Comic-Con expands as proving ground for new shows

By Derrik J. Lang
AP Entertainment Writer

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This publicity photo released by Beck Media & Marketing shows Rob Benedict in a scene from the short film The Sidekick. (AP Photo/Beck Media & Marketing, Steve Lubensky)

LOS ANGELES: Nine years ago, the inaugural episode of “Lost” captured Comic-Con attendees’ imaginations when it first premiered at the fan-driven extravaganza, and the surreal series about plane crash survivors went on to become a cultural phenomenon. This year, more than 10 new shows are angling to land similar success when they touch down in San Diego this week.

Such new live-action series as “The Avengers” spin-off “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” android buddy cop drama “Almost Human” and supernatural saga “Sleepy Hollow,” which stars British actor Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane, will be hyped with Comic-Con presentations. The mission? Attract cult followings akin to “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones.”

“Going to Comic-Con has always been really, really, really high up on my list of things I’ve wanted to achieve in my career,” said Mison. “The first of them is going to Comic-Con. The other is becoming an action figure. The third is walking through a crypt holding a flaming torch. I think ‘Sleepy Hollow’ is going to help me achieve all those goals, really.”

Mison plays an out-of-time version of Crane who wakes up in the present day and is drawn into a mythological conspiracy involving the Headless Horseman. “Star Trek” screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the Fox show’s executive producers, are hopeful Comic-Con attendees will respond favorably to their twist on the “Sleepy Hollow” tale.

“Taking a classic story and making it modern is what drew us to it,” said Orci. “We also recognize that’s what makes it original and not like all the other ‘Sleepy Hollows’ that you’ve seen. Trying to be original sometimes comes at a price. It’s risky. You can only hope the audience wants to have fun with you and not clobber you for stepping outside of the box.”

Starz’s “Black Sails” isn’t scheduled to dock until next year, but the network is screening the first episode of the mature pirate drama for fans — make that potential fans — near the San Diego Convention Center. “Black Sails” creators Robert Levine and Jon Steinberg, who previously worked on “Jericho” and “Human Target,” think Comic-Con is the best way to build buzz.

“Everybody’s attention is focused on Comic-Con, in terms of what they should be excited about over the horizon, not just genre stuff but everything,” said Steinberg. “There’s something exciting about bringing pirates there, especially because there’s a space in the marketplace that’s not being filled right now. It’s a way for us to introduce the show on a big stage.”

Unleashing a new show at Comic-Con doesn’t always ensure fan fervor. For every “Revolution” or “Grimm” that debuts at the celebration of pop culture, there’s a “No Ordinary Family” or “The Cape.” (Both those superhero series met their demise after one season.) Ultimately, it’s up to the more than 130,000 attendees to decide if new shows are super — or just suck.

“I think the hits are always the ones that feel right for Comic-Con and harken back to the roots of Comic-Con,” said Marla Provencio, chief marketing officer for ABC, which is launching “S.H.I.E.L.D.” and “Once Upon a Time in Wonderland” at the convention. “When you try to deviate and show something that’s a little broader is when you’re off the mark.”

Not every show debuting at Comic-Con features superheroes, robots or vampires. For the first time, James Spader is attending Comic-Con. The unfiltered actor will appear on a panel for NBC’s new crime thriller “The Blacklist,” following a screening of the pilot in which Spader plays a rogue mastermind who mysteriously agrees to start working with the FBI.

“Spader has a huge following and is a very interesting guy,” said executive producer Jon Bokenkamp. “I’m hoping this is an opportunity for us to interact with and create some fans. It’s a show with a big mythology, so to be able to discuss the show with an audience about where it’s going and what excites us about it will be a unique and valuable experience.”

Rob Benedict is taking a similar but unique route to Comic-Con. The adorable actor best known for his stints on “Felicity” and “Supernatural” is premiering his short-film “The Sidekick” at the convention. He hopes any buzz captured at Comic-Con will lead to the short serving as the pilot for a series on cable or through digital distribution channels like Netflix.

“Comic-Con is live fan interaction where people actually show up, and you can communicate with them face to face,” said Benedict. “It’s different from even a film festival. These are people who, for lack of a better word, want to invest — not financially but emotionally — in new things they can connect with. It’s the perfect venue for what we made.”

Benedict stars in the tongue-in-cheek film as a past-his-prime superhero sidekick. He enlisted such famous funny friends as Ron Livingston and Jason Ritter to portray superheroes and sidekicks in the project. It’s the latest example of how Comic-Con is adding elements of the Sundance Film Festival to further serve as a testing ground for unsponsored acts.

“One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that when networks or buyers are asked to roll the dice on some new entity, it really helps if it’s been preapproved in some other place,” said “Sidekick” director Michael J. Weithorn. “If we do well at Comic-Con, it probably won’t be a deciding factor, but it’ll be one more thing that will make it sellable.”

Other shows set to be teased this week at Comic-Con, which officially kicks off Thursday, include the “The Vampire Diaries” spin-off “The Originals,” apocalyptic sci-fi drama “The 100,” telekinetic thriller “The Tomorrow People” and “Intelligence,” which features “Lost” star Josh Holloway as a government agent with a microchip implanted in his head.


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