It’s 10 a.m. and a packed audience booms back its approval as warm-up comic Eric Artell gears up to introducing Zachary Levi, the man responsible for the next four days of gaming demos, artist merchandise, dance parties, photo ops, and live-streamed, unmoderated Q&As with geek-themed TV and film casts, and Con luminaries like William Shatner, Nathan Fillion, Joss Whedon, and Bryan Cranston [Update: who did this].
Levi walks onstage to cheers and hollering, his kinetic warmth and comic timing setting the tone. “At the end of the day, you guys are the producers,” he says, gesturing to the crowd. “We get to do this stuff, because you want to buy this shit!” The audience roars.
Levi, 36, is best known for his star turn in NBC’s Chuck as a socially-awkward computer geek who bumbles his way into espionage, and the voice of scrappy thief Flynn Rider in the animated Disney film Tangled. This summer, he is producing and hosting the Syfy game show Geeks Who Drink, which premieres July 16, and stars in NBC’s Heroes Reborn this fall. He spends the next hour seated in a chair, answering questions from giggling fans about his favorite roles and creative process, teasing upcoming projects, and detouring on self-effacing bits. At one point, he holds up some artwork a fan has drawn for him. “I love being on my toes and not knowing what questions are coming,” he tells them.
This is Nerd HQ, the live event and philanthropic division of geek culture company Nerd Machine that’s running through Sunday. Now in its fifth year, the event has come into its own, with more strategic partnerships with AMD gaming technologies and IGN entertainment site, plus new digs at The New Children’s Museum, a soaring steel and glass structure opposite San Diego Comic-Con.
Admission is free, celebrity panels are kept intimate and inexpensive—about 200 people and $22 a session—with proceeds going to Operation Smile, which provides free surgery for children with cleft lips and palates in developing nations. So far, Nerd Machine has raised over $700,000 for the charity, while facilitating greater interaction between celebrities and fans.
“Growing up, I was playing video games and reading comics,” says Levi. “I was the actor, not the athlete. I identified with nerd culture. This was before the geek chic of the last 10 years, so I got plenty of ridicule. I’m also such a believer in fan interaction—the way it is in theater, with actors and audience feeding off each other’s energy. It’s the same supporting a TV show. It’s so important that have opportunities for those connective experiences and to make them as awesome as possible.”
Participants have also quickly grasped the value. “This was our first Nerd HQ and I love the format—the relaxed conversation and getting up close with people who really appreciate what you’re doing. It’s a genius set-up,” says Chris Cowan, executive producer of ABC’s Battlebots and head of unscripted television for Whalerock Industries.
“It’s getting harder to launch and sustain a brand, because the creative community has become more democratized,” he says. “ABC competes with YouTube for a generation that has more options. Building that relationship with fans has become more crucial, and Nerd HQ really expands our ability to do that.”
Levi made his first pilgrimage to Comic-Con to promote Chuck in 2007 and was instantly smitten.
“It was an incredible experience, but I look at things from the perspective of how can I improve upon something,” he says. At the time, “I didn’t feel there was a unifying brand for nerd culture, so I wanted to create a lifestyle brand around it.”
In the ensuing years, related actor/geek brand extension efforts have blossomed, each with its own spin: Chris Hardwick and Nerdist, a digital entertainment company; Seth Green’s partnership in Stoopid Buddy Studios animation collective; Ashley Eckstein’s Her Universe apparel line; and Felicia Day with Geek and Sundry, a digital geek community hub, among others.
Levi’s priorities are fan engagement and inspiration. “As far as the arts are concerned, the business of entertainment is a specific idea or brand,” he says. “We don’t live in a world where celebrity can be a giant question mark. Some people take the stance of the less that’s known, the more intriguing you are, but I’m of the opinion that technology and the Internet make things more intimate and connected. It would be folly not to embrace it. It’s a powerful tool for communication, and audiences are patrons of the arts. We keep making TV and movies if people support what we are making.
“I really wanted to create a place where 150,000 fans looking for some kind of interaction can also come together for a greater purpose, to help serve,” he adds. “I believe you can have a thriving business while also being philanthropic. That was the impetus for Nerd Machine.”
Levi partnered with Chuck prop master David Coleman, who’d had an apparel brand at one point. They worked up the Nerd logo, which they wore on T-shirts to the 2010 Comic-Con to enthusiastic response. That was the litmus test he needed to expand it into a small line of merchandise. The multi-year waiting list for a convention floor booth prompted exploration into off-site venues.
“By then, you were starting to see off-site pop-up events around San Diego,” says Levi. “I initially had the idea to rent a bar or restaurant for a day, set up a table, sell merchandise, sign autographs, pose for pictures, then have a party that night. The whole idea was to incentivize people to come in and buy, and build a brand. The next day I called Dave and said, ‘At least let’s do two days.’ The next day, I said, ‘We’re doing all four days.’ He’s like, `What are you talking about?’ He’s the rational one. But by then, my brain was just going, `What could we do?’ “
The effort faced considerable challenges in its development. The first two years, Levi made back most of what he fronted himself through sponsorships and partnerships. “I was willing to take that risk, assuming the event would be successful in time,” he says.
The third year, they stumbled when some sponsors fell out at the last minute and Levi was faced with self-funding the difference or pulling the plug and losing momentum for future attempts. “I said, ‘I’d rather lose a little more money and still raise some money for Operation Smile. If not, it probably would have been the end, so we powered through and ended up topping the previous years in impact and panelists.”
The fourth year, Levi and Coleman tried to circumvent the previous year’s financial debacle with a crowdfunding campaign. It was moderately successful, but generated a backlash. “People accused us of asking fans to pay for my private celebrity party,” says Levi. “There were very specific haters out there who wanted to spread misinformation. We tried to combat that with love, honesty, and correcting the misinformation, but it was really hard. That experience broke my heart, but at the end of the day, you just keep marching forward.”
What kept Levi’s faith was—despite the hurdles—watching his vision manifest. Panels became fandom mash-ups: The Avenger’s Tom Hiddleston quoting French philosophy before being asked to do an impression of a velociraptor. Game of Thrones’ Richard Madden holding court with Dr. Who’s Jenna Coleman bursting in the door and running onstage.
“Dr. Who alongside the King in the North—I don’t know where else that crossover exists,” says Levi. “Panels get to do whatever they want, and things magically transpire. It’s TED talks meets Inside the Actor’s Studio meets Between Two Ferns. You can’t manufacture that.”