Nisha Gopalan
July 31, 2006 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Inside an auditorium packed with journalists, an effortlessly fashionable Kirsten Dunst held court on the subject of Spider-Man 3. Meanwhile, in the stifling, crowded hallway outside, a sweaty dude in full Stormtrooper regalia awkwardly negotiated how to hold his Imperial helmet while diving into a plate of radioactively colored cheese nachos. And that, friends, is San Diego’s Comic-Con gathering in a nutshell.

Mock them if you must, but the influence of this convention’s Web-savvy band of geeks is not lost on Hollywood. Comic-Con has exploded in the past two years — with enough megastars, big-time directors, executives (every major movie studio showed this year), and high-profile previews to rival even the largest film festivals. From Superman to Veronica Mars, the Church of Pop Culture was open for worship for five days in Southern California, and priests and followers alike were on display.

Some came prepared to wow, like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, who unspooled footage from Rodriguez’s half of their upcoming B-movie combo, Grindhouse. Their showing included a crowd-pleasing scene in which Rose McGowan’s amputated leg is pimped out with a full-size machine gun…a machine gun she then uses to kill zombies. Other exhibitors had a little more restraint. Disney managed to redeem an otherwise underwhelming presentation (that mainly consisted of limp Narnia DVD footage) with a few minutes from Pirates of the Caribbean 3, including never-before-seen scenes with Chow Yun-Fat as a swashbuckler. Paramount, on the other hand, arrived nearly sans celluloid, unveiling posters for the J.J. Abrams-produced Star Trek and Michael Bay’s Transformers. ”Everybody wants to see the robots,” says Transformers producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. ”They’re computer generated, so we’re not even going to see them until January or February.”

Among the other highly anticipated early-bird specials:

SPIDER-MAN 3
Sony brought along raw scenes from the sequel, which Tobey Maguire promised will offer ”some conclusions to those lingering story lines from the first two movies.” The screening was packed with fans, who salivated over footage of Topher Grace’s Eddie Brock (the alter ego of sharp-toothed villain Venom) imploring God to kill Peter Parker, and Spidey in a black spandex getup. But the real shocker came when director Sam Raimi told EW that Sony expects to make not just Spider-Man 4, but fifth and sixth installments as well. (No word on whether he’d direct or if Maguire would star.)

Next page: The scoop on Superman, Lost, Veronica Mars

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