“Welcome to Star Dreck, everybody,” comedian Matt Mira tells the crowd at NerdMelt Showroom, a theater inside Meltdown Comics & Collectibles on Los Angeles’s Sunset Strip. For 90 minutes, Mira and two stand-up colleagues riff on the minutiae of Star Trek. Someone cracks a joke about Michael Bay directing the next film in the series, and the fans, who paid $8 to $10 for tickets, shriek in horror. Near the end of the set, a comedian says, “You know, what we’re doing right now is exactly what all high school quarterbacks think we do.”
Peter Levin, chief executive officer of Nerdist Industries, the multimedia content producer that feeds off of pop culture obsessions, observes the scene from the back of the room. The comedian and actor Chris Hardwick is the founder and public face of Nerdist, but it’s Levin, the company’s 43-year-old head, who’s been building the business side since he started in 2011. Along with nightly NerdMelt events and a podcast Hardwick began producing in 2008, there’s now a Nerdist podcast network with 23 weekly shows featuring fanatics such as food personality Alton Brown, a YouTube (GOOG) channel with nearly half a million subscribers, two daily e-mail newsletters, a pair of Nerdist television programs (The Nerdist on BBC America and Talking Dead on AMC (AMCX)), and three more in the works, including a Hardwick-helmed late-night show for Comedy Central. “Two years ago, Chris had a very popular blog and Twitter handle and a podcast,” says Hardwick’s manager, Alex Murray. “But Peter has made it into a multimillion-dollar business.”
Last summer, Legendary Entertainment, the production company behind the Dark Knight and Hangover franchises, acquired Nerdist for an undisclosed amount (Levin says the details are “locked away in contractual matters”), making Levin and Hardwick co-presidents of its digital division. It was major industry news, proof that Hollywood was embracing new media paradigms. “There are movie screens and computer screens and iPads, and in the immediate term, they are converging,” says Martin Willhite, Legendary’s general counsel. “Nerdist runs autonomously from us, and watching it gives us a better feel for consumption patterns, for what works and what doesn’t. It’s a valuable way of playing in the evolving digital space.”
The way Levin sees it, being a geek simply means loving an entertainment property enough to want to learn about it, discuss it, and buy products related to it in as many different ways as possible. That’s where Nerdist comes in: Through its various media, it’s providing companion pieces to franchises people already spend their time and money on. “I don’t think we pander to it. It’s more that we celebrate the space,” he says. “But in our world, if you don’t have that fanboy street cred, you’re dead in the water.”
The best way to understand Levin, says Hardwick, is to visit his office at Nerdist’s headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif. “It looks like a freakin’ toy store,” Hardwick says. There’s a life-size battle helmet from the video game Halo on Levin’s desk, alongside a coffee mug in the shape of the obscure Marvel supervillain Modok. Hanging on the walls are dozens of action figures in their original packaging. According to Hardwick, Levin’s action figure collection is so extensive that his wife made him rent a storage unit to house it.
“I would describe Peter lovingly as a serial entrepreneur,” says Peter Guber, chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Group, who’s invested in several of Levin’s ventures. At 19, Levin started in the mailroom at the Creative Artists Agency; he followed its co-founder, Michael Ovitz, to Disney (DIS), where he worked in corporate strategy and digital media. Later, as managing director of the venture capital firm Lynx Technologies, he helped lead early investments in companies such as Applied Semantics, GameSpy.com, and Ask.com (IACI). “He has a discreet eye to what is important and enough insanity in him to not be afraid to take risks,” Guber says. Levin began representing mixed martial arts fighters, back in 2001, “when people still saw MMA as cockfighting,” Levin says.
After working as the business agent for Deadline Hollywood Daily during the online magazine’s multimillion-dollar sale to Mail.com Media in 2009, Levin became intrigued by the success of e-mail newsletters such as DailyCandy and Thrillist. “I realized there wasn’t anything giving me my favorite page of my favorite magazine every morning,” he says. So in October of that year he co-founded GeekChicDaily, a free daily pop culture newsletter, with Guber and Gareb Shamus, CEO of publishing and production company Wizard Entertainment. GeekChicDaily was able to raise $2 million from Internet entrepreneur Mike Slade and film producer Joe Roth. (Shamus, who resigned from Wizard in 2011, “has not been involved in [GeekChicDaily] in any capacity for a long time,” Levin says.)
Along the way, Levin met Hardwick. Best known as Jenny McCarthy’s co-host on the 1990s dating show Singled Out, Hardwick had found a niche audience for his show on G4 TV, Web Soup, and his Nerdist podcast, which featured him and his buddies talking about their quirky pop culture interests. “Our mutant powers are different but complementary,” Hardwick says of Levin. “I am 80-20 creative-business, and he is 80-20 business-creative.” In June 2011 they joined forces, creating Nerdist Industries. GeekChicDaily became the Nerdist News daily e-mail, Hardwick became Nerdist’s chief creative officer, and Levin its CEO.
In May, Levin, in jeans and a dress shirt, spends the day driving around Los Angeles between meetings. First there’s a breakfast with Janice Min, Hollywood Reporter’s editorial director. Then there’s a pop-in at the Nerdist office to discuss Fanboy Armageddon, a TV quiz show Nerdist plans to shop around. After a presentation at YouTube’s Beverly Hills office, Levin has a private lunch with the programming head for TNT (TWX), TBS, and TCM. Finally, there’s a sit-down with Intel (INTC) representatives about the processor giant’s interest in getting Nerdist content on its soon-to-be-launched streaming-TV service.
Levin calls the Nerdist audience, which is 62 percent male, “alpha adopters, major cinephiles and mediaphiles.” They’re buying the latest smartphone, seeing the new blockbuster, and playing the video game tie-ins. Plus, he says, “Advertisers are very responsive to our model because it’s a qualified audience. If they subscribe to our newsletter, download one of our podcasts, or subscribe to our YouTube channel, they’re taking a step towards us. They are pulling in the messaging, rather than having it pushed upon them.”
There are many ways to pull in that messaging. Take the Course of the Force event, taking place this week, which Levin dreamed up after getting whacked one too many times by his son’s toy lightsaber. In its second year, the real-life relay race down the California coast takes place in the lead-up to the San Diego Comic-Con International. Entrants pay $150 to run with a lightsaber surrounded by costumed celebrities. Last month, YouTube released a series of funny videos promoting the event, news of which was quickly reported by a Nerdist News e-mail blast and a tweet to @Nerdist’s almost 2 million followers. Angry Birds even released special Course of the Force levels for the game. Ad revenue for Course of the Force is up five times from last year, with companies such as Qualcomm (QCOM), Samsung (005930:KS), and Ford (F) among the sponsors.
Levin and Hardwick both point out that Nerdist hasn’t grown according to a predetermined corporate plan. Hardwick’s Nerdist podcast simply led to other podcasts he believed shared the same mind-set. In 2011, Nerdist approached YouTube about producing a one-off show and learned that the website was looking to finance original-content channels. Levin concedes Nerdist’s YouTube offerings “started off in fits and starts” but adds that thanks to instantaneous feedback from commenters—get Conan O’Brien on your All Star Celebrity Bowling show!—they quickly made adjustments.
The Legendary deal has given Nerdist an even bigger platform. “Low-budget feature films are an area we are getting into aggressively,” says Levin, who doesn’t worry that his company’s quick growth might alienate its original fanboy base. “I think as long as we don’t become all things to all people, we are fine,” he says. “If I ever have to think about maintaining our street cred too much, it’s probably time to get into something else.”