I'm back. Three years after last venturing to San Diego cover the annual Comic-Con fest that helped launch The Walking Dead to record ratings, creating a fountain of profits for AMC Networks (NASDAQ:AMCX) in the process, I've returned to take another up-close-and-personal look at the business of comics and pop culture.
There's a lot to cover. Digital comics are bringing the stories of heroes, villains, crooks, cops, and monsters old and new to a much wider audience, says Rob Salkowitz, author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.
In an interview, Salkowitz notes how, before 2011 and the rise of digital comics, a shrinking pool of specialty retailers were fighting to sell to a small and apparently finite niche of hardcore collectors like Yours Truly. Now, anyone with an iPad can try comics. Fears expressed three years ago have gone unrealized.
"Digital wasn't going to be the nail in the coffin. The coffin was already built and being lowered into the ground," Salkowitz says. Now, the industry is awash with new ideas, new stories, Kickstarter campaigns, and upstart publishers.
One such rebel, BOOM! Studios, brings its first adaptation -- 2 Guns, starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg -- to theaters next month. Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) NBCUniversal will distribute the film, another potential win for a studio that's been working aggressively to cash in on the comic-book movie boom. That includes a just-announced deal to replace Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) as production partner for Legendary Pictures.
So what's an investor to do with all the goings on at Comic-Con? Remember these three things:
1. Panels are press conferences in disguise. Every major studio and publisher has a panel. So do most television properties. Warner and Legendary presented together on Saturday morning. Walt Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Marvel Studios takes the stage Saturday night. Expect these venues to be sources of material news, and for the stocks to respond in kind.
2. The Big 2 matter, but not as much as they used to. Comic-Con isn't just about Marvel and DC. Upstarts will be fostering enthusiasm for insurgent projects throughout the show. For example, Universal will be on stage Friday afternoon to talk up Riddick, due in September and starring Vin Diesel in a follow-up to earlier sci-fi tries The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) and Pitch Black (2000). Separately, Dark Horse Entertainment -- which releases R.I.P.D. this weekend -- has a Friday night panel featuring Avengers director Joss Whedon talking about his various non-Disney projects, including beloved series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly.
3. Fans still matter, even after Scott Pilgrim. Comic-Con skeptics often cite the box office failure of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as evidence of the show's niche status. They're right, and wrong. Scott Pilgrim -- the manga-influenced adaptation starring Michael Cera -- was never destined to wow everyone. Yet neither was Arrow, the DC Comics adaptation that's proved to be a niche hit for Warner's CW network, nor The Walking Dead. Comic-Con has helped to establish both properties in the public consciousness.
That's why I'm back. Comic-Con may be noisy, colorful, crazy, and an imperfect reflection of the pop-culture zeitgeist. But as fans and investors, it's also the best we have. Ignore it at your peril.