Comic-Con has for the most part evolved from a fan event into a marketing event, where the bulk of the panels are designed to sell something, hype something, get the gears of the publicity machine churning.

That's what made the "Locke & Key" screening and panel on Friday morning so unusual - and cool. Here was a screening for a pilot that hadn't been picked up by its network, that was never going to air anywhere, and that comics publisher IDW had gotten special permission to show just because they wanted fans of the "Locke  & Key" comic to get a chance to see the work.

As the writer and lead producer of the pilot, Josh Friedman, put it before the screening, "I hope that we can not think about what could have been, but just appreciate what is, because what I think we have is pretty fantastic."

For those who don't know (and this was my first exposure to the material), "Locke & Key" is a modern haunted house story (in comics written by Joe Hill and drawn by Gabriel Rodriguez) about a new widow and her three children who move into the late father's sprawling family estate, which has a series of keys with special powers (in the pilot, the youngest son finds a key that can turn him into a ghost), a malevolent spirit and lots of other creepy things going on. And the pilot, written by Friedman, directed by Mark Romanek and starring, among others, Miranda Otto and Jesse McCartney, was a very effective bit of suspense and horror.

So why did FOX pass?

Producer Roberto Orci (one of the creators of "Fringe," among many high-profile movie and TV gigs) said that originally they were going to make it as a movie until Steven Spielberg suggested it would work better as an ongoing TV show, "And I guess we made a movie. And FOX told us that it was just an impressive little movie. And I guess they were skeptical about our ability to continue that movie. We were a victim of our own high standards."

There were also issues with how much story fits into a comic book versus a TV show. The pilot encapsulates the entire six-episode story arc that launched the comic, and Hill suggested that the existing comics might provide enough fuel for maybe 8 episodes of TV. Had FOX ordered the pilot to series, the plan would have been to mix in episodes based on events from the comics with other episodes where, according to Hill, "The keys would have operated something like the monsters in 'The X-Files.' You'd have the Key of the Week, and then every third or fourth episode, you'd go back to the source material."

(And that, as much as anything, seemed an obvious red flag. "Fringe" tried to do something similar in its early days and fans didn't respond well to Monster of the Week episodes. It was only when the show went hardcore serialized that it got good, and the audience by that point was very small.)

There's also the fact that FOX renewed "Fringe" and ordered the Spielberg-produced "Terra Nova" and the J.J. Abrams-produced "Alcatraz" (both involving time travel) to series, and that any one network - even FOX - can get away with programming only so many sci-fi series.

"There are apparently TV watchers who don't come to Comic-Con, who don't want to watch stuff that has keys and robots in it," said Hill. "I find these people disturbing, but presumably, their TV taste has to be catered to, too."

And Friedman, who spent two seasons running FOX's low-rated "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," defended the network (as I did a couple of months ago) against the rap that FOX cancels too many good shows (or, in some cases, too many shows with fanboy/girl appeal).

"FOX takes a lot of heat from this audience every year for all these shows," he said. "Sometimes I see people who say, 'I can't believe you're trying to do another show on Fox! What kind of fucking idiot are you?' And I say, 'Most shows do not get picked up, and most shows get canceled.' What I like about Fox, more than the other big networks, is that they take chances... Most genre shows, as we all know, get canceled. It's very hard to get a genre show on television. Fox does more genre shows. They've given us a lot more chances. I think they get berated year in and year out because it doesn't (always) work out."

At this point, it was becoming such a FOX love-in that Romanek piped in, "This is all too gracious. They should have fucking picked it up."

What was perhaps most interesting about all of this was that at no point did anyone on the panel try to exhort fans to write to other networks and cable channels to plead for them to pick "Locke & Key" up. When I'd heard that this panel was happening, I assumed it was going to be some kind of Hail Mary call to action, but the tone throughout was one of finality. (When a fan asked a hypothetical about what Friedman would have done had the show been picked up, Hill said, "One thing we should do is say the series is not being picked up.")

They just wanted people to see the pilot they worked so hard on, and based on the reaction of the small but packed room, the fans were very happy with what they saw, even as they couldn't help but think about what might have been.

Alan Sepinwall has been reviewing television since the mid-'90s, first for Tony Soprano's hometown paper, The Star-Ledger, and now for HitFix. His new book, "TV (The Book)" about the 100 greatest shows of all time, is available now. He can be reached at