San Diego Comic Con is practically right around the corner now; and with it comes one of my other favorite events, Nerd HQ. The brainchild of actor Zachary Levi and his friend Dave Coleman, Nerd HQ has only gotten better each year I’ve attended. Nerd HQ, which raises funds for the worthy charity Operation Smile, provides a smorgasbord of cool experiences in a chill setting (currently The New Children’s Museum)– a nice place to get away from the madness of the con for awhile while still getting your nerd on. Nerd HQ generally offers a selection of smaller-sized “Conversations for a Cause” panels with celebrities; “Smiles for Smiles” and “Signings for Smiles,” where you can get your photo with celebrities, or get celebrity autographs; places to play video games and see some really cool new or upcoming games; other cool exhibits from sponsors, some of which may be interactive; and two rockin’ parties for nerdy fans.
I’m looking forward to this year’s Nerd HQ, and in preparation for attending, I got to chat with co-founder Dave Coleman about his involvement and what we’ll be seeing. Read on for details!
Dave, what is your background with Nerd HQ and Zac Levi?
Well, I started the company with Zac in 2010. We’ve been partners in The Nerd Machine, and I have been producing every HQ since they started. Zac and I have been very, very close friends for the last 10 years or so. We’ve had The Nerd Machine for the last 6 years, almost 7. So I’ve been a part of this since the beginning.
Are you also an actor, or do you work in television? How did you end up meeting Zac?
I was on the crew side. I used to be a prop master for television; but Zac and I actually met playing basketball back in 2004, in the neighborhood that we all lived in. It’s funny, we met a lot of our friends that way. That’s where I met Joel David Moore, who was a really good friend of Zac’s at the time, and who’s now one of my other best friends. So it’s really interesting how we all met playing basketball, and then relationships grew out of that.
Eventually, I also started working on Chuck. I had done a movie with another prop master, Scott Bauer, who was on Chuck from the pilot. And he had interviewed me to do Chuck when they thought some of the guys who had done the pilot weren’t going to come back. It didn’t work out because of scheduling, so I ended up doing a couple of other shows while they were doing the first 2 seasons of Chuck. During season 2 of Chuck, I started working on the show 2 to 3 days a week, and then for seasons 3, 4, and 5, I was the on-set prop master for Chuck the rest of the time.
Can you tell me your experience with starting Nerd HQ and how it came together?
My experience is probably much different than Zac’s experience – just because, when we first started doing this, we really had no idea how to do it. We had never produced an event of any size, really, before. I had a design background; I have a Master of Fine Arts degree in set design. So I’d done that kind of thing, but never produced a full-on event for 20,000 people. So there was a lot of trial and error in figuring things out. You know – what do we think would be cool, and let’s just do that. That’s kind of how it started.
The whole thing was really an accident. When we started it; we made some t-shirts to throw out during a Chuck panel in 2010. I had a design background, and I had printed some shirts in the past; so when we started talking about doing stuff, Zac said, “Hey, what if I wanted to just print some shirts and give them out to fans during our panel?” I was like, “Alright, I can make that happen.” So it just kind of all started happening. And we made some shirts, and we took them, and we passed them out; and some of the guys on stage started throwing them; which was a giant problem, because everybody freaked out. Like, lawyers were pissed off and like, “You can’t do that!” because people were jumping over each other to try to get the shirts, and they were worried about liability and that kind of thing. So it got really kind of hairy there; but everybody loved the shirts.
It was the classic Nerd shirt that we ended up calling the NES, with the original Nintendo font. And so people were asking, “How do I get one? How do I get one?” And we looked around and were like, there’s no real “nerd culture” brand. You can buy stuff at ThinkGeek and Hot Topic, and hell, even at Target now, or Walmart; but there was no brand. So we thought about how to start something that people could identify with. So we turned Zac’s fan website, zacharylevi.com, into thenerdmachine.com, and just started taking email addresses; like, “Hey guys, if we made this shirt, would you be interested in buying one?” And we had thousands of people sign up. So we’re like, “Great! Here we go!” and a company got started. And my wife, Courtney, was shipping t-shirts out of Zac’s garage when we first started; and it was crazy. It was a real home-grown family business.
So after that we started trying to figure out a way to have a party; like in 2010 when we gave out the t-shirts, Zac had a party at a bar in the Gaslamp on Friday or Saturday night of the con. And people came, and we gave out the rest of the shirts that were there, and he was like, “Hey man – what if we just did another party to promote the brand?” But we couldn’t really work out a convention space, because, you know, they had been full for years and it takes a long time to get into the convention. So we said, “Hey, we’ll just do something outside.” We’ll find a little place to have a party, and go from there.” And then it turned into, “Well, if we have a party someplace, we’re still going to have to rent it for a few extra days to get it ready. What if we brought in some games or whatever. Maybe we can get some of our friends to come and do some panels. Maybe we could sell some tickets, and give the money to charity. Let’s see what we can do.” That’s how it all started!
