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“We have to realize that something important has happened,” one of the presenters said at Comic-Con.  “We won.  All around us in movies, television and books there are vampires, zombies, superheroes, magic, and aliens.”  He was exaggerating, of course, but he was also right.  Comic-Con describes itself as honoring “the popular arts.”  There were banks of booths with comic books, of course, and movies, games, and television about zombies, vampires, superheroes, magic, and aliens, but Comic-Con attendees lines up for hours to see shows like “Glee” and “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”  The upcoming series about 1960’s Pan Am flight attendants (or, as they were called then, stewardesses) had a booth and a bunch of very pretty young ladies in Pam Am uniforms giving out flight bags.  As Washington Post “Celebritology” blogger Jen Chaney noted, the television shows were more buzz-worthy than the movies this year.  They had longer lines and more enthusiastic crowds.  What you don’t see at Comic-Con is anything about real housewives or cupcakes or bachelors with rose ceremonies.  Comic-Con attendees love strong stories filled with imagination, excitement, and wit.  And of course they like dressing up!

I heard about some upcoming projects still in the very early stages that sound like they could fill the legendary 6000-seat Hall H at future Comic-Cons.  The ones I am most excited about are:

The movie adaptation of Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel.  Last year, this amazing book was my favorite Comic-Con discovery, and since then it has been announced that J.J. Abrams will be directing a film based on this amazing story of an early 20th century robot, expected in 2013.

“Paranorman.” I was thrilled to get a sneak peek at the next movie from the brilliant stop-motion folks at LAIKA, the people behind “Coraline.”  I spoke with writer-director Chris Butler about this story of a boy who can communicate with zombies.  I was enthralled with the concept drawings and molded figures and sets they showed us (but sadly not allowed to take any photos to share with you) and delighted to hear that Jon Brion will be providing the soundtrack.  Voice talent includes Kodi Smit-McPhee (“Let Me In”), Broadway star Elaine Stritch, John Goodman, Anna Kendrick (“Up in the Air”), and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (“Superbad”).

And three young authors whose books are being made into movies talked to a small group of reporters.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is the story of two rival illusionists in an enchanted Victorian-era circus.

Divergent by Veronica Roth, is the first in a Hunger Games-style trilogy about a dystopic future where civilization is divided into five factions.  The sixteen-year-old heroine has to undergo a brutal initiation when she leaves her family to join a rival group.  Roth told us the idea came from a vision she imagined of “a step into nothingness.”  She wrote the book instead of doing her homework in an MA program at Northwestern.

Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion is the story of a zombie with a soul — and the memories of the teenage boy whose brains he consumed.  He ends up pursuing the boy’s girlfriend — romantically, not carnivorously.  The talented Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”) is directing the film, starring Nicholas Hoult (“About a Boy,” “A Single Man”).  He was thrilled to be invited to have dinner to “talk shop” with Stephanie Meyer, whose blurb is on the top of the book cover.  When asked about the appeal of zombies he said, “They’re cool and we like to see things get eaten.”

After a promising beginning with the tart but sweet romantic comedy “Never Been Kissed,” director Raja Gosnell has been mired in the quagmire of movie junk food, “family” movies like “Scooby-Doo” and “Yours, Mine and Ours.”  They are the cinematic equivalent of high sugar, high fat processed food: loud, crude, special-effects-driven, cheesy, and vacuous.  His updates miss both the charm and the point of the originals.  While the animated “My Little Pony” is not only back on television but it is suddenly hip, this latest version of the Smurfs combines an enchanted world of magical animated characters with live-action New York City and manages to get the worst of both worlds.  It tries to appeal to kids with pratfalls, potty humor, and the substitution of “Smurf” for every possible noun, verb, and adjective.  It tries to appeal to adults with pointless cameos by Tim Gunn and Joan Rivers.  Gunn looks around with the disappointed expression he usually reserves for those Project Runway contestants who are an hour from deadline without an idea and Rivers delivers her one line as if she is hoping her face will look as lively as the expressions of the animated characters.  It doesn’t.

