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Published April 28 2013

Hollywood fuels the rise of nerd culture

FARGO - Hollywood is making it hip to geek out.

Starting this weekend, some of the most anticipated summer movies, like “Iron Man 3” and “Star Trek Into Darkness,” hit theaters and mainstream audiences. The films are based on source material that may once have been reserved for smaller, niche crowds. OK, we’ll say it – nerds.

But this isn’t your pocket-protector, plastic-rim glasses kind of geekery.

The sci-fi material is being repurposed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, says Tom Brandau, an associate professor in Minnesota State University Moorhead’s cinema arts and digital technologies department.

It’s especially true in the case of the new “Star Trek” films, directed by J.J. Abrams (who also recently signed on to helm the new “Star Wars” movies), Brandau says.

“One of the things I was so impressed by was that they had figured out a way to literally bring the franchise up to speed and make it interesting to a new generation,” says Brandau, a self-described “Trekkie.”

“It’s a very sexy, hip kind of approach that they’ve taken with the characters,” he adds.

It’s no surprise studios would want to take this approach if they’re able to increase their profits, Brandau explains.

“It’s all money,” he says. “These studios say, ‘We’ve got to reboot it, we’ve got to update it, do something that’s going to make it more relevant.’ ”

As these one-time subcultural subjects become mainstream favorites, longtime fans remain a little split over what it means.

Some are reluctant to let their favorites go, say Elyzabeth Goerger-Wendt and John Eisenberg, two organizers of this weekend’s CoreCon, a science fiction/fantasy/anime gathering in Moorhead.

“There is an undercurrent of, ‘They’re taking what was ours and making it mainstream,’” Goerger-Wendt says.

Eisenberg says hard-core fans just have to accept it as reality.

“You have to take it in stride because the audiences they made the original movies for aren’t the same as they are today,” he says, referring specifically to “Star Trek.”

“I know that movies are a business. I respect their need to present a vision to a wider audience,” he adds.

Comics and more

It’s not only these upcoming movies that reflect the shift of nerd culture into the mainstream.

Rich Early, owner of Paradox Comics-N-Cards at 26 Roberts St. N. in Fargo, says he’s seen an across-the-board increase in the popularity of comic books and other role-playing games at his store.

For the last three or four years, Early says his business has consistently increased each year to the point where he now has the most customers in the 20 years that he’s been open.

“I have 300 comic subscribers, which is the most I’ve ever had,” he says. “Everything I do is as popular as it’s ever been.”

Similarly, last February’s Comic-Con in Fargo had 500 people attend, the most ever for that event. Goerger-Wendt says organizers of CoreCon are also expecting this year’s attendance to top the group’s previous record.

It may be difficult to pinpoint exactly why “nerd culture” is attracting more followers, but Early has a guess. He says it in some ways has to do with the success of “The Big Bang Theory,” a popular comedy on CBS that features nerdy main characters.

“The thing about ‘The Big Bang Theory’ is it’s in everyone’s living room on network television,” Early says. “There are all these people that have a touch of nerd or geek in them, and they don’t always get the opportunity to be the nerd or geek they want to be.”

Similarly, Early also pointed to “Comic Book Men” on AMC as another show that allows people to tap in to their nerdy side.

Others include reality competition show “The King of the Nerds” on TBS, or “The Talking Dead” on AMC.

“Whether a show is great or terrible, it doesn’t matter,” Early says. “It fills a niche. There’s an energy out there.”

Whatever the reason, Eisenberg says it’s a good thing.

Where fans of comic books or Star Trek may once have been teased about their interests 10, 20 or 30 years ago, now Eisenberg thinks it’s more socially accepted.

“I’m glad that society has moved in this direction,” he says. “I’m really happy about it. Kids have enough to go through these days as it is – if they want to do this, and it makes them happy, now they can do it.”

But Early doesn’t think it’ll last forever. Just as there’s been a boom over the last few years, he expects a coinciding bust to come along because the cultural landscape will have become oversaturated with such topics.

“The overexposure is what’s coming,” he says. “ ‘The Walking Dead’ was popular, and now there’s going to be a ‘World War Z’ movie, then there’ll probably be another zombie TV show. What they’re going to do is ride it into the ground.”

Brandau agrees, and argues film studios are going to need to find ways to branch out of existing movie plots to keep franchises relevant.

“It’s debatable as to how far into the future you can keep going,” he says. “The important thing is that there’s a point where you have to develop new characters off of the old characters, and then keep going.”

“I think there could always be a Superman, but how many different ways can you reboot Superman before it starts to be, well, tired?” he asks.

Good summer to be a nerd

Starting this weekend and going through summer, it’s a good time to be a nerd. Here are just some of the events coming up:

•May 3-5: CoreCon V at the Days Inn of Moorhead

•May 3: “Iron Man 3” is released

•May 4: Free Comic Book Day and re-grand opening at Paradox Comics-N-Cards in Fargo

•May 11: Fargo Zombie Pub Crawl

•May 17: “Star Trek Into Darkness” is released

•June 14: “Man of Steel” is released

•June 21: “World War Z” is released

•July 26: “The Wolverine” is released

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535