What’s your experience been with the chosen charity, Operation Smile?
Fantastic. They’re one of the greatest organizations that I’ve ever been a part of. We are blessed to be able to help them out each year, and to do everything we can to raise money. We’ve been able to do some really great stuff with them in the last five to six years, that has really affected all of our lives in a positive way. You know, we all worry about jobs, and money, and that kind of stuff; but at the end of the day you go, “Man, no matter what we do, when we’re all done with our lives, we’re gonna go, ‘We did something to really help a lot of kids and a lot of people.’”
So of course people will want to know what’s coming to Nerd HQ this year. What can you tell us?
It will be at The New Children’s Museum again, and here’s a quick breakdown: AMD is coming back as one of our headline sponsors, and they are bringing in Battlefield 1 with EA and DICE; so we’re going to have a 64-station multiplayer of Battlefield 1 on PC – which is all Alienware, super-cool tech, and a really fun game experience. We played it during E3, and it’s unbelievable. Xbox is bringing their whole lineup of games that they’re going to have during the con to HQ. So we’ll probably have between 150 to 200 gaming units on site, where you’ll be able to set times, and that will be with Gears of War 4, Titanfall 2, and a bunch of other really great titles, all through Xbox, which we’re really excited about.
Johnson & Johnson is a partner of ours this year, and we’re integrating the “Donate a Photo” app that they do, in support of Operation Smile, into our app and into our photo booth. So if you take a picture at our photo booth, that photo gets sent to our Nerd HQ account to Donate a Photo. We can upload that, and for every upload, Johnson & Johnson donates a dollar to Operation Smile. What we are hoping is that we can raise another 10 to 15 thousand dollars just from photos at the photo booths. Hallmark is going to be on site with some awesome specials and exclusives for HQ which we’re really excited about. Kellogg’s is doing an indie gaming area with the Square Enix Collective, with a bunch of cool indie games that most people have never seen before, that people will get to play.
We’re going to have a brand-new app that’s been completely renovated and redesigned for this year, with enhanced RFID capabilities; really cool photo filters inside; and connections to all your social media; so that’s very exciting. We’re pulling out all the stops. We’ve added extra air conditioning to the panel rooms, and we’re doing tiered seating in the panel rooms, so it will feel more like the seating at Petco Park. We’re adding a 360-degree camera to the panels, so you’ll be able to watch the panels at home on your VR system. You’ll be able to feel like you’re in the audience, which is what I think people want. And again, we’re lining up some amazing panels – new stuff, returning stuff; things people love, and some new stuff they wouldn’t expect. I don’t have the full panel list yet, but we’ll probably be releasing some of the panel schedule this week, and then we’ll have the full list out by next week.
We’ll be adding brand-new merch that we’ll be selling exclusively at Nerd HQ. We’re going to have this bad-ass 1960’s Nerd HQ-branded van driving around the city to promote HQ and for photo ops – it looks kind of like a big red version of the Mystery Machine. It’s going to be awesome. We’re doing more signings this year than before; and will hopefully bring in some really big names for the signings. And of course we’ll be doing Smiles for Smiles, which is one of our biggest ways to engage the fans with celebrities. We definitely want people to help us in our philanthropy by being a part of it themselves; so we will encourage everyone who comes or watches from home to download the Donate a Photo app from Johnson & Johnson. Because every day of the year, you can post a photo, and each one is a dollar for Operation Smile. Every person, by doing something that they already do by posting a picture, can change one kid’s life in 245 days. We’ll also have the fan parties on Thursday and Saturday, which will be super fun. We’re excited about those. We have a great time those nights.
So what are you most excited about for Nerd HQ 2016?
I think I’m most excited about the greater amount of offerings we’re going to be able to give this year. And I think we’re going to be able to raise a lot more money for charity, and to create a much more pleasurable fan experience through the upgrades to the panel rooms and the rest of the building, which I think are going to make a huge difference. Just being able to offer cool stuff that we haven’t been able to offer before is great.
And it’s HQ, it’s fun! We want people to feel like there’s a place where they belong, a place where they can feel comfortable, and like everyone there is their friend; and that it’s just a good time, and a good place to hang out.
Thank you, Dave Coleman, for your time and for this exciting Nerd HQ information! I can’t wait!
And until next time, ComicMix fans, Servo Lectio!
Photo credits: Eric Blackmon