‘Star Wars’ Relay Race to Raise Coin for Make-a-Wish Foundation

Costumed fanboys to run from Golden Gate Bridge to San Diego Comic-Con in July


Nerd alert: In July, you will see a crazy fanboy or two in a “Star Wars” costume running across the Golden Gate Bridge with a lightsaber in their hand and a crazy grin spread across their face.

After successfully raising over $100,000 from over 400 runners for the Make-A-Wish Foundation last year, Course of the Force is ready to run its second Star Wars-themed relay race to San Diego’s Comic-Con International this summer.

As is the case with most sequels, this year’s Course of the Force is bigger.

Lucasfilm is back to support the event, which involves more days, runners (more than 700), and a new starting line, located this year at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, just outside San Francisco.

Organizers wanted to begin at Star Wars’ homebase last year, but the potential logistical nightmare of producing the event for the first time had them start off smaller from the Santa Monica Pier.

“It was enough of a feat to produce the first one,” says Chris Hardwick, chief geek of Nerdist Industries, and host of AMC’s “The Talking Dead,” the popular “Nerdist” podcast, and an upcoming half-hour talkshow on Comedy Central. “We wanted to see if people would show up and get down to San Diego without incident. Once we realized this is doable it was a question of what do we do next?”

A labor of love for all-things Star Wars, initial idea was conceived by Peter Levin, CEO of Nerdist and co-president of digital strategy at Nerdist-parent Legendary Entertainment, as a way to raise money for a charity while also building buzz for Nerdist’s products, which includes its YouTube channel, newsletter and website. Given its ties to Legendary, it also will now serve as a way to promote its owner’s tentpoles like Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim.”

In addition to serving as master of ceremonies of the race, Hardwick will star in a new series of short films, some of which were written by Broadway Video and “Saturday Night Live” scribes, in the weeks leading up to the event. Scenes were shot at Skywalker Ranch and became viral hits last year on YouTube. Nerdist produced over 30 videos last year. This year, the goal is 90, adding up to 40 hours of content, with StarWars.com also planning on streaming the event live.

But overall concept was also meant to celebrate the road to Comic-Con.

“It’s about filling that void leading up to Comic-Con,” says Levin, a former CAA and Disney exec who merged his GeekChicDaily newsletter with Nerdist in 2011 before selling the company to Legendary in 2012. He serves as an advisor to Rovio, Japanese media juggernaut Yoshimoto Kogyo, comiXology, and brokered the sale of Nikki Finke’s Deadline Hollywood to Mail.com Media Corp. “Everyone waits to launch their messaging during Comic-Con but you wind up getting lost in the clutter.”

“We always envisioned it to become the thing that you do leading up to Comic-Con,” adds Hardwick. “It represents what’s happened with our (fanboy) culture. In the old days, you were locked in a dark room and you didn’t want people to point at you and make fun of you. It’s OK and acceptable now. The idea of being out in the open and screaming with a lightsaber is a fun way to celebrate the kind of going public of it all and the acceptance of our culture by mainstream society.”

During Course of the Force, which runs July 9-16, participants dress up as their favorite Star Wars character as they run quarter-mile legs of the 500-mile race, handing off a custom Hasbro Ultimate FX Lightsaber. Pit stops set up in cities (including Santa Monica, Huntington Beach, Oceanside) en route host “Conival” parties for fans who can’t participate in the race. Also back is a replica of Jabba the Hut’s sail barge from “Return of the Jedi,” which serves as COF’s main vehicle as the race heads south.

“You don’t make the sail barge and make it once,” Hardwick says.

Last year’s event rallied celebrities — notable names from film, TV, music and sports, along with a new batch of YouTube stars — and icons from the Star Wars films, including Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca. Drew Carey, Zachary Levi, Paul Scheer, FX’s Wilfred, Tyler Posey, Kal Penn, Alie Ward, Georgia Hardstark, T.K. Nguyen and Adrianne Curry plus L.A. Galaxy players Edson Buddle, Pat Noonan and Bill Gaudette were among the names that ran legs last year, and helped grant over 1,000 wishes for Make-A-Wish. It wants to double that and the amount raise for the charity this year.

Given the attention surrounding Course of the Force, whose PR blitz kicked off on NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, it’s no surprise more brands are backing the event.

SEE ALSO: Where to register for Course of the Force.

Levin has lined up Spike TV to promote the event, Samsung to serve as the presenting sponsor, Ford Motor Co., Verizon Wireless, Cinemark and Real D 3D (which will host screenings of “Pacific Rim”), State Farm, Otter Pops, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Virgin America also on board as supporting sponsors, who will set up shop at San Diego’s Chuck Jones Gallery the rest of the week at Comic-Con. State Farm will give away passes to New York’s own Comic Con, extending its relationship with fans into the fall.

Hasbro will once again provide custom lightsabers for the relay and Qualcomm will build and launch a “Course of the Force” mobile app. Rovio will also release six special Course of the Force themed levels that will be playable on its “Angry Birds Star Wars” game. Sports marketing and events firm Octagon is again handling the logistics of the race.

For an event that started off as a joke, it doesn’t seem like a crazy idea anymore.

“It really is a positive thing to do,” Levin says. “It’s an inclusive event for people who can’t get to Comic-Con (tickets that sell out within days, if not minutes).”

Adds Hardwick: “We’re doing it for kids (of all ages) which makes all the sense in the world. It really is a feel-good bubble.”

Course of the Force organizers Peter Levin and Chris Hardwick