Hollywood takes the Coaster south to San Diego this week every year in hopes of harnessing the obsessed fandom of science fiction and fantasy aficionados and translating it into huge box office grosses and television ratings. Everyone wants to land the next "Harry Potter" or "X-Files."
According to the writers and actors who tend to bear the brunt of that fandom, creating an audience of manic fans has less to do with monsters and magic than good stories that find the humanity in the inhuman.
Oh, and a little romance doesn’t hurt either.
“Being on a teen sci-fi show, for as much as I can break out my claws or fight bad guys, at the end of every episode, the Tweets are always, ‘So wait, what boy are you going to kiss next episode?’” said Skyler Samuels, the 17-year-old star of the ABC Family show "The Nine Lives of Chloe King."
Samuels, along with other actors and writers, sat on a panel about turning fans into a phenomenon at this year’s Comic-Con. In their experience, while fans may drool over cool props and enjoy arguing over whether titanium or stainless steel makes a better suit of armor, the stories that launch fan websites and prompt people to see films seven times have more to do with interesting stories and relatable characters.
"(My writing partner) and I were working on 'Thor,' we had Jotunheim and Asgard and earth and giants, frost giants and hammers, but at the end of the day if weren’t telling a story about two sons competing for their father’s love, there would have been nothing for our audience to plug into other than the spectacle, and I don’t think that’s enough,” said Zack Stentz, one of the screenplay writers for the recent movie "Thor." “It’s certainly not enough for an obsession.”
Mel Lowry agreed, and the fact that her opinion matters is a testament to how powerful fans in the science fiction and fantasy entertainment world have become a part of the production. The Internet has made it possible for fans to interact with stars and writers like never before. Lowry runs fan sites for the shows "Chuck" and "True Blood," and helped organize fans to save "Chuck" from cancellation several times.
“It has to be something that really captures the imagination. You want to live in there. You want to be a part of whatever the writers have made on screen,” she said. “But at the same time, there has to be a connection to the characters. You have to want to experience what they’re experiencing.”
Of course there is a downside to obsessive fans, and few people know that better than the actors and writers. Several writers on the panel acknowledge they go on message boards and interact with fans on Twitter, and don’t always like what they read. Allison Dubois, a real-life psychic who was the basis for the recently ended television show "Medium," said she’s had fans show up to book signings copying her hair style.
But Dubois said she appreciates that another reason people often foster a strong connection to shows with a supernatural bent is because they focus on characters who are different, and it helps them deal with their own feelings about not fitting in.
“I think a lot of people were able to relate to being different,” she said. “We all feel like we don’t belong at some point in our life. Mine was even more so maybe, and so it was nice that it drew people out to say, ‘Thanks for making me feel like I’m OK.’”
Overall, most of the actors and writers said they enjoy being part of something that fans obsess over. They said it gives them an experience the cast and crew of the average police procedural will never get.
“The bottom line, is telling stories about what matter to people and what keeps people human,” said Chase Masterson, an actress on 'Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.' “The next best thing is how widely we can share that. The fan loyalty is amazing. My show ended 12 years ago and it’s still happening.”
If Hollywood wants an inkling that they might have an obsessive hit on their hands, the first place to look for hints is probably in the writer’s room, where many Comic-Con attendees are probably working.
“We’re all fans ourselves, and if we’re excited, we figure people like us will be excited about it. too,” said Amy Berg, a co-executive producer for the SyFy show "Eureka." “You can really get a sense early on that if it’s got buzz in the room, then it can really have buzz with an audience.”