For four days each year, Tom Cruise, Quentin Tarantino and some of the biggest movie stars on the planet head to San Diego's Comic-Con International to get grilled by a goofy, somewhat dashing stand-up comedian named Chris Hardwick.
At this year's annual conference for more than 130,000 fans of comic books and genre movies, Mr. Hardwick will moderate panels on such topics as "Star Wars," "The Walking Dead" and Tarantino's new movie "The Hateful Eight."
Mr. Hardwick also uses his role at Comic-Con to promote Nerdist Industries, the four-year-old entertainment company he founded and leads. Nerdist runs a network of more than 30 podcasts, along with YouTube channels and a website beloved by fans of Marvel and "Game of Thrones." The company, owned by Thomas Tull's Legendary Entertainment, has tapped into the flourishing business of nerd culture, which has transformed Hollywood into a factory line of billion-dollar comic-book and fantasy franchises.
Mr. Hardwick and Nerdist president Adam Rymer are working to transform a business founded by fans into an enterprise that's itself part of the entertainment industry it venerates. Nerdist is developing its first TV series for NBC Universal's SyFy channel, based on the web series "Nerdist News," and release its first movie, "The Hive."
Nerdist has taken over a 30,000-square-foot space in San Diego's Petco Park baseball stadium, across from the main Comic- Con digs at the Convention Center, where it will showcase its growing ambitions. Mr. Hardwick will host a stand-up comedy show and two live podcasts at the nearby Balboa Theatre, and invite fans to play laser tag at Petco.
"You can only talk about other people's stuff so much before you want to get into the game and make things too," Mr. Hardwick said. "My vision for Nerdist has always been to create this self-sustaining bubble where we don't have to rely on any outside sources for anything."
If Mr. Hardwick gets his way, that bubble will expand from news and game shows to include comedy TV series, action shows and horror movies. Nerdist is developing TV pilots with a number of networks, shows that could feed videos back into Nerdist's online channels.
The expansion plans were made possible by Nerdist Industries' 2012 sale to Legendary, the producer of "The Dark Knight" and "Jurassic World." (Mr. Hardwick founded Nerdist in 2008 and merged it with GeekChicDaily in 2011 to form Nerdist Industries.)
Legendary has since acquired two more digital businesses, Amy Poehler's Smart Girls at the Party and Felicia Day's Geek & Sundry. Though revenue for the three is below $100 million, Rymer says Legendary's digital portfolio has more than doubled its sales in the past year.
Mr. Hardwick would like to promote more voices within his company, like "Nerdist News" host Jessica Chobot, so it is less reliant on him.
Nerdist could also move into a field its founder never expected: sports. A lifelong computer nerd, he's never seen eye to eye with jocks. But nerds are taking over sports too.
"Why not get someone to start covering fantasy sports or sports from a different perspective?" Mr. Hardwick said. "What we always say about nerd culture is, it's not what you like but how much you like it."
Nerdist is one of several sites present at Comic-Con. Collider, ScreenRant and SlashFilm have also built audiences by writing about Hollywood's sudden embrace of nerd culture.
The biggest hit on cable TV is "The Walking Dead," an AMC Networks show about zombies that draws tens of millions of viewers every week.
"Talking Dead," a talk show hosted by Hardwick that airs after each episode, averaged more than 6 million viewers this past season, and was in the top 10 in the 18-49 age group, according to AMC.
"We put Chris at the center of that because of his authenticity and pure passion as one of the fans," said Charlie Collier, president of AMC.
Nerdist is looking to produce more original series and build fan-centric programming around its own hits, rather than relying on others'.
The company has opened an office in Burbank, Calif., with sound stages, an editing room and a podcast studio. It has a deal to supply podcasts and short-form videos to Spotify.
"It's all a nascent business," Mr. Rymer said. "We have the respect and trust of our audience that lets us try all of these new things. There is a contingent of people that would put a Nerdist tattoo on their body and be part of our tribe."
~ Bloomberg News ~