The Smurfs were created by Belgian comic artist Peyo (Pierre Culliford), who came up with the idea after he and a friend joked around by substituting nonsense syllables for the words in a conversation.  He created a community of magical blue creatures “three apples high” called Smurfs who have adventures, fight off the evil wizard Gargamel, and say things like “Oh my Smurf!” “Smurf-zactly!” and, heaven help us, “Smurf happens.”  The film-makers are so proud of that last piece of wit they used it for the URL of the movie’s website.

Children enjoy the Smurfs because they are tiny, magical, sometimes mischievous but sweet, and able to defeat their foe, a human-sized wizard named Gargamel.  Kids like being able to predict what each Smurf will do, not too challenging because each one’s name, Seven Dwarf-style reflecting his sole characteristic.  (The only female Smurf is called Smurfette, because being female is all you need to know about her.)  Children learn what it means to be “Greedy,” “Grouchy,” “Vain,” or “Clumsy,” from the characters with those names.  And listening to the way the word “Smurf” is used in the dialog is a good introduction to the way language works.

This film takes six of the Smurfs out of their animated community, with its quaint mushroom houses and soft pastel colors.  Grouchy (George Lopez), Brainy (“SNL’s” Fred Armisen), Clumsy (Anton Yelchin), the inexplicably Scottish Gutsy (Alan Cummings), Smurfette (the endearingly candy-sparkle voice of pop star Katy Perry), and elder statesman Papa Smurf (Jonathan Winters) are chased by Gargamel (Hank Azaria) and his cat Azrael, who want their magical blue essence.   They are all sucked through a portal that lands them in live action Central Park.

 

Before they can find a way to get back home, they encounter a harried marketing executive (Neil Patrick Harris) and his pregnant wife (“Glee’s” Jayma Mays), toy store F.A.O. Schwartz, an apartment, an office, a prison yard, and many, many unfunny attempts at comedy about the words “blue” and “Smurf.”  Also, in a plot twist apparently lifted from every single episode of the last two seasons of “Bewitched,” the Smurfs mess up their new friend’s advertising campaign for his imperious boss (“Modern Family” bombshell Sofia Vergara) but of course somehow it turns out for the best.

 

The kids in the audience enjoyed the pratfalls, laughing uproariously when Gargamel got hit by a bus, and happily squealing at the gross-out humor from a disgusting hairball, a smelly port-a-potty, and a chamber pot in the middle of an elegant restaurant.  They liked seeing Harris get down with the Smurfs for a rousing round of “Rock Band.” It is good to see Smurfette get a chance to show her fighting spirit, though not so good to see her stuck with a plot line about wanting new dresses, and downright disappointing to see her have to stand on a heating vent in one of them for a Marilyn Monroe joke.  This must be why Gutsy is Scottish – so his kilt can billow up when he stands on the vent, too.

The movie wants us to feel affection for the Smurfs and make fun of them, too.   It is is raw and mean-spirited, with too many of the “Smurf” word substitutions more naughty than nice (“Who Smurfed?” “Where the Smurf are we?”).  That’s Smurfed up.

 

Christian Movie Connect is a new weekly video podcast hosted and produced by faith-based film producer and media personality Cheryl Ariaz Wicker.  It premieres today with the kickoff show featuring actor John Schneider, talking about his role on the upcoming “Doonby.”

Tune in for news of the latest faith-based movies and Christian personalities on and off screen, posted weekly each Wednesday on ChristianMovieConnect.com.

Christian Movie Connect (CMC) podcasts feature interviews with filmmakers, actors, screenwriters and other newsmakers in the Christian film industry both nationally and abroad, conducted at Christian industry events as the National Religious Broadcasters Convention, Biola Media Conference, Gideon Media Arts Conference and Film Festival and International Christian Visual Media Catalyst Conference, to name a few.

