Chris Hardwick is old enough to remember a time when being called a nerd was — believe it or not, kids — a bad thing.
Growing up in Memphis, Tenn., the 43-year-old stand-up comic, TV host and founder and chief executive of the multimedia company Nerdist Industries ticked off almost every nerd box possible. He was a member of the chess club, the Dungeons & Dragons club and the computer club. He was obsessed with comic books, sci-fi and Monty Python. And for all of it, he said on a recent afternoon at the Nerdist offices in Burbank, “I was mercilessly tortured.”
In the decades since, Hardwick’s kind of geekery has moved into the mainstream to an extent he still can’t quite wrap his head around: “Now the insult is, like, ‘Oh, you’re a fake nerd. You’re not a real nerd,” he said with a laugh.
And he has reaped the benefits. A fixture at Comic-Con and a respected fanboy tastemaker with 2.68 million Twitter followers, Hardwick — who also hosts Comedy Central’s "@midnight” and AMC’s “Talking Dead” — has been dubbed the King of the Nerds.
In 2010 Hardwick started a podcast called Nerdist as a venue to talk about all the pop culture things he loved. In the five years since, that podcast has grown into Nerdist Industries, with 25 employees under the leadership of Hardwick and the company’s president, Adam Rymer, generating and curating an ever-expanding array of geek-friendly content across a range of platforms.
Now Nerdist Industries is making the leap into the theatrical film distribution business. On Monday, in a special one-night-only event, Nerdist will release the low-budget horror film “The Hive” in 500 theaters, with a digital release to follow later this fall.
The movie, which Nerdist acquired after it premiered last year at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, centers on a camp counselor (Gabriel Basso) who wakes up in a boarded-up cabin with a mysterious infection, no memories and the need to piece together what happened. Part zombie film, part sci-fi thriller, part twisted love story, it lands, Hardwick believes, smack in the center of the Nerdist aesthetic bull’s-eye.
“We could have acquired anything a long time ago, but we wanted to make sure that it was right for our audience,” he said. “Seeing a movie like this was like finding a gem.”
Nerdist had made one earlier foray into the movie business, partnering with Tribeca Film to co-release the 2013 straight-to-VOD indie dramedy “Zero Charisma,” but with “The Hive,” the company wanted to go bigger and wider. With support from Legendary Entertainment, which acquired Nerdist Industries in 2012 and has produced such blockbusters as “The Dark Knight” and “Godzilla,” Nerdist found a way to get the film into theaters that felt consistent with its brand.
“We always envisioned a theatrical experience for the movie, and we spent some time trying to figure out how to accomplish that in a way that makes sense with who we are and what our audience expects from us,” said Rymer, who joined Nerdist last year and has deep experience working in both the studio and independent arenas of the film world.
“Doing a major extended theatrical release is a very difficult and painstaking process — and maybe next time we do that,” said Rymer, who is also president of Legendary Digital Networks. “But this seemed like the right approach for us with this one.”
The film’s director, David Yarovesky, is thrilled to see his debut feature, shot in 18 days on what he calls a “real small” budget, end up on the big screen under the Nerdist banner.
“For a film of this scale to be playing in theaters across the country is an epic win,” Yarovesky said. “Everyone is trying to figure out new models of distribution. I could see a future where these smaller indie movies get their night.”
Though Nerdist has expanded quickly, Hardwick’s rise to the top of a multimedia empire was hardly an overnight success story. Following an early brush with fame as the co-host of the 1990s MTV dating-game show “Singled Out,” he struggled for a time to gain traction as a stand-up comic and actor, and he developed a drinking problem.
Sober since 2003 and now perpetually busy and bursting with energy, Hardwick — who wrote a 2011 self-help book titled “The Nerdist Way” — looks back at his alcoholic, overweight, embittered former self as a different person, whom he calls Peter Hardwick.
“It took me falling on my face a bunch after MTV and living in a beer bottle for several years to wake up and go, ‘Oh, you actually have to create the life you want. Nobody just gives it to you.’ That was my ultimate goal: to create the life that I’ve wanted. And in the last couple of years, it’s really started to work out.”
Where Hardwick’s nerd enthusiasm was once a source of shame (“Girls don’t want to talk about ‘Ren & Stimpy’ on a first date when you’re in college”), now it’s become a kind of superpower, one that is continuing to fuel the expansion of Nerdist Industries into new areas.
The company has a script deal at FX for a comedy pilot, an all-star celebrity bowling show in the works at TBS (Hardwick’s father, Billy Hardwick, was a professional bowler) and a weekly “Nerdist News” show in development at Syfy.
As Nerdist adapts to an ever-changing digital world, Rymer says, the goal is continue to grow without losing focus. “We often have to rein ourselves in,” he said. “For us, it’s about whittling it down and figuring out what’s more important.”
After “The Hive,” Nerdist has greater ambitions in movies. “If someone came to us with the right idea, we have the ability to make something from scratch,” Hardwick said. “We have two soundstages, all the equipment you would need. We could come in at any point.”
Even as his company’s reach continues to expand, Hardwick is determined to maintain his connection to his younger self, the kid who saw “Revenge of the Nerds” in 1984 and felt like he’d discovered his tribe. It is that connection, he says, that will distinguish Nerdist from others simply looking to cash in on fanboy fervor.
“There are a lot of companies that are now launching subscription-based services for quote-unquote ‘nerds’ in order to conquer fandom,” he said. “We don’t come at it that way. We’re not out to conquer an audience. We’re trying to make things exist in the world that we’re passionate about — and that’s it.”
FULL COVERAGE: Fall Movie Guide