Three years ago, whether he intended to or not, Zachary Levi changed San Diego Comic-Con for the better. While there had always been offsite events and installations in the Gaslamp surrounding the convention center, often referred to as the “Comic-Con campus”, there had never been anything quite like Nerd HQ.
With its alternative panel programming, meant for those both who were either not lucky enough to score a badge to SDCC or who were just looking for something to do in their downtime, and its fun atmosphere, Nerd HQ quickly caught on with con-goers. And since its inception in 2011, other offsite events seem to be taking the hint that they need to step up their game and provide both the quality and quantity of options that Nerd HQ has been bringing to the table ever since.
Today, though, Levi is attempting to change something else: The mold of what crowdfunding looks like.
Earlier today, Levi launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, called “I Want My Nerd HQ”, designed to help offset some of the costs of 2014’s Nerd HQ. Levi explained to us that because the money made from the star-studded panels goes to the charity Operation Smile, he uses money both sponsors and his own funds to keep the event running every year. It’s a model, though, that’s fundamentally broken.
According to Levi, most companies don’t finalize their Comic-Con budget until much closer to the event, making it difficult for them to commit to Nerd HQ during the time of the year when down payments for venues and other expenses are due. For that reason, Levi has been paying for parts of the event out of pocket for years.
“It’s a major undertaking to put on something like Nerd HQ,” Levi said. “I would get reimbursed from sponsors closer to the event or after the event, and the first couple of years, it essentially worked. We essentially broke even. But last year was not very kind.”
Which was why he began seriously considering the crowdfunding option — an idea Levi had always been against, because it had never seemed like the right time, and he was hesitant to ask fans to give money.
However, possibly thanks in part to a surge of support for the event following February’s global trending of #IWantMyNerdHQ on Twitter, Levi changed his mind.
“I want people to understand that look, if the model we were doing was working, I don’t know that we would necessarily crowdfund it,” Levi said. “But in some ways I’m kind of glad that it doesn’t work, because what it’s forced me to do is finally just go, you know what, what we’ve done is produce an event for three years. And we’ve given it the fans, because it belongs to the fans, and it’s always been about the fans, but they also had a product to actually see. I’m not raising money for something that they have no idea what it is or what it could be. I’ve shown them for three years, this is what Nerd HQ is, this is how we’re going to continue to grow it, and make it better, and make it tighter, and make it just more kickass and awesome. And that model has failed me. It failed us, collectively. And so I put it in your hands. And if you guys like what we brought you for the last three years, then let’s do this together.”
If Levi was going to do a crowdfunding campaign, though, he wanted it to be different. While virtually every other crowdfunding campaign has utilized backer rewards — various tiers of perks that increase exponentially at each price point — Levi decided to go a completely different route.
Instead, he’s only asking for a $5 donation from fans, and the only “rewards” are to have your name be part of a donor wall at Nerd HQ and on The Nerd Machine’s website, as well as being part of an exclusive e-mail list with planning updates and details. No matter how much each person gives, they’ll receive the same reward.
“I’ve always kind of felt like if I were going to do a crowdfund, and now I am, this is the way that I would want to do it because this is just kind of my ideology, if you will. And that is, we don’t have any reward structure. If you want to give $1000, you would get just as much reward as someone who gave $5,” Levi said. “I get that that’s what everybody else does. But I don’t think that just because everybody else does that doesn’t mean that we can’t do it our way and that it won’t work.”
By cutting out the reward levels, this accomplishes three things. According to Levi, because Nerd HQ is free to fans (outside of panels, which cost $22 and all proceeds go to charity), it’s sort of the ultimate reward for backers anyway — the event will continue on, better than ever before.
Additionally, because reward options typically include things like t-shirts, stickers, posters, and various other items, there’s a level of fulfillment that takes both time and resources that could be better spent focused on Nerd HQ. There’s a bigger reason that Levi is shucking the trend, though.
“There are things that strike me in my heart and in my soul and they kind of cut me to the core, and I just believe them to be true, and I believe them to be right,” Levi said. “And one of those things is there are a lot of people in the world that are very blessed and have a lot of money, and there are a lot of people that aren’t. I know that there are kids, or even adults, out there that only have $5 to scrape together, and that might as well be $1000 to them. But that’s all they can offer and they still are willingly going to give it to us, and I don’t want them to feel disenfranchised whatsoever. I don’t want them to feel like their $5 sacrifice meant any less than someone who could afford $1000.”
Levi is calling upon his Nerd Army who have helped to make Nerd HQ the smashing success it has been for the last few years to help him put on the best event this year. It’s a gambit that he’s hoping will pay off.
“I don’t know how this campaign is going to go. But I can’t not do it, because I know how much it means, not just to me but to all of the people that come and tell me and tweet about it and say, ‘This meant so much to me, I have made new friends because of Nerd HQ, I’ve found love because of Nerd HQ, I’ve been turned on to new shows and new actors that I never knew about because of Nerd HQ. ‘And it’s just powerful. So, everything that I can do to keep stimulating that, without losing a part of what we’ve been doing, that’s what Nerd HQ will always be.”
Levi hinted that some of his “crazy ideas” for the event this year and in the future involve multiple stages of panels, concerts, more movies in the park, more gaming, and anything else that he and the fans can make happen.
As of press time, the campaign has already raised $33,051, a good first step in helping Levi continue to make not only his own dreams for the event come true — but also the dreams of a lot of fans.
“There are very few people that know this, but I walk away from Nerd HQ every year and I weep. But I weep tears of joy, because it just nails me, like right in the solar plexus. The love, and the excitement, and that happiness that I feel every single year that we’ve done this, it’s the only thing that drives me to do it every year again,” Levi said.
You can donate by visiting the “I Want My Nerd HQ” Indiegogo campaign here, and to relive some of our favorite Nerd HQ videos, here’s 2013’s sizzle reel: