Movies: Boys Who Like Toys

There's an unlikely new superpower in the world of film

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Columbia Pictures

Thomas Haden Church as Sandman and Tobey Maguire as Spiderman (left to right) seen here in a scene from the upcoming film SPIDERMAN 3.

He's one of the most powerful taste-makers in Hollywood, the guy behind the record-breaking success of 300, the hit status of NBC's Heroes and the reign of the Xbox 360 gaming console. He enjoys invitations to the Skywalker Ranch and hangs out with guys like Nicolas Cage and Quentin Tarantino at conventions. He's zealously loyal, notoriously finicky and often aggressive with those who dare to disagree with him.

Oh, and occasionally he likes to dress up as Spider-Man.

He is the fanboy, the typically geeky 16-to-34-year-old male (though there are some fangirls) whose slavish devotion to a pop-culture subject, like a comic-book character or a video game, drives him to blog, podcast, chat, share YouTube videos, go to comic-book conventions and, once in a while, see a movie on the subject of his obsession. And he's having his way with Hollywood.

Exhibit A is Transformers, the summer's most anticipated movie event that doesn't end in a number, in which the hero will be played by Peter Cullen, a Canadian voice actor familiar to the teensiest fraction of moviegoers. With Steven Spielberg producing and Michael Bay directing this $150 million effects-ravaganza about dueling alien robot races, the protagonist could have been Will Smith or magazine-cover bait like Justin Timberlake. But Cullen was the voice of the character Optimus Prime in the Transformers TV show, a treasured part of the canon for true fans. (If the phrase "robots in disguise" sets your toes atappin', you may be one of them).

These alpha fans are enjoying an unprecedented era of influence, through blogs, podcasts and movie-news sites that have become trusted sources of movie information for millions of filmgoers. And not just on casting decisions. "They're the new tastemakers," says Avi Arad, a producer behind this summer's Spider-Man 3 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. "Hard-core fans represent a small piece of the viewing public, but they influence geek culture, journalists, Wall Street. You don't want them to trash your project." If these fans embrace a project, as they did 300 and Heroes, they can kick-start a hit.

Who are they? Typically they're like John Campea, 35, of Toronto, who founded The Movie Blog as a hobby in 2003 while working at a visual-effects company, or Josh Tyler, 30, a design engineer from Dallas who has built an audience of 1 million for his site Cinemablend by being one of the more cleverly critical fanboys. (Of this summer's Bratz, he posted, "It's kind of like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants if the pants were a miniskirt worn without undergarments.") Or they're like Berge Garabedian, 33, of Montreal, who put his M.B.A. toward founding after critics trashed Armageddon, a movie he and all of his friends loved. They're guys who love--obsessively--certain types of movies. "There are a lot more people who identify with me, a film fan, than a film expert," says Campea. "I'm the guy who stands at the watercooler with everybody." The watercooler is getting crowded. Now Campea has so much traffic on his site that income from Google ads pays a decent salary for him and two other writers.

The phenomenon started long, long ago (1977) in a galaxy far, far away (San Diego) when a then little-known director named George Lucas attended an intimate comic-book convention to promote a movie called Star Wars. Lucas' films have since become a gateway drug for a generation of movie addicts. And Comic-Con, the San Diego convention of genre buffs, has become a Hollywood must-attend event, albeit one where dressing to impress means dry cleaning your Darth Vader costume. It's significant that this fanboy Christmas happens not in Hollywood but two hours south. The appeal of the species is that they're outsiders to the movie industry and are therefore able to retain a sense of awe about it. At the same time, they're outsiders in the real world, caring passionately about subjects most people shrug off--like who will play Spock in the 2008 Star Trek prequel. In search of kindred souls, they turn to the Web.

Comic-Con remains a force, especially for movies like 300, which has shocked the industry by grossing more than $450 million worldwide so far. Although it's based on a Frank Miller comic book, "it wasn't even on our radar," says JoBlo's Garabedian. He dispatched a couple of writers to check out the few minutes of footage that producers were showing at the conference in 2006. "The writers came back to our room, and they couldn't even talk." And just like that, the movie about the ancient Greek battle of Thermopylae with no stars and unusual stylized visuals became the talk of the convention. Six months later, it premiered at Butt-Numb-a-Thon, an Austin, Texas, film festival curated by Harry Knowles of Ain't It Cool News (AICN). Most mainstream media critics trounced it, but 60% of the males who bought tickets on opening weekend said they were drawn by seeing references to the movie on the Web, where readers of sites like Garabedian's and Knowles' were frenetically discussing it.

No one is really sure how many alpha fans there are. As the first movie-fan website to get a toehold, AICN has more traffic than the websites of established media like ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY or Variety. The top eight movie-fan websites have a total of 6 million to 8 million unique users a month. And unlike that of many news sites, which are weekday coffee-break reads, the fan sites' traffic peaks on weekends, when visitors are making decisions about what movies to see. Writer-director Kevin Smith, who has a top-rated podcast--and a Ms. Pac-Man machine!--believes fanboys deserve all the credit for the $26 million that Clerks II earned at the box office last year, five times what the film cost. "Had I not gotten onto the Internet in 1995, I doubt I'd still be working," he says. "You create personal relationships with these people who are essentially your employers." In a nod to his fan base, one of the characters in Clerks II is a 19-year-old Transformers-obsessed virgin.

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