When comedian and TV host Chris Hardwick started an audio podcast for comic book fans and other self-described nerds a couple of years ago, his pet project soon took on Hulk-like properties.
That project, called Nerdist Industries, has been on a rampage: adding newsletters, additional podcasts, a YouTube channel, a TV show and a live-events business. Its growth prompted one of its investors, “Dark Knight” trilogy producer Legendary Entertainment, to buy the company in July.
Now, the sprawling digital media empire based in Santa Monica is setting its sights on the next round of expansion by adding more TV shows and even movies to its portfolio.
Peter Levin, Hardwick’s partner and chief executive of Nerdist, said the idea is to create content on all platforms that appeal to a core audience of fanboys interested in everything from comic books and video games to sports to comedy.
“We’re trying to be Ryan Seacrest, if you will, for this audience,” Levin said. “We don’t pretend to be the ultimate resource for hard-core gaming or comic books. We’re more of a broad, fun cross-section.”
Nerdist took the leap into original video production this year with funding of about $1 million from Mountain View’s Google Inc. to launch its YouTube channel. Taking advantage of promotion from the podcasts and social media, the videos have already attracted legions of followers – and major advertisers.
The Nerdist channel, which features content such as celebrity bowling competitions and a puppet show with actor Neil Patrick Harris, had about 22 million video views as of Dec. 11. It was the 13th most popular original channel on YouTube for the week ended Dec. 5, according to L.A. digital marketing firm Blayze Inc., which ranked it just below the channel from gamer-focused digital production powerhouse Machinima in Hollywood.
Advertising revenues from YouTube aren’t yet having a large impact, Levin said, but the positive reception from fans has emboldened Nerdist, which has 11 full-time employees, to scale up its productions for both the Web and TV.
Ben Smith, founder of Blayze, said Nerdist is on the leading edge of companies discovering a real business model in the nascent field of online video.
“This is all unchartered territory for media companies,” he said. “Companies like Nerdist are blazing a trail.”
Hardwick launched the Nerdist website in 2008, seeing an opportunity to gain access to fans in-between his gigs on TV. He already had some name recognition from stints doing stand-up comedy and hosting shows such as MTV’s “Singled Out” in the 1990s. He currently hosts AMC’s “Talking Dead,” a recap show for the channel’s hit series “The Walking Dead.”
Following the lead of other comedians such as Adam Corolla and Doug Benson, Hardwick began recording podcasts in 2010 centered on his pop culture tastes, which include first-person shooter video game “Portal” and British science-fiction TV series “Doctor Who.”
“After having so many friends who were having fun doing podcasts, I said we can just talk about things we love, like being backstage at one of our comedy shows,” Hardwick said. “Digital culture (is) really a survival mechanism for comedians who need to find a way to get their voices to the world.”
The recordings soon became widely popular, though Hardwick’s one-man operation wasn’t making much money. Seeking a business partner, Hardwick cold-called Levin in 2010, whom he knew about through Levin’s newsletter. At the time, Levin was running an online newsletter company, GeekChicDaily, targeting at a similarly nerdy audience.
Levin had raised about $2.4 million for his venture from investors including Peter Guber, a former chairman of Sony Pictures, as well as Legendary, which is based on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank. With those big-money backers, Levin went on to acquire Nerdist last year and merged it with his newsletter, keeping the broader Nerdist name for the combined entity.
Nerdist, meanwhile, expanded by adding podcasts from hosts such as actor Michael Ian Black, who has a show about snack foods. The audio recordings are free and make money by selling advertising presented on-air by Hardwick or other hosts for the likes of El Segundo-based Stamps.com. Advertisers spend about $20 to $30 to reach each 1,000 listeners on the podcast, Levin said, who added that the recordings average 175,000 listeners per episode. The company often sells ads that span many of its media platforms. Levin said Nerdist is profitable, but he wouldn’t cite specifics.
Recently, the popularity of the podcasts led to TV. The namesake “Nerdist” podcast was picked up as a TV show that airs as specials on BBC America.
The company is now working on forthcoming cable pilots that stray from the podcast script. However, Levin said it is still a priority to keep the Nerdist voice in each new medium.
For example, Nerdist’s pilot at National Geographic Channel examines how today’s technologies measure up to futurist projections from the past. Levin said the Comedy Central pilot will likely include technology and video game reviews with a humorous touch. The pilots are being financed by National Geographic and Comedy Central, respectively.
“When you see our stuff, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I expect that from those guys. That’s fun,’” he said.
Still, it’s no small challenge to take what fans love from the Web and make it work on TV, said Gary Binkow, a partner at production and management company the Collective in Beverly Hills, who has shepherded programs such as the cartoon “The Annoying Orange” from YouTube to cable.
That program began airing on Cartoon Network this year, although it took about two years to get there. To protect the show’s original voice through the development process, Binkow noted the show’s producers self-financed the pilot. The network recently ordered more episodes, but not every cross-medium product fares so well.
“Just because it works on YouTube doesn’t mean it’s going to work on TV,” Binkow said.
Besides television, Levin said he also sees opportunities in microbudget feature films.
Nerdist is now functioning as Legendary’s in-house digital division, so it can tap into the film company’s financing expertise as well as gain access to Legendary’s intellectual property. Since forming in 2005, Legendary has produced box office hits including “The Hangover” and “Dark Knight” series.
But Levin noted that Nerdist has editorial independence from its new parent. Through its shows and podcasts, Nerdist only plans to lend as much exposure to Legendary’s future releases as it does for any other movies that are of interest to its audience.
Legendary, which is supportive of Nerdist’s business, plans to help the company continue to grow.
“We think they have a great future,” said Tim Connors, chief operating officer at Legendary. “We’re going to support them in all media.”
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