Nerdist, Lucasfilm team on 'Star Wars'-themed charity relay

Nerds will now have their own Olympic-style torch relay to Comic-Con — complete with lightsabers.

George Lucas is backing “Course of the Force,” a “Star Wars”-themed race this July from Santa Monica to San Diego’s Comic-Con, with 500 participants walking or running quarter-mile legs to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Instead of a torch, participants will carry a “Course of the Force”-branded lightsaber supplied by Lucasfilm.

Event, which is being announced tonight on NBC’s “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” is the brainchild of Nerdist IndustriesPeter Levin and Chris Hardwick, who are co-producing it with sports marketing and events firm Octagon and entertainment dot-com Machinima.

Levin, CEO of Nerdist, came up with the idea last fall after realizing that, other than speculation over what companies will present at Comic-Con, there was a dearth of announcements leading up to the fanboy fest, providing marketers with a chance to take advantage of the buzz leading up to the show in a unique way.

He also wanted to spotlight a charity at a time when it’s increasingly difficult to generate attention.

“Everyone wants to wait to spend their messaging equity at the show,” and announce projects, said Levin, who has attended 17 Comic-Cons. “But once Comic-Con takes place, it’s difficult to rise above the noise in San Diego. You get drowned out.”

Levin approached Nerdist founder and chief creative officer Hardwick, with whom he merged his growing pop-culture newsletter GeekChicDaily last summer.

Hardwick has been a fixture at Comic-Con for years with his live podcast shows and roles moderating panels for AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory” and “Doctor Who” screenings.

“My immediate reaction was, ‘Why wouldn’t you do this?’ and ‘Why hasn’t this been done before?’?” Hardwick said, adding that “Comic-Cons were the only safe havens for nerd culture to celebrate openly and dress in costume without fear of being laughed at or made fun of. ‘Course of the Force’ is the yellow brick road to Oz. That’s really what it is. Not only are we celebrating within the (San Diego) convention center but we’re celebrating just getting to the convention center.”

Lucasfilm signed on to support the event — skedded to take place July 7-11 before Comic-Con kicks off on July 12 — after Levin and Hardwick approached the company last fall.

“When you tell people about it, it isn’t hard to sell at all,” Hardwick said.

Naturally, it helped that Make-A-Wish Foundation would benefit; the org will receive 100% of the event’s proceeds.

“Fans have demonstrated an amazing ability to combine their love of ‘Star Wars’ with a commitment to helping others,” said Kayleen Walters, senior director of marketing for Lucasfilm. “The ‘Course of the Force’ lightsaber run is a worthy cause we can all get behind” because it “combines fitness with helping others, principles that aspiring Jedi Knights can embrace. We have long supported the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and this is a great opportunity to raise funds and awareness while letting Star Wars fans celebrate their favorite saga.”

Drew Carey, Jim Gaffigan and the Finnish Dudeson Vikings already have committed to take part in “Course of the Force” and wear costumes of their favorite “Star Wars” characters.

While the race will wrap with a party and live podcast at San Diego’s Balboa Theater the day before Comic-Con officially begins, event will be documented online with simultaneous coverage on YouTube channels and websites run by Nerdist and Machinima.

Each leg will be feted with “Star Wars”-themed parties, contests and live Nerdist shows capping off each day with celebrity guests. Participants will receive a customized Hasbro “Star Wars” Ultimate FX lightsaber.

Levin and Hardwick already have their sights set on growing “Course of the Force” next year by expanding the route of the race to start in San Francisco from Skywalker Ranch, outside San Francisco.

“Logistically, Octagon said let’s get this first one under our belt and execute it really well,” Levin said. Octagon is the sports and entertainment marketing arm of Interpublic and has managed official Olympic torch relays in the past.

For the first year, however, a video will be lensed at Lucas’ ranch and distributed virally “to generate momentum” for “Course of the Force,” Levin said.

“It’s the kind of thing we’d like to expand but we need to nail in year one,” Levin added. “We do want this to become a fixture in the lexicon of pop culture. Anything we can do to extend the San Diego Comic-Con experience and do something positive along the way is truly one of these win-wins for everyone kind of event.”

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