Preparing for Armageddon: A conversation with Bill Geradts, NZ’s Lord of the Nerds

It’s precisely 12:49 pm, and as usual Christchurch’s Black Betty café is abuzz with activity thanks to the deluge of students and professionals streaming in from the surrounding central city. Bill Geradts is right at home in the vaguely pirate-themed eatery – the fact the reporter set to interview him is nearly 20 minutes late, be damned.

Pirates and coffee don’t usually mix. But then again, most people said Geradts’ love for nerd culture wouldn’t work as a business model, either.

“If I wasn’t a giant nerd, we would never have got it off the ground,” he says matter-of factly, coffee in hand.

“I don’t use the term lightly. I watch everything.”

It’s a passion, Geradts says, that began at an early age in the pre-digital Dark Ages of the twentieth century.

“We used to go to three-monthly video days in Auckland to watch the latest Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes. Somebody from America would send tapes and that was the only way you’d watch them.”

Image: Armageddon founder and uber-geek, Bill Geradts

But Geradts’ passion has paid off in the form of Armageddon. Taking place each year in multiple cities – including Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch – the entertainment extravaganza has grown since 1995 to become the biggest of its kind in Oceania.

“The first eight years we did the show, I was working full-time while were doing it,” explains the Christchurch-based Geradts, who puts on the shows with the help of his wife Adele and two other employees.

“I quit my job [to work on Armageddon full-time], and then had to get my job back for six months. I was lucky my boss liked me.”

Armageddon’s success comes in spite of what Geradts jokingly claims are unorthodox business choices.

“As a business model, we do things that we shouldn’t. We spend money that we definitely shouldn’t. And yet it makes the show. There’s probably a smarter way to do what we do, but that would be a much more corporate way. And that’s not what we do.”

The next edition of Armageddon will hit Wellington’s Westpac Stadium from July 17-19. Besides the comics, collectibles, games, and girls (and guys) in charmingly creative cosplay, among the movie stars set to mingle with the deluge of between 25,000 and 30,000 denizens is Karen Gillan, who played the companion of the Eleventh Doctor in the famed Doctor Who TV series and had a starring role in 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy.

Getting celebrity guests to attend is a big part of Geradts’ business – and one of the trickiest aspects of it.

“She’s probably the biggest guest we’ve had in Wellington in a long time,” he says.

“It’s not always easy to get big-name guests to come down (to New Zealand). I spent nine months working on a guest for Auckland and it came to nothing. I’m already working on guests for March [2016].”

Wearing a white T-shirt and worn leather jacket, the 44-year-old Geradts looks far from the “neckbeard” stereotype sometimes associated with nerd culture. Particularly in the past few years, he says, nerd culture has become “cool” – which has led to an explosion in Armageddon attendance.

“2011 was the worst year we’d ever had,” he says.

“The Rugby World Cup, the earthquakes – there just wasn’t a good part of that year business-wise that I can look back at. We barely survived it. And then 2012 was a great year. And every year since.”

Increasing acceptance of nerd culture has been a big help, too.

“There’s been more interest in the fantasy genre than there ever has before,” Geradts says, attributing much of the increase to Game of Thrones.

“It just makes it more mainstream. Now we’re almost more female-oriented than we are male. It’s certainly 50-50, which is a huge shift since it used to be 70-30 [men to women]. There’s definitely been a female awakening of nerd-dom.”

“If anything, geekdom is becoming just slightly more female-dominant in that the audience is growing more than the male audience.”

The exploding popularity led Bill and his wife to hire their first employee in April 2014. On July 7, their first intern started.

“The exhibition industry is such a niche market,” he explains.

“Finding people who have the skills for that is actually really hard.”

The rise of “nerd chic” may have helped a bit, but Geradts says the roots of Armageddon’s success lies in the tried-and-true method of taking risks and being bold.

“Take a risk,” he says in offering his philosophy for business.

“This whole thing, we invested in it, we paid for it, we did it all ourselves. This was our baby from start to finish. It’s nice to be able to say we did it on our own to get it to this point. This isn’t to say we didn’t have help. But we took the risk. We lost enough money on the first show we did that we shouldn’t have done a second one. But we kept going.”

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Armageddon Auckland will take place from October 23-26 at the ASB Showgrounds.