SAN DIEGO Geeks, nerds, gamers, cosplayers, fanboys and fangirls - an estimated 130,000 of them - are expected to visit Comic-Con this weekend, an annual celebration of popular culture.
Fans cheerfully line up to crowd into panels featuring stars of superhero movies along with science-fiction and fantasy TV shows, as well as attending workshops on obscure subjects like "Klingon Lifestyles," and "Law and Forensic Psychiatry in a Zombie Apocalypse."
The throngs at Comic-Con, which began Thursday and runs through Sunday, are merely the more visible, colorful members of a much larger community. Consumers worldwide spent about $35 billion going to movies last year and $66 billion for video games, according to independent industry research, while television advertisers spent $162 billion.
Not all of that was spent on genre fare, but 20 of the 30 highest-grossing films of all-time fall into the science-fiction, fantasy or superhero niches. And some of today's most popular television series also take viewers into the realm of the unknown, including "Game of Thrones," "The Big Bang Theory," and "The Walking Dead."
Film, TV and game producers all visit Comic-Con in an effort to meet their audience and enhance their popularity but also to capture a share of those billions.
Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities who covers video games, digital media and electronics, explains that the geek demimonde is just one segment of the market for popular culture, but it is a vital one because it is where the next big thing starts.
"The studios use Comic-Con to test which concepts are uber-popular," he said. "It's not the fanboys who make films successful; they're just the early adopters. But the studios need that first mover to tell all their friends."
If Comic-Con attendees help make money for content providers, maybe it can work in reverse. The following are six stocks of companies involved in making genre movies, television shows and games that could be the building blocks of a fanboy and fangirl portfolio.
When it comes to gaming, it is far easier for companies to make money on software - selling games directly or collecting royalties - than on hardware, such as game consoles.
Pachter has an outperform rating on Activision Blizzard Inc, which publishes the beloved World of Warcraft online role-playing game, and Electronic Arts Inc, which focuses on team sports. He has price targets of $26 on EA and $22 on Activision, which closed at $24.16 and $15.58, respectively, on Thursday.
For Alan Gould, an entertainment industry analyst at Evercore Partners, "the ultimate fanboy stocks" would be Marvel and DC, overlords of the two main comic book universes and therefore the suppliers of fodder for summer after summer of Hollywood blockbusters. If you want to own a corner of either universe, however, you'll have to invest in their parent companies, Walt Disney Co and Time Warner Inc.
Disney has been making the most of its Marvel characters. "Iron Man 3" has been the biggest hit this year, earning $1.2 billion in global box office so far, according to Boxofficemojo.com, while its superhero ensemble piece "The Avengers," the top grosser of 2012, has taken in $1.5 billion. Time Warner has not done as well at the box office, but well enough. Its two recent DC-derived hits - "Man of Steel," which featured Superman and "The Dark Knight Rises," which featured Batman - have earned a combined $1.7 billion worldwide.
Gould has a buy rating on both stocks, with targets of $70 on Disney, which closed Thursday at $65.82, and $65 on Time Warner, which closed at $62.25.
Anyone interested in a fanboy pure play rather than a media conglomerate should consider Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. As the smallish studio behind the "Twilight," and "Hunger Games," film series, it may appeal more to fangirls. Gould rates Lions Gate a buy, even though its price, $32.07, is relatively close to his $34 target.
He also likes Twenty-First Century Fox Inc, which closed Thursday at $31.02, slightly below his $34 target. Fox is having a so-so year, but Gould expects business to pick up in 2014 and 2015, when sequels to the all-time box-office champ, "Avatar," are scheduled to be released.
Back at Comic-Con, panels on Friday for "Game of Thrones," a hit for the Time Warner subsidiary HBO, are expected to attract some of the longest lines at Comic-Con. Another one generating significant buzz is for "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," the ABC series due to debut in September that marks Disney's attempt to transfer "The Avengers," to the small screen.
As the entertainment industry tries to win hearts and minds, Pachter highlights an irony of Comic-Con and its influence: It's up to people once dismissed as outcasts to decide what's popular.
"I can't think of any other art form where people care what geeks think," Pachter said. Using what could be the most successful genre franchise ever as an example, he added: "'Star Trek' was a geek, fanboy TV series, then an amazing movie series. Some not-very-popular guys who dress up like Spock are the ones who keep it alive."
(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.)
(Editing by Lauren Young, G Crosse)