By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Disney isn't bringing its Marvel ensemble to San Diego's annual Comic-Con International this year, but that doesn't mean film and comic book fans won't get a cavalcade of superheroes.
The biggest attraction of the four-day event, kicking off on Wednesday, is expected on Friday when Disney hosts a panel for its new "Star Wars" film "The Force Awakens".
The movie, the first of a new trilogy in one of the top grossing franchises of all time, is due for release worldwide in December.
The "Star Wars" panel is expected to serve up sneak peeks and a possible appearance by veteran cast member Harrison Ford, who has been unable to promote the film since the March crash of a vintage plane he was piloting.
No other major studios are hosting panels on Friday as the first new "Star Wars" movie in 10 years is likely to dominate the news.
What began as a cult gathering of comic book fans 35 years ago has become an increasingly important platform for Hollywood's film studios to promote their superhero and science-fiction film franchises, often up to a year ahead of their releases.
"Comic Con is absolutely central to what pop culture has become now because we're living in the age of superheroes," Sean Smith, executive editor of Entertainment Weekly said of the gathering, which draws more than 100,000 people to San Diego annually.
On Saturday, Warner Bros will showcase its "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" film, due for release in March 2016, with the full cast led by Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill being seen together for the first time.
Fans are also hoping for an appearance from the summer 2016 "Suicide Squad" movie, with an ensemble cast led by Will Smith and Jared Leto.
20th Century Fox is expected to present the cast of its superhero mutant franchise "X-Men: Apocalypse," due in theaters May 2016, and next February's R-rated anti-superhero movie "Deadpool" starring Ryan Reynolds.
This year, Disney's Marvel Studios, Sony Pictures and Paramount Pictures are sitting out the big Comic-Con panels, as none have relevant movies to promote.
"Studios make the decision that if they're going to Comic-Con, they have to bring their A-game," said Smith.
"If you don't come with something that's going to get people excited, it could actually backfire ... It's not cheap to make a splash at Comic-Con."
As Comic-Con has grown, it has spilled to the surrounding areas of the convention center, with studios and TV networks finding new ways to engage with fans.
Paramount, for example, is sponsoring pedi-cab rides for its upcoming horror comedy "Scout's Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse," in which people can be chased by zombies across the streets of San Diego, said Erik Davis, managing editor at movie reviews and ticketing site Fandango.
"Studios are making people aware of these movies by making them a part of the experience of the movie," Davis said.
(Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy, editing by Jill Serjeant and Christian Plumb)