the second Tomb Raider movie, Cradle of Life. And when she walked out on stage in a simple black dress, the Ballroom 20 audience did go absolutely nuts, I was in my fourth year as director of programming and—including my subsequent years in that position—had never seen such a response. People cried. They wanted her to sign their arms so they could get her autograph tattooed on them. They crowded the stage after the presentation (which was just Jolie answering questions, no moderator), begging to talk to her. They tried to sneak backstage just to see her up close. She was very gracious and actually did sign someone’s arm.

Before the show, the studio told us she wanted to sign autographs afterwards and in one of the great blunders of my Comic-Con career, I put her in the Sails Pavilion for everyone to see, AND listed it the Autograph signing schedule. She didn’t want to sign in a private room in a ticketed event, she wanted everyone to get her signature, not realizing how many “everyones” there would be. I had irate people yelling at me about not getting her autograph, driving all the way from Indiana because “you said she was going to sign autographs!” Jolie would come back to Comic-Con twice, for the movie Salt in 2010, and in 2019 as part of the cast of Marvel’s The Eternals, and each time she was equally gracious and charming, a true class act.

But that helicopter thing sure would have been somethin’.

I’m Going to Have to Call Harvey …

Another 2003 panel in Ballroom 20 was for Kill Bill Vol. 2, and featured a few of the stars of the film (I recall Michael Madsen and Daryl Hannah) along with director Quentin Tarantino, who speed-talked his way back and forth onstage with a handheld microphone, barely letting the cast members speak. Right before this panel started, I was approached by a hyper publicist who said to me, “Now, Gary … you’re going to GUARANTEE that the footage we’re showing will NOT make it onto the Internet, right?” It was around this time that cellphones with cameras were becoming more and more prevalent. “No, I’m not going to guarantee that. If you’re concerned about that, you should have brought video that the studio was fine with being posted.” There was no way I could make sure no one in a room of over 4,000 people wouldn’t record the video footage. “Well then, I’m just going to have to call Harvey and make sure we can show it.” And I said, “Go ahead and call him. Or don’t show the video. Your choice.” And she was shocked. She couldn’t believe I’d tell her not to show the video. She backed down and I don’t even remember whether they showed the video or if Quentin stopped talking long enough for them to do so. I know everyone in the room enjoyed the panel, except maybe the poor actors onstage who never got much of a chance to talk. By the way, if you want talk to Harvey now, you’ll have to have his number in prison. (Ohhh … too soon?)

Lost and Found Department …

In 2004, at the very last minute (I define the “very last minute” as just in time to squeak the panel into the schedule and get it into the Events Guide before it goes to the printer), a Comic-Con exhibitor contacted me. He had just gotten the license for a new ABC-TV show that was premiering in the fall and he was going to produce a set of collectable trading cards. The series was called Lost and they were interested in doing a panel at Comic-Con. In addition to producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, they were going to bring cast members Matthew Fox (who had appeared at Comic-Con a few years earlier for a TV series called Haunted, in which he played an ex-cop who saw the ghosts of murdered people), a new actress named Evangeline Lilly, and Dominic Monaghan, who had a built-in Comic-Con audience with the Lord of the Rings movies. I found a slot for them in Ballroom 20 at 10:00 AM on Saturday and the panelists flew in from Hawaii where they were filming, making it to San Diego just in time for the panel. They drove up onto the front drive of the Convention Center, where I met them and hurried them upstairs to Ballroom 20. It was the beginning of a long run of Lost panels at Comic-Con and its success was something that I personally think spawned the incredible rise of TV panels at the event.

After a very successful first season, Lost introduced a lot of new characters in its second season and many fans were a bit dismayed by that. Realizing they had made a mistake, the Lost producers came to Comic-Con in between seasons two and three with a novel idea: They wanted to have a dunk tank in Ballroom 20, so when people asked questions, they got the chance to work out their frustrations with season 2 by throwing a baseball at a target and (hopefully) dunking a producer into a large tub of water. Unfortunately, the Convention Center had just replaced all the carpeting in Ballroom 20 and wouldn’t allow this to happen, but I thought it was a novel idea for the producers of a major TV show to admit they screwed up and wanted to somehow make it up to the fans. (No such offer was forthcoming after the disastrous final episode of the series.)

Spelling Will Be Part of Your Final Grade …

Hall H had its debut in 2004, and the very first panel was from Warner Bros. and featured Batman Begins (with screenwriter David S. Goyer and star Cillian Murphy) and Constantine (with director Francis Lawrence and stars Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz). WB was going to give out these cool little Batarang pins (see below), which came attached to a card backing. About a half-hour before the event was to begin, the publicist showed me the pins. “Aren’t these cool?” she asked me and I said, “Yes, they’re great … but you spelled Comic-Con wrong.” “What do you mean?” she asked. “It should be hyphenated, not one word, and you’re missing a C.” “OHMYGOD! WE’LL FIX IT! WE’LL TAKE ALL THE PINS OFF THE CARDS!” I said there’s no time for that, as the pins were kind of clunky with big needle-like fasteners on the back. “You’ll injure people handing them out without the cards and people removing them in a hurry will hurt themselves too,” I told her. The pins went out on the cards and I told her to just keep the correct spelling in mind for future giveaways, but I appreciated her concern. By the way, that pin is pretty rare now … there’s one going for $55.00 on eBay, if you’re interested, and no, I’m not the one selling it.

