Americans are interested in seeing the nerd in his or her natural habitat.
Documentarian Morgan Spurlock is finding that to be true as he traverses the USA and shows audiences his latest film Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope (now in theaters and available on VOD), which follows different people at the huge pop-culture convention that invades San Diego every July.
"You start to realize that the more people who see this film, the more people who suddenly go, 'Oh my God, I am a geek,' " Spurlock says, laughing. "There are geek epiphanies happening all across America.''
Comic-Con Episode IV— a riff on the more recent parlance used for George Lucas' original Star Wars film — features interviews with such geek luminaries as filmmaker Kevin Smith, The Avengers director Joss Whedon and comic-book celebrities Stan Lee, Joe Quesada, Grant Morrison and Frank Miller.
Yet there are regular folks, too, whose journeys Spurlock chronicles, including a pair of artists who are trying to break into comics, a game-inspired costumer hoping to win the convention's infamous Masquerade, and an older comic-book store owner who has seen Comic-Con become a massive event for movies and TV from the once smallish meeting for comic lovers.
Spurlock had sent out a wide casting call for people to film at the 2010 Comic-Con and received around 2,000 submissions from across the globe. Spurlock and his team narrowed the field to the 10 he followed for the week they filmed. (The DVD will feature people who didn't make the final cut, as well as interviews with nerd-friendly stars Felicia Day, Ron Perlman, Nathan Fillion and Zachary Quinto.)
The story he felt the closest to turned out to be that of James Darling and Se Young Kang, a couple who had met at the previous year's gathering. Darling's mission was to propose to his girlfriend at Comic-Con during Smith's panel in the 6,500-seat Hall H auditorium, where Spurlock captured the moment with seven cameramen.
"You have no second take — you have no chance to do it again," Spurlock says. "You're in those moments and you're like, 'Please just let this be good.' And then you get back to edit it and you're getting chills just like you did the first time you were there shooting it.''
Spurlock, who was tempted to film Comic-Con properly after going in 2009 to find Simpsons super-fans for the cartoon's 20th anniversary special, brought the largest group he's ever used on a film for A Fan's Hope: 150 people and 15 full camera crews.
And unlike his previous films such as Super Size Me and The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Spurlock stayed completely off camera and made the people he followed the true stars. "As much as I'm a fan, I didn't want it to be about me as a fan going to make a movie."
Spurlock's own "geek epiphany" happened as a 6-year-old, when he would watch The Electric Company and its live-action Spider-Man. Lee did the voice-overs, Spurlock says, which caused him to start reading Marvel comic books such as The Amazing Spider-Man, The Avengers, Uncanny X-Men and Thor.
As a fanboy himself, Spurlock went into A Fan's Hope with an air of respect for geek culture and refrained from depicting the convention as a freak show of people dressed up as superheroes and Japanese manga characters.
"The film does a great job of humanizing these people," he says. "The film is incredibly funny, and you may be laughing at certain scenes but you're never really laughing at somebody. It's never ridicule, and for me that's what makes the film really work.