The gigantic, annual pop culture convention Comic-Con can be many things: amazing, exciting, insane, overhyped, controversial . . . and heartbreaking. As Clive Young's terrific new book Homemade Hollywood reveals, a controversy over fan films at the Con almost destroyed aspiring filmmaker Sandy Collora's career. Collora wowed the 2003 Con with his $30,000, ultra-dark Batman reboot called Batman: Dead End — a year before Warner Bros. made the franchise officially darker with Batman Begins. He was on the brink of stardom, had a possible production deal with Guillermo "Hellboy" del Toro, and then he lost everything at Comic-Con 2004.
Young, whose book chronicles the history of fan films from the early twentieth century through the present, recounts Collora's story as a pivotal moment in fan filmmaking. Collora had had some success as a concept designer in Hollywood, working on the Predator movies, The Crow, and Jurassic Park, but he wanted to break in as a director. He decided to do it by making what was basically the first big-budget fan film. For $30,000, he got professional actors (including Josh Koenig, AKA Boner from Growing Pains), professional editors and costume designers, and did a four-day shoot that resulted in a seriously action-packed fight between Batman, the Joker, and (surprise!) alien and predator.
When Collora showed it at Comic-Con 2003, fans went nuts, and it got endorsements from geek gods Kevin "Chasing Amy" Smith and comic book artist Alex Ross, as well as the crew at movie alpha-geek site Ain't It Cool News. Despite the fact that it used copyrighted characters from DC Comics and Warners, the two houses declined to issue any cease-and-desists. Collora wasn't making money on the movie, and apparently the execs had decided they liked getting fans excited about their characters.
As his notoriety took off, Collora planned an even bigger film for Comic-Con 2004. His money was running out, but he was sure he was about to get a production deal with a studio and all he needed was to stay in the public eye. He poured the rest of his cash — $12,000 — into making a movie based on the comic series World's Finest, including Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and others. The plot was intriguing, with hints that super-villain Lex Luthor's LexCorp was making underhanded deals with Batman's Wayne Enterprises. Collora knew if he could get this flick in front of the fans and media at Comic-Con, he'd get a real movie deal.
Spurred by his success with Dead End in 2003, several other big-budget fan films (many about Batman) were slated to share the bill with World's Finest during the fan film show. But then, just a month before Comic-Con was set to begin in July, the convention abruptly canceled. No fan films would be allowed at Comic-Con.
San Diego Comic-Con was scrapping its fan film program; organizers had been contacted by the legal department of Warner Brothers . . . David Glanzer, director of marketing and public relations for Comic-Con, explained to Comics2Film, "Comic-Con International received a letter in early June from Warner Brothers requesting that we honor their intellectual copyrights by not screening films which may infringe upon those copyrights. Needless to say, we have complied."
Apparently Warners had decided to issue this ultimatum after consulting with one of Collora's rival fan filmmakers, Aaron Schoenke, a college intern at Sony Studios who had made a fan movie called Batman: Dark Justice. Schoenke's movie would also not be shown at Comic-Con 2004, but that didn't stop Schoenke from claiming that Warners had privately told him the problem was that Comic-Con was making money by showing the fan films. Therefore the convention was benefiting vicariously from the studio's intellectual property.
Still, Warners never made a direct statement, and Young is rightly skeptical of whether Schoenke really had been given the authority to speak for the company in this matter. Sadly, if Comic-Con had wanted to stand its ground it could have. All they would have had to do is make the fan film presentation free to the public. And Collora's World's Finest could have gotten the exposure he hoped for. Instead of the fan adulation he'd gotten in 2003, Collora was tailed around Comic-Con 2004 by a Warners representative who was there to prevent him from handing out any promotional material related to World's Finest.
Collora's offers from Hollywood dried up. He suffered a near-fatal car crash, and it took him months to recover. At last, however, he's able to see his experience in perspective. He told Silvererbulletcomics:
To be blatantly honest, for some reason, it just didn't happen for me. I tried harder than anyone I know, but no one would actually pull the trigger and give me a job, so now I'm doing it myself.
And that's the happy ending to this story. Despite Comic-Con letting the fan filmmakers down in 2004, Collora is back on his feet. He's in the middle of making an indie film called Hunter Prey, which Young describes as a "low-budget, scifi/horror feature pitting intergalactic military against creepy monsters, set to be shot in Mexico." Below, you can see him on the shoot. If anybody can make it happen, Collora can.
This is just one of the cool, revealing tales that make Clive Young's book Homemade Hollywood an absolute pleasure to read. If you're interested in fan movies, or the subterranean world of Hollywood, it's a must-read. It's coming out in the next month, so pre-order your copy while it's hot!