Image stolen from an eBay listing. © Warner Bros.

I’ve Had It With These Motherfuckin’ Snakes …

In a long career filled with great roles and a lot of swear words, Samuel L. Jackson has certainly earned his reputation as one of Hollywood’s great stars. In 2006, he starred in what can only be referred to as a “high-concept” movie, one in which the entire film can be summed up in one sentence, which also happens to be the film’s title: Snakes on a Plane.

It’s no surprise that the movie had a panel at Comic-Con 2006, hosted by the film’s co-star and longest-running SNL player Kenan Thompson, but the run-up to that panel was surprising to say the least. I was contacted before Comic-Con with a simple question: How high is the ceiling in Hall H? My immediate response was “Why?” and the answer was right up there with the let’s have Angelina Jolie jump out of a helicopter request: “We want to put in a false ceiling and at the right time open it and drop rubber snakes onto the audience.”

Once again, this was a question of audience safety. Just dropping fake snakes from a height of approximately 27 feet (you learn something new every day) could actually injure someone, not to mention a lot of people are freaked out by snakes. And while I’m sure some of the audience would have gotten a huge kick out of this, like a one-time shock in a scary movie, it also might have caused a heart attack or two, or a poked-out eye from a pointy tail. Snakes on a plane? Okay, but not in Hall H. Incidentally, this was one of the first times I saw a studio do a full-fledged media junket at Comic-Con, with Jackson and cast members doing interviews all day long in a separate room at the Convention Center. It was a portent of things to come.

Day of the Locust …

In the early 2000s, a popular 1990s action movie producer had started a kind of boutique horror movie studio, doing lower budget genre films. One of the films he brought to Comic-Con (in 2006) was about the ten plagues of Egypt, of which one was said that “the locusts covered the face of the land and swallowed up every crop and all the fruits of the trees.” This producer—who incidentally thought the turkey sandwiches at the San Diego Convention Center were the absolute best in the world—wanted everyone who came into Hall H to get a real, live locust in a tiny cage.

This was a big no on so many levels. A lot of people don’t like bugs, especially BIG bugs like locusts, so I’m guessing we’d have a lot of leftover locusts; and how do you take them home on the plane? Is a Comic-Con souvenir really a souvenir if the souvenir DIES? And 6,000 locusts would amount to an infestation. Our contact at the Convention Center told me back then that they used to have the annual reptile show in the center and this one time—at the reptile show, not band camp—someone dropped a container of live crickets (which were regularly fed to the reptiles) and they scattered to the four corners. Sometimes when the center was empty and really, really quiet, you could still hear them chirping away. Thankfully, the Convention Center put their foot down and squashed this one, like the big, gross bug it was. Ultimately, this went from 6,000 live locusts to a few fake ones in little cages that were given to people who asked questions during the panel. I’m not sure if the producer got his turkey sandwich, but I’m guessing he did.

No Animals Were Harmed in the Making of This Panel …

In 2006, 20th Century Fox wanted to promote their new film, Borat. In keeping with the nature of the character, they wanted Borat, in character, to come in the attendee entrance to Hall H, bringing along assorted farm animals (I believe chickens and goats were mentioned) and climbing over the attendees sitting in chairs. This was during a time when the character was appearing only on premium cable channel HBO as part of another show, so he wasn’t universally known and beloved. I told them the Convention Center would never allow farm animals in the building and that climbing over people in seats would be a safety hazard. Instead, the character came in the side entrance to Hall H, sans farm animals, and climbed up on stage—without our knowledge until he did it—almost falling off the stage barricades and injuring himself in the process. The studio then showed a near X-rated clip from the movie of Borat wrestling naked with another man, thus inaugurating the policy of “We have to see everything you’re going to show in advance.”

The Beginning of a Marvel-ous Relationship …

The first Marvel Studios panel took place on my watch in 2006 in Room 6CDEF. Featured on the panel were directors Jon Favreau (Iron Man), Edgar Wright (Ant-Man, alas never to see the light of day), and the surprise announcement of Louis Leterrier as the director of The Incredible Hulk. Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige was joined by Avi Arad and Ari Arad, still involved with Marvel at that point. This first, smaller panel was the beginning of a giant love affair between Comic-Con, the fans, and Marvel Studios.

The Events Guide blurb for the first Marvel Studios panel in 2006 and the Iron Man cast with director Jon Favreau backstage in Hall H in 2007. Marvel gave out that spiffy T-shirt which glowed in the dark. I still occasionally see people wearing this shirt 15 years later.

Photo (probably) by Albert Ortega © SDCC

In 2007, director Jon Favreau, and stars Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, and Terrence Howard promoted the upcoming first Marvel Cinematic Universe film, Iron Man. Marvel asked to have their own standalone panel in Hall H, apart from the Thursday panel featuring the films of their distributor, Paramount. Favreau appeared in a video during the Paramount panel, touting the special effects in the movie, and then rolled footage from the clunky 1966 animated series, the one that basically used panels from the comic book with extremely limited animation. On Saturday, the standalone Marvel Studios panel was a resounding success—with Favreau showing actual footage from the film alongside the three lead actors—and each subsequent Marvel panel strove for bigger and better, including introducing the whole cast of The Avengers in 2011, Josh Brolin as Thanos in 2014, pre-Infinity War, Brie Larson as Captain Marvel in 2016, the Black Panther cast in 2017, and a mega-blowout “Phase 4” panel in 2019 with Black Widow, Shang-Chi, the cast of The Eternals, and the first of the Marvel Disney + shows. And who could forget Tom Hiddleston as Loki haranguing the Hall H audience in 2013 (look for it on YouTube)? (Backstage moment: All suited up, Tom realized he had to pee. Couldn’t you have done that before you left Asgard, Tom?) I had nothing to do with most of those amazing panels, but I like to think I helped start it all back in 2006 with that very first panel.

My Favorite Accident …

In 2009, a few years after my final year as director of programming, I was walking into the backstage area of Hall H. Right when I was reaching for the door handle, the door opened and a very tall and confused looking actor walked out. It was Bill Nighy (no, not The Science Guy), best known for his role in Love Actually as the aging rock star, Billy Mack. He was there as part of the cast of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, and the less said about that film, the better. But it was one of those moments that you had to say something and after a few exchanged “excuse me’s” and “pardon me’s”, I said, “I just watched a movie of yours the other night and I really enjoyed it.” He asked which it was, undoubtedly thinking it was one of the Underworld films, taking into account the event we were at, and I replied “The Girl in the Cafe,” which just made his whole face light up. If you haven’t seen it, Girl is about an older government official going to a G7 type of summit. Right before he goes, he meets a young woman (the wonderful Kelly Macdonald) in a cafe and she starts a relationship with him. But is she genuinely interested in him or just looking to go to the summit as his guest and stir things up? He told me he loved that movie himself and loved making it. It was just a nice, little, chance encounter, one of those “only at Comic-Con moments.” Comic-Con staff have always been told to not interact with stars—no selfies or autographs—and I kept to that for my entire career there, but this was just a spontaneous moment with an actor I really admired, and i remember it fondly.

Bill Nighy as Viktor in Underworld: The Rise of the Lycans, along with the poster for The Girl in the Cafe and a photo closer to the Bill I encountered backstage in Hall H in 2009.

Hollywood, Here We Come …

While I was director of programming, I started the Comic-Con International Independent Film Festival, which continues to this day. I had noticed a US Mail container full of VHS tapes in the office in 2001 or so. I asked the receptionist what they were and was told they were films that people sent in. I talked to the head of the Films Department at Comic-Con at the time, and she had no interest in showing any films that weren’t A) 16mm films and B) shown via projector.

So I took the VHS movies home and watched them and some of them were pretty good. We started with a one-day event titled “Film Fest Friday,” and it slowly grew to all four days. During that time I added in a daily program to start all four days called “Comic-Con Film School,” which was run by filmmakers Sean Rourke, Valerie Perez, and Nick Murphy. The Film School provided valuable (free!) Info on everything from how to budget a film shoot to getting distribution for your final film and everything in between. The Festival might not be all bright lights and red carpets, but it provides a showcase for genre films, including action/adventure, pop culture documentary, humor, horror, and science fiction and fantasy, and at least one early entrant went onto a bigger-budget version of his film at a Hollywood studio. At one point we added juried prizes decided by a trio of film luminary judges and some pretty spiffy trophies, seen above next to the logo I designed for the event. I’m incredibly proud that both the CCI-IFF and the Film School continue to this day.

In my time as director of programming, I grew Comic-Con’s programming schedule from a little over 200 events over four days in 2000 to close to 400 in 2007. For the bulk of that time, I was a solo act, with one assistant to help out with logistical things. But around 2005, my boss sensed—as she put it—I was “burning out” on programming. What happened next is our tale for next time. Join us, won’t you, for Part 12 of My Life in Comics, coming soon. (To read all of the My Life in Comics posts, click here.)

Hugh Jackman with Wolverine co-creator Len Wein backstage in Hall H for the huge 20th Century Fox X-Men: Days of Future Past panel in 2013. Take note of that poor schlub photo-bombing in the background. What happens in Hall H stays in Hall H. Photo from Jackman’s Twitter feed.

SDConCast: Is This A Life in Comics? from May 24, 2002.

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