Saturn Awards set to celebrate Hollywood’s collective inner nerd

When filmmaker Dean Devlin was writing and producing the 1994 film “Stargate,” one of the earliest entries in his sci-fi-centric filmography, genre projects were considered little more than potentially modest moneymakers aimed at a specific niche audience. And winning major industry awards, outside of special effects trophies? Out of the question.

“We were told at the time that science fiction was dead,” Devlin tells CNN. But even as Devlin and others’ works began to reenergize mainstream audiences’ enthusiasm and appetite for movies and TV shows set firmly in the realms of science fiction, fantasy, superhero and horror, Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe voters often turned a blind eye toward honoring fantastical entertainment. But the Saturn Awards would unfailingly take notice.

And now, in an era when Hollywood genre projects are enjoying their most popular and profitable period, the Saturn Awards ceremony is hoping to claim a little more of the spotlight for itself, with a substantial revamp and an expansive online reach.

For decades, the Saturn Awards — the official trophy of the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films, established in 1973 to honor the top genre projects in film and TV — soldiered forth in relative obscurity, though it’s one and only TV broadcast in 1978, at the height of sci-fi mania sparked by “Star Wars,” still reverberates in today’s meme culture thanks to host William Shatner’s memorably schizophrenic spoken word interpretation of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”

Typically held in a low-key Los Angeles area hotel, it would draw a tight-knit assortment of die-hard fans and industry professionals, including occasional breakthrough superstars talent with a personal fondness for genre, like Steven Spielberg or 11-time winner James Cameron.

Devlin, who sits on the board of the awards, says they’ve existed “a completely unpretentious awards ceremony…It gives this home for people like me, for the nerds of the world, who want to celebrate this.”

However, in recent years the popularity of genre entertainment exploded– from “The Matrix,” “Spider-Man,” “Lord of the Rings” “The Dark Knight” and “LOST” through to the current Marvel Cinematic Universe films, “The Walking Dead,” “Game of Thrones” and revivals of beloved franchise like “Star Wars” and “The Planet of the Apes.” More people deemed themselves fans; more A-list creatives received nominations; and more of them showed up to collect their trophies.