LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Heading into this year's giant Comic-Con International pop culture convention in San Diego, media watchers believed Hollywood might play a smaller role because some heavily promoted movies there in 2010 fizzled at box offices.
But as Thursday's opening day nears, the 2011 gathering of comic book readers, sci-fi lovers, fanboys, fangirls and pop culture watchers -- many costumed as space aliens or invaders -- appears bigger, glitzier and more crowded than ever.
Forecasters predict anywhere from 130,000 to as many as 200,000 people will invade San Diego over the four-day convention, although numbers are difficult to track given the volume of people who come just to be part of the scene.
Perhaps the most accurate indicator of the show's growing popularity in recent years is that while it took six months for four-day event passes to sell out in 2009, and two months in 2010, this year those passes were gone in a mere seven hours.
And rabid fans likely won't be disappointed with the number of events and starpower at the show nicknamed, "The Con".
There are numerous panels for directors and stars to talk up films such as "Twilight: Breaking Dawn" and "The Amazing Spider-Man," as well as several science-fiction TV shows. Even the cast of hit musical "Glee" will be on hand.
Although, similar promotional events in 2010 failed to have a big impact on the commercial prospects of some films and TV shows hyped here, such as "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," Hollywood's studios and networks are back in force.
"I don't think there is a direct relation between box office and what you do at Comic-Con," Marc Weinstock, president of worldwide marketing for Sony Pictures, told Reuters.
"For 'Total Recall,' 'Ghost Rider,' and 'The Amazing Spider-Man' we'll be showing footage no one has ever seen. People are going to be very, very excited," Weinstock said.
But there is a difference this year, which boils down to timing. Generally speaking, Hollywood has used past Comic-Cons to build early buzz for movies and TV shows opening months away, but this year the big promotional bucks are being spent on films opening around the same time as the convention.
For instance, Marvel Studios is teaming Chris Evans, star "Captain America: The First Avenger," with U.S. troops in a made-for-media event to coincide with Friday's release of the movie. Universal Pictures' "Cowboys & Aliens," which opens July 29, is holding its world premiere on Saturday in San Diego.
Comic-Con stargazers will hardly be disappointed. Besides Steven Spielberg -- at the show for the first time to both promote his new film "The Adventures of Tin Tin" and collect an award -- others attending include Taylor Lautner, Jeff Bridges, Francis Ford Coppola, Justin Timberlake and Charlize Theron.
"I don't know what to expect this year, but one thing I can expect is that it's going to bigger than it's ever been," said Brannon Braga who, after first attending as a fan in the 1980's, this year is presenting the first hour of the $16 million two-hour season premiere of sci-fi adventure TV show "Terra Nova," which he co-produced with Spielberg.
Some of the other, more talked-about new TV shows anxious to woo crowds at The Con include fantasy-themed "Grimm" and "Once Upon a Time," along with "Person of Interest" and "Alcatraz," both produced by "Lost" creator J.J. Abrams.
The casts and creators from "Dexter," "Supernatural," "True Blood," and "The Big Bang Theory" also will appear, buttressing their already loyal fan bases from past trips to Comic-Con.
"Breaking through the clutter becomes harder every year," said Syfy Channel marketing vice-president Dana Ortiz, who will be making her 11th trip to Comic Con this year.
For cable TV channels like SyFy, Comic-Con is the perfect opportunity to market to, and get feedback from, a highly-targeted group of viewers. In fact, the team at SyFy begins planning for Comic-Con just after Christmas.
And for fans who can't get to San Diego, Syfy has a solution. It has partnered with the E! Network to provide red carpet coverage of its annual party via online streaming. So, this year fans stuck at home will have the chance to see for themselves what the pop culture fuss is all about.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte