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With Angelina Jolie, Comic Convention Bursts Its Boundaries

Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply|The New York Times

There was a time when a movie like “Salt,” a spy caper starring Angelina Jolie, got its publicity pop on the festival circuit, maybe even playing on the splashier side of Cannes.

Yet here it was on opening day of Comic-Con International, the annual convention for fans of comic books and related TV shows and movies, on Thursday.

Actress Angelina Jolie and producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura speak onstage at the 'Salt' panel during Comic-Con 2010 at San Diego Convention Center.
Getty Images

You get no Croisette, no Hôtel du Cap by coming to the San Diego Convention Center, which is plopped between a Marriott and some train tracks. What you do get are 130,000 fans only too happy to blast the Web with movie chatter, and international media coverage second only to that for the Oscars.

The showcasing of “Salt,” which opens in theaters on Friday, struck many longtime conventiongoers as a tipping point. The movie does not fit into any of the categories Comic-Con has traditionally celebrated: horror, fantasy, superheroes, animation, science fiction. Purists have blustered for years that Hollywood was taking over Comic-Con as a marketing platform. Now, it has become a big, blurry film festival for the little guy, with plenty of television—and some comics—thrown in.

Jolie’s previous appearances at Comic-Con have been for films that neatly fit its focus—“Beowulf,” for instance. On Thursday she bluntly highlighted why “Salt” did not. Her previous action movies were “always based in fantasy in some way,” she said. This one is “smart, proper, dramatic.”

“Salt” is not the only head-scratcher at this year’s Comic-Con, which runs through Sunday. Also represented here are “Nurse Jackie” and “The Other Guys,” a Will Ferrell comedy. CBS dispatched young women in grass skirts to plug its forthcoming remake of “Hawaii Five-O.”

“I sort of feel it’s like worrying about the weather—there’s no going back,” Marc Guggenheim, the writer of the forthcoming “Green Lantern” movie from Warner Brothers, told the blog Hero Complex. “The genie is out of the bottle.”

Cherry Davis, a fund-raising consultant attending the convention from Los Angeles, wasn’t as forgiving when she spotted the comedian Pauly Shore trying to orchestrate a publicity stunt. “What is he doing here? Has he ever even been in a science fiction movie?” Davis fumed aloud.

There was a lot of obsessiveness on display for the opening day of Comic-Con, which has been sold out for months. Walt Disney Studios wowed fans of its forthcoming “Tron: Legacy” with eight minutes of 3-D footage. The snippet depicted a character entering the movie’s video-game reality for the first time.

“That ‘Tron’ footage was definitely amazing,” said John Juarez, a restaurant manager from El Cajon, Calif., who regularly attends Comic-Con. “A lot of these presentations have become just big commercials that we stupidly pay to see.”

Disney took the unusual step of recording a cheering crowd of 6,000 in Hall H, the convention’s main showplace, to incorporate into “Tron: Legacy.” Attendees were told to stand and follow prompts on a screen. (“Stomp! Stomp!”) The result was a kind of pep rally for the film.

The director Guillermo del Toro, who reluctantly walked away from “The Hobbit” in May because of production delays, made a surprise appearance to announce the subject of his next big movie: Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.

Disney first tried to turn the attraction into a motion picture in 2003 and did a belly flop. “The Haunted Mansion,” a $90 million comedy starring Eddie Murphy, attracted just $75 million at the North American box office. “We are not returning Eddie Murphy’s calls,” del Toro said to cheers.

“Hobbit” fans hoping for some good news—Hollywood has been abuzz over the possibility that a deal is nearly completed for Peter Jackson to take over as director—were out of luck. Staff members of the fan Web site TheOneRing.net were hard-pressed to come up with positive tidbits. Besides the loss of del Toro, Ian McKellen is tired of waiting around to play Gandalf, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which owns half the project, is still in financial disarray.

In one of the other big presentations on Thursday, DreamWorks Animation and Paramount Pictures promoted “Megamind,” about a supervillain who succumbs to ennui after doing in his archnemesis. Ferrell, who is the voice of the title character in the film, appeared wearing blue face paint and an elaborate Megamind costume.

He was in the minority: in contrast to years past, only a smattering of attendees turned out dressed as their favorite characters, perhaps another sign of Comic-Con’s evolution into a mainstream entity. “As I can see as I look into the hall, not a lot of people in costume,” he said.

If Comic-Con is a film festival, though, it still belongs to the people. Those who wanted a glimpse at Robert Rodriguez’s grisly action movie “Machete” were invited to a Thursday night screening of scenes in a parking lot, after a party with free tacos, tequila and beer (“with this flier, while supplies last”).