LOS ANGELES -- Sometimes you just can't wait for Comic-Con -- whether you're a fan or a filmmaker.
With the summer movie season now beginning in early May ("Iron Man 3" opens Friday), studios are co-opting the July pop-culture convention's model of stoking interest in anticipated films by bringing sneak-peeks of new material directly to super fans, who then, it is hoped, spread their enthusiasm via word-of-mouth and social media.
For "Star Trek: Into Darkness," which opens May 17, Paramount shared early photos and videos with Trekkies devoted enough to download an iPhone or Android app. Other aspiring blockbusters, including Disney's "The Lone Ranger" and Sony's "Elysium," were subjects of their own individual Comic-Con-style events recently: Studios invited fans to local theaters, where they heard directly from the films' stars and were the first to see the action-packed trailers and other select scenes.
Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer took questions from fans at "The Lone Ranger" event in Las Vegas in a segment streamed live online. Matt Damon and "District 9" writer-director Neill Blomkamp participated in the "Elysium" showcase, held simultaneously in theaters in Los Angeles and Berlin. Only those who regularly follow the films online find out about such special events.
Studios value the approach because it allows them to reward devoted fans while building early buzz for their films. It also circumvents, in a way, the more traditional method of staging promotional events for entertainment media and then depending on those outlets to spread the news to fans.
There are no better ambassadors to get word-of-mouth going," said Marc Weinstock, Sony's co-president of worldwide marketing. "Movies are such a viral thing."
Asad Ayaz, senior vice president of marketing for Disney, said one aim of "The Lone Ranger" Las Vegas event last month was to generate as much international interest as possible in the film's trailer, which made its public debut there. Fans from as far away as China submitted questions for Depp, Hammer, director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Bruckheimer via Twitter during the online broadcast.
One wanted to know what other characters Depp wants to play.
"Carol Channing," the actor said. "I mean that. She's fantastic ... Another guy that I would love to do the life story of is Don Rickles, which I don't know if he's well-known in China."
Such starry mini-screenings can help raise a film's social-media profile in the crowded summer marketplace, Ayaz said.
"When we did our event for 'The Lone Ranger,' 'Lone Ranger' was trending on Twitter worldwide and in the U.S. for several hours during and after the event, and that's because of fans tweeting," he said. "It's all about getting eyeballs on our trailer and getting people to see this amazing film, so the social-media aspect just makes it. It's a giant halo and it spreads the word."
"The Lone Ranger" opens July 3.
Weinstock said the positive Twitter response to the "Elysium" event was just what the studio had hoped for.
The film's writer-director, though, confessed that he'd rather keep its content under wraps until the movie opens in August, but that's not the way the marketplace works.
"I try to show as little as I can," Blomkamp told reporters after the fan screening. "The thing is, if you're a responsible, functioning filmmaker in the 21st century, you can't spend $100 million and then try to behave as though you're going to wrap it under a blanket ... Rationally, I understand that people have to get to know about the film and word has to get out there. Personally, I don't really like it."
Not all film marketing experts are sold on the ultimate value of fan events. Ben Carlson, president of market tracking firm Fizziology, believes the biggest social-media boost still comes from online trailer releases.
"As soon as you put a good trailer out, it almost immediately becomes a trending topic on Twitter," he said, adding that in-person showcases like those held by Disney and Sony don't have the same social media impact.
"It's more for the influential film bloggers. It does some nice heavy-lifting there," he said. "I don't think the mainstream moviegoer who might be in Kansas City or Memphis or Helena, Mont., is going to necessarily be paying attention to what's happening at an event with a few thousand people, but they will read about it on Ain't It Cool News."
Carlson said the trailer for another anticipated summer release, Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim," premiered for a group of fans before making its online debut, and it was the latter that resulted in a palpable Twitter bump.
"Instantly thousands and thousands of people were talking about it, and that's without any kind of special push to it at all," he said. "People just love the content."
Still, in a hyper-saturated media world, there's something about being the first to see something really cool, never mind seeing movie stars like Depp and Damon in person. Disney's Ayaz said he expects the studio to hold fan-focused events for future "tent pole" releases such as "Thor," "Captain America" and "Maleficent." Sony previously held an event for "The Amazing Spider-Man," and is releasing the sequel next year.
"People are more distracted than ever before and they have a lot of different mediums to get access to our content, and what is more basic and more powerful than having a live event where you have your creative (people) -- the actual filmmakers and the actors and the talent from your film -- directly answering questions and showing their work to the fans?" Ayaz said. "It's a basic idea but it's still one of the most powerful ideas when you've got the goods and you've got a really good movie."
"The Lone Ranger": http://disney.go.com/the-lone-ranger/
"Star Trek: Into Darkness": http://www.startrekmovie.com/
"Pacific Rim": http://www.pacificrimmovie.net/