Nerdist Carves Out a Niche with Geeky Indie 'Zero Charisma'

The Internet-friendly brand jumps into the distribution ring with a “Dungeons & Dragons”-themed dramedy that plays right to its audiences' tastes.

Move over, hobbits — “fantasy” isn't just for big-budget epics anymore.

Comedian Chris Hardwick's Nerdist Industries started as a mere podcast before growing into a leading surveyor of pop culture for the comic-reading, video-gaming, Internet-browsing youth culture. Now, at the company's new home, Legendary Entertainment, the Nerdist brand is taking curation one step further by releasing, in conjunction with their leading distribution partner Tribeca Film, a film tailor-made for their audience.

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Zero Charisma is the brainchild of writer/director Andrew Matthews and co-director Katie Graham, Austin-based filmmakers who previously edited and photographed, respectively, the genre documentaries Best Worst Movie and The American Scream. The film centers on Scott (Sam Edison), a troubled Dungeons & Dragons “dungeon master” who watches his life fall apart after a confident, hip newcomer joins his game. Scott's life is intertwined with his fantasy characters, but Zero Charisma takes place squarely in the real world, giving Nerdist a unique opportunity to both cater and challenge their ever-growing fan base.

“Just hearing them talk about it, they got it,” Matthews says of his first-time distributor. Even before Zero Charisma premiered at the 2013 South by South West Film Festival, the movie was facing identity issues. “We had one potential investor who said, 'I'd be interested in it if you changed it to World of Warcraft,'” Matthews says. “It's hard enough to make a movie about five guys sitting around a table for hours. Imagine if they were all in different houses at their computers!”

The duo wooed investors to make Zero Charisma with a promise of a homegrown aesthetic and an ear for geek speak. Graham says that the Austin film scene nurtured that instinct, suggesting that the welcoming filmmaker community an indie talent pool has grown well beyond the mumblecore movement that made it famous. “It's still a small enough scene that everybody wants everybody to do well. When we were first gearing up to do this, we cold-called a lot of the indie filmmakers we had heard about or knew tangentially in town, and said, 'Hey, would you meet with us?'”

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Austin's geeky blood runs through the veins of Zero Charisma. It started with Matthews, a life long D&D player, and Graham, who kept the film's emotional core, a portrait of insecurity and outsider status, balanced with the gaming. When it was time to shoot, local businesses -- including Great Hall Games, one of the city's local tabletop shops -- opened their doors to the production. And then came casting, where it was easy to find actors with a genuine passion for the subject matter. Or at least, close to it.

“Sam is a nerd, but the one thing he never did was D&D. He was into [collectible card game] Magic: The Gathering. He was almost panicked about it. He borrowed all of my books a month before shooting. And I told him, 'You don't have to read those cover to cover.' But I think he did,” Matthews says.

Nerdist Industries and Tribeca Film weren't the only distributors interested in releasing Zero Charisma, but they were the only ones who seemed to understand it. Matthew recalls one company who saw it as a low-budget version of the Star Wars fan comedy Fanboys. Graham says it was labeled “a gamer exclusive movie” and that it desperately needed a title change. When talks with Nerdist came up, they wondered if the company had similar thoughts.

“'No way,'” Graham recalls. “Nerdist got it. They said, 'Our fans will get this. We get this so deeply.'”

It helped that the Nerdist's spokespeople were championing the film when deals were still settling. Their distributors were the fans they were trying to reach. According to Matthews, Nerdist podcaster Jonah Ray tweeted about it. Then another comedian, Kumail Nanjiani echoed the sentiment, requesting screeners to pass around to other people. With hundreds of thousands of followers between them, Nerdist's campaign for the movie began before it was the company's movie to distribute. Peter Levin, the company's CEO, e-mailed them personally to finally pull the trigger.

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“It's so hard for movies this size or even bigger than this size to get distribution and to get out there where people hear about it,” Matthew says. “Having an organization like Nerdist that is its own empire with a fan base, they're like a huge megaphone. This is the best way I could foresee a tiny movie getting attention.”

Zero Charisma arrives on VOD Oct. 8 from Nerdist Industries and Tribeca Film, with a limited theatrical release beginning Oct. 11.

Twitter: @misterpatches