Film and media personalities featured on future CMC episodes include Bobby Downes (“Like Dandelion Dust”), Jerry Jameson (“Raise the Titanic,” “Airport ’77,” “Murder, She Wrote”), Ken Wales (“Amazing Grace,” “Christy”), Jenn Gotzen (“Nixon,” “Doonby”), PluggedIn Online’s Bob Waliszewski, Dave Christiano (“7th Street Theater,” “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry”), Christian media guru Phil Cooke, Columbia Pictures’ Devon Franklin, Walden Media’s Micheal Flaherty and 20th Century Fox’s Simon Swart; and VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer. Among the well-known Christian leaders that will be featured on CMC to lend their take on the influence of Christian film are media and culture expert Josh McDowell and best-selling author/speaker Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of evangelist Billy Graham.

CMC will also have special daily podcasts from the Gideon Media Arts Conference & Film Festival (Gideon) airing from August 7-12, 2011.  Producer Cheryl Ariaz Wicker says, “As a producer of faith-based, family friendly and life affirming films, I am an advocate for Christian movies and clean, values-based entertainment. Through positive films, we can inspire movie goers…but greater still, we can promote time-tested values to the culture at large.”

The last of the Harry Potter films is out and Fandango reported over 5000 shows were sold out before opening day. It’s a likely candidate for this year’s box office champion with multi-million dollar revenues from tickets and perhaps even more from the lucrative licensing and product sales, estimated at over $14 billion by Brand Licensing Europe.  But a recent campaign endorsed by four members of the Potter cast demonstrates that these partnerships can bring risks as well as rewards.

An advocacy group self-dubbed the Harry Potter Alliance has written a letter to the studio behind the Potter films, NBC Universal and Time-Warner asking them to make sure that the chocolate sold in the Harry Potter wrappers meets Time-Warners’ own ethical sourcing guidelines, with copies to Potter author J.K. Rowling, the corporations behind the theme park, and more.

The Harry Potter Alliance has also asked its members, over 100,000 in 70 chapters around the world, to support this initiative by uploading a video on the subject to CNN’s anti-slavery Freedom Project and by purchasing fair trade chocolate and sending the wrappers to Time-Warner.

Evanna Lynch, who plays Harry’s classmate Luna Lovegood, has signed the Alliance’s petition and made a statement in support of the campaign.  Three other actors from the cast signed on this week.

Warner Brothers has agreed to work with the Alliance and assured them that their ethical sourcing guidelines are included as a part of every licensing agreement.  In the US, most of the Harry Potter chocolate is sold in the theme park through a re-license arrangement, and their candy is a tiny fraction of the non-fair trade chocolate sold each year, so their involvement is limited.  But their profile is high and their interest in the brand is strong, which makes them a good target for this campaign.

Harry Potter Alliance director Andrew Slack told me that Warners is “a cut above” the other companies.  He is optimistic about making progress and Warner Consumer Products confirmed to me that they are working toward a solution.  In the meantime, there are a few lessons to be learned about licensing risk.

1. Using an established name or brand to sell your product can leave you open for a judo-like upset, using your own strength against you.  The chocolate companies and theme park paid for a license because they thought the Potter name would help sell chocolate.  The boost the candy got from the name may be overtaken by the reputational hit the name gets from selling the candy. My favorite brand expert is Jonathan Baskin (he’s also my cousin), who says, “This illustrates the complexity of translating an imaginary idea into a concrete product or service. I can’t imagine that the short-term upside outweighs the risks.”

2. “Guidelines” are easy to agree to and difficult to enforce.  Time-Warner may have an excellent ethical sourcing policy for its own products, but insisting on non-enforceable guidelines for licensees without any effort to check independent third-party assessments leaves them vulnerable to this kind of bad publicity.

3. The group that is making the most effective use of the Potter name is the one that did not enter into a license or pay a fee — the Harry Potter Alliance.  It has no official connection to the J.K. Rowling trademarked properties but it has been named a “fan site of the month” by her website and she has spoken approvingly of its activities.  Just as the wizards in the Potter books can’t match the healing properties of the muggle chocolates, businesses who think they understand the best use of brands have a lot to learn from the amateurs on this one.