Actor Zachary Levi runs a well-oiled Nerd MachineOctober 28, 2013: 1:07 PM ET
The former star of the cult TV series Chuck has built a thriving business around all kinds of fandom genres.
By John Gaudiosi
FORTUNE -- Actor Zachary Levi is best known to his half million Twitter followers as Chuck Bartowski, the nerd-turned-secret agent from the NBC series, Chuck. Next month he'll star on the big screen as Fandral in Marvel's Thor: The Dark World. But for now, the actor is completely accessible in New York City every night in the original Broadway musical, First Date, which is playing at the Longacre Theater.
Levi didn't just play a nerd on Chuck, he is one in real life, too.
"Nerd culture has become a big part of pop culture today," said Levi. "People have embraced what a nerd was or is or will be. A hundred years ago you were valued for your brawn, but now you're valued for your brain. The days of needing a guy who can chop down trees have been replaced by the guy who can fix your iPhone. Value is put on people's intelligence and their ability to navigate a world driven by technology."
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Levi has built a business around his love of video games, technology, and entertainment with The Nerd Machine. In addition to selling t-shirts, bags, and merchandise and connecting with fans through original content and videos on the website, the company has run Nerd HQ at the last three San Diego Comic Con conventions. These events have grown from 20,000 attendees to over 32,000 fans this year, attracting talent like Vin Diesel, Joss Whedon, Aaron Eckhart, and Nathan Fillion to speak directly to genre fans. Along the way, the event's Conversations for a Cause have raised over $500,000 for Operation Smile. Levi brought The Nerd Lounge to New York Comic Con for the first time this month, allowing fans to take photos and get autographs with actors like Seth Green and Clare Grant, with all money going straight to charity.
Big companies are already gravitating to this nerd culture. Intel (INTC) has been a sponsor of The Nerd Machine since the early days and it expanded that relationship to include New York Comic Con. Fiat, Verizon (VZ), Vitamin Water, Turtle Beach, and Universal are other partners that have worked with Nerd HQ. Levi said he's interested in further expanding The Nerd Machine's offerings in both the editorial and original video categories moving forward. Levi currently has a deal with Break.
"Ultimately I'd love to have my own game studio," said Levi, who has great connections in the video game industry and has served as the host of Spike TV's Video Game Awards show. "Because technology moves so exponentially fast, within the next 10 years it will not be uncommon for there to be dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of independent movie, television, and gaming studios. I would love to create in the video game world and deliver content via direct download to Xbox or PlayStation or whatever box is going to be the one box that rules them all in the next decade. All of these concerns that people used to have with fulfillment like shipping and handling is gone and done. You don't need to have any kind of infrastructure anymore. You just need to have really good servers, and Amazon (AMZN) has basically taken care of that for everybody. I'll head-hunt Cliffy B [Cliff Bleszinski, former design director of Epic Games], and we'll make some really cool games."
While Levi embraces social media, he won't be turning to Chuck fans to fund a movie – a la Veronica Mars or Zach Braff's latest film. He's a fan of crowdfunding and having peoples' voices being heard through Kickstarter, but Hollywood financing creates a lot of complications when it comes to asking the public to fund a movie.
"I would love to make a Chuck movie, and I've talked to Warner Bros. about the idea," said Levi, who directed multiple episodes of the TV show. "It may happen. It may not. If it does, I don't want to do it through Kickstarter," Levi said. He added, "I feel like there are other ways, maybe even better ways, to activate your fan base in a similar fashion, but not through Kickstarter. I like what video game publishers do with pre-sales, where they'll give you a cool limited edition item for ordering the game early. I see that model working with film and television, where fans can get in on the ground floor and can get a cool limited edition deal if they pay a little extra money. But if they don't, that's fine. We're still going to make the movie or show. If you don't believe in your own product enough to get it financed, then don't ask fans to pay for it."
When it comes to directing, Levi was able to absorb a lot from working on Marvel's Thor sequel and observing Alan Taylor. The actor was able to see massive battle scenes with hundreds of extras wearing armor and wielding swords complete with explosions and fights. The nerd in him was able to step into the world of a comic he read as a kid.
"There are so many moving pieces that you really have to have a lot of coordination and a lot of organization with level heads to put it altogether," said Levi, jokingly. "There was a massive green screen and amazing stunts. I'm ready to direct one. I know what I'm doing now."
Levi has shown a keen business sense since getting his big break with Chuck. The same audience that tuned in to watch his show for 91 episodes has followed him through subsequent endeavors across film, Broadway, and television. He's been able to parlay his honest and straightforward approach to connect with both creatives in Hollywood and fans, building an access bridge that raises money for charity. Along the way, he's also created a strong brand aimed at a core male and female demographic that everyone from advertisers to network executives want to connect with. It's a revenge of the nerd story straight out of Hollywood.