RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - When the giant Comic Con convention begins previewing this year's show in San Diego this coming Wednesday, Hollywood will be there in force hyping new movies and television series.
In recent years, Comic Con has helped launched films like "Iron Man," "Twilight" and "Avatar" to tremendous box office success, and the number of movies and TV shows being promoted in 2010 seems larger than ever for what, once upon a time, was merely a gathering of comic book fans.
Major studios and TV networks are showing reels from movies such as alien invasion "Battle: Los Angeles" or "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" and TV series like AMC's zombie horror "The Walking Dead," hoping to tap into an influential group of pop culture watchers, so-called 'fan boys,' primarily males between 18- and 34 years-old.
Stars on hand include Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone. 3D movies are big this year, as are films and TV programs that appeal to young women, which are among the gathering's fastest growing audience, organizers say.
"If fans go to Comic Con and they see something about the new Marvel movies 'Thor' or 'Captain America' that they like, and they suddenly start texting or Twittering about it, before you know it, it's like a prairie fire," said comic book legend Stan Lee, who is the subject of a new documentary debuting at the convention, "With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story."
"It's all over the country and eventually all over the world," said Lee.
Around 126,000 pop fans of comics, movies, video games and TV are expected to descend upon the San Diego Convention Center for the annual show, which starts with a preview night on Wednesday, July 21, and runs through Sunday, July 25.
"TRON Legacy" film director Joe Kosinski knows first-hand the power of "The Con," the name regulars use for the show.
"We surprised the audience in 2008 by showing an effects test that I did for the film to gauge audience reaction, and it was so overwhelming the studio immediately greenlit the film," said Kosinski, who debuted 3D "TRON Legacy" footage last year.
Walt Disney Pictures has dubbed this year's event, ComiTRON and dedicated a full one-hour panel to the 3D film with its stars like Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner and Olivia Wilde.
In the wake of "Avatar's" successful Comic Con debut last year, there are more 3D movies featured at the show than ever, including Sony Pictures "Resident Evil: Afterlife," Lionsgate Entertainment's "Saw 3D," the Weinstein Company's "Piranha 3D," and Dreamworks Animation's "MegaMind."
"With 3D becoming a natural extension of storytelling and Comic Con being the Mecca of pop culture, it's a huge deal to present 'Drive Angry 3D' in 3D to that genre-friendly audience," said Patrick Lussier, the director of the Summit Entertainment movie, which stars Nicolas Cage.
After seeing success at the show with "300," director Zack Snyder returns this year with Warner Bros. Pictures' all-female action fantasy set in the 1950s called "Sucker Punch."
"When I go to Comic Con I'm always looking for that sort of under-the-radar film...and I'm hoping that that's what I've created with 'Sucker Punch,' said Snyder. "That thing that you didn't expect to see that sort of blew you away."
Like Snyder, writer/director Guillermo del Toro had been attending Comic Con as a fan for years, buying up collectibles by the box load, before starting to show up for "work."
"It's really as close to paradise as I can get," said del Toro. "It's a great place to find new artists to work in movies with me. It's a great place to meet old friends and for a geek, it's as fantastic as a shopping spree in 'Sex in the City,' but with comic books and model figures."
Del Toro debuts his latest horror film, a remake of the 1973 film, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," at this year's show for Miramax Films.
According to David Glanzer, director of marketing for Comic Con International, the "geeks" that attend the convention and who once were mostly male, are now 40 percent female.
That bodes well for TV shows like Fox's "Glee" and USA Networks' "White Collar," both of which feature cast panels.
Along with tough-guy actors like Willis ("Red") and Stallone ("The Expendables"), 'fan girls" can expect to see Tina Fey ("Megamind") and Sigourney Weaver ("Paul"). And buzz is building that Angelina Jolie may make an appearance during Sony Pictures' "Salt" panel to wow the crowd, much like Johnny Depp did last year to promote Disney's "Alice in Wonderland."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte