Hollywood’s Leading Geek

In August 1970, around 300 people gathered in the basement of the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego for an event called the Golden State Comic-Con. As 300-person groups go, these people were not as cool as, say, the 300 Spartan warriors who took on the entire Persian Army during the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., about whom more in a minute.

These were Hobbit-ish hobbyists, fans of science fiction and fantasy and comic books; they were people accustomed to caring too much about popular entertainments that had ceased to be particularly popular. Collectors, enthusiasts, keepers of obscure flames. Geeks. Even the famous people who made guest appearances that year were pretty geeky — the science-fiction novelists Ray Bradbury and A. E. van Vogt were there, and the comics artist Jack Kirby, and Forrest J. Ackerman, the longtime editor of the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland.

This became an annual event. It was renamed the San Diego Comic-Con a few years later, and then it became San Diego Comic-Con International, although by that time it was also known informally as the Nerd Prom. And for decades, it belonged to geeks alone. Even the people who came to sell things — pristinely polybagged comic books, replica phasers, discontinued Pez dispensers in the original packaging — were basically just addicts who also dealt. And it went on like this until the dawn of the 21st century, when Hollywood showed up and took over.

What actually, technically happened was that in 2001, the first of Peter Jackson’s three “Lord of the Rings” movies brought in more than $66 million over its opening weekend. Jackson wasn’t just some clock-punching get-the-thing-shot movie director; he was a serious J.R.R. Tolkien fan who made the “Rings” movies with a fan’s attention to detail and a fan’s unwillingness to mess with Tolkien’s text. So he crammed as much of the books on the screen as humanly possible. (All those orcs, all that walking.) Fans noticed. Fans appreciated it. And studios began to see that the geeks were out there, eager to spend money on movie tickets, feeling underserved and ready to be wooed. So the studios followed the geeks to Comic-Con.

These days Comic-Con is like a pop-culture auto show — it’s where an industry rolls out glimpses of new product in order to hype it to, and beta-test it on, an audience of superenthusiasts before unleashing it on the wider world. The appeal is pretty obvious: if you’ve got a movie to sell, you can either send a researcher out to the mall to buttonhole shoppers in between the Footaction and the Mrs. Fields, or you can catch a flight down to San Diego and go to a place where the collective response to, say, the image of Ryan Reynolds dressed as Green Lantern can be not just gauged but practically applause-metered. And in an age of hyperengaged niche fandom — when a scathing blog post about costume designs visible for half a second in a leaked trailer can have as much effect on a film’s buzz as the kind of marketing studios can actually control — it pays to make the geeks feel loved. So the movie people go down to San Diego, taking exclusive advance teases of movies they’ve invested millions in creating, and they breathe the vapors of the San Diego Convention Center’s cavernous Hall H, where the big movie presentations happen, and they witness the excitement of the fans gathered therein, and they in turn get a little excited themselves.
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MARCH 15, 2011

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This leads to weird spectacles. For example: Kenneth Branagh, who once declined to be made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, genuflecting before an audience of dudes in Punisher T-shirts, as if to suggest that while he was making all those fancy Shakespeare adaptations, what he really wanted to do was direct a movie based on the Mighty Thor. But in the era of geek cinema, you have to be able to sell yourself to Hall H, and to the vast virtual Hall H that flourishes in the comments sections of a thousand movie-nerd Web sites. You have to convince them that you Get It.

The short list of directors presumed, by the geek establishment, to Get It: Peter Jackson; Guillermo Del Toro (“Hellboy”); Christopher Nolan (“Inception,” “The Dark Knight”); Jon Favreau, who directed two hit movies based on Marvel Comics’ Iron Man; and Joss Whedon, creator of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” who so famously Gets It that Marvel Studios threw him the keys to 2012’s superhero team-up extravaganza “The Avengers,” even though he has directed only one feature film.

And then there’s Zack Snyder, who is 45, was born in Green Bay, Wis., and may be the purest geek-auteur of the geek-film era.

Many of the directors on the geek A-list came by their cred elsewhere, through nongeek channels, like playing Monica’s boyfriend on “Friends.” Snyder is a native son of the geekverse. He’s a consummate action stylist who fills his frames with beautifully orchestrated mayhem — blood splatter, flying glass and billowing flames, often photographed in the kind of slow motion people associate with the moments immediately before and after a car wreck. But his clout really stems from his ability to speak geek culture’s language, both aesthetically and promotionally, and his fearlessness about working on that culture’s holiest ground, whether he’s remaking a zombie movie that geeks believe to be George Romero’s finest hour (“Dawn of the Dead,” 2004) or adapting graphic novels by comicdom’s most esteemed creators (“300” in 2006, and “ Watchmen” in 2009.)

He is, in short, a guy who blows minds in Hall H for a living.

“I always tell my kids, ‘Oh, I’m famous in one place in the world,’ ” Snyder says. “I’m marginally famous in the rest of the world, but in San Diego, one week out of the year, I’m famous.”

One thing that’s interesting about Zack Snyder is that he doesn’t come across, in person, as particularly geeky. He’s handsome, like the actor Bradley Cooper, and compactly buff. Which is not to say that Snyder isn’t also, for example, the kind of inveterate nerd who would proudly own a life-size replica of Han Solo frozen in a slab of carbonite. He is, and he does. (It was a gift from his mother.) But no matter how hard you look, you won’t find poor frozen Han anywhere in his house in the hills above Pasadena — a really nice glass-and-redwood post-and-beam job, built in the mid-’60s by the architect Mortimer J. Matthews — which Snyder shares with four of his six children and his wife, Deborah, a producer on his last four films. Because while Snyder is the kind of guy who owns a thing like that, he’s not the kind of guy who then hangs it over the fireplace.

“I like to think I have an evolved aesthetic,” he says. “Except in certain areas of my life.”

He means the movies. The latest one, “Sucker Punch,” opening this week, is the first film he has made that isn’t based on some pre-existing property with its own geeky cargo-cult. But it’s so steeped in fetishistic geek-culture imagery — dragons, jet packs, steampunk robots, women in schoolgirl outfits fighting giant stone samurai — that it plays as if it’s based on a thousand of them.

In a way, Snyder was destined to make movies like this. He was raised Christian Scientist in Greenwich, Conn., and attended the religious Daycroft School, where his mother taught photography. But when he was 10, he encountered the illustrated science-fiction/fantasy anthology magazine Heavy Metal, under whose covers — typically adorned with some trippy alien vista straight off an old Yes album cover — men with spears rode prehistoric beasts to adventures involving copious amounts of nudity and gore. Heavy Metal did more to forge common cause between comic-book nerds and stoners than anything this side of Dungeons and Dragons; Snyder’s life was immediately, and productively, derailed. “My aesthetic got kinda warped,” he says.

He later studied painting in England for a year, then filmmaking at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where his classmates included the future summer-movie explosionologist Michael Bay. He went on to become a successful director-cameraman whose commercial credits included spots for Budweiser, Nike, Visa and a 1997 Jeep spot in which outdoorsy types on adjacent buttes play an offroad-vehicle-assisted game of Frisbee, which won him a Clio. Finally, in 2003, he was hired to direct the remake of “Dawn of the Dead.” The studio chose him, he says, expecting an update of the George Romero zombies-in-the-mall original that would be slick and polished, like the TV ads on his reel. Snyder wanted to make a smarter genre movie. He shot the film in high-contrast candy-box color and scored it with music by Johnny Cash, the punk poet Jim Carroll and the ironic comedy-lounge singer Richard Cheese. The studio wasn’t upset by this, Snyder says, but it was confused. (The film, which cost around $28 million to make, ended up grossing more than $58 million; this also did not upset the studio.)

And geeks loved it. “It didn’t replace the original in the hearts of geeks, but it didn’t make geek culture angry at him, and I can’t stress how amazing that is,” says Harry Knowles, founder of the pioneering geek-cinema Web site Ain’t It Cool News. “You really don’t get more precious, for hard-line geek culture, than ‘Dawn of the Dead.’ It’s the Holy Grail, y’know? And here’s this music-video director remaking it — but he doesn’t really do a remake. He makes a really great zombie film that was its own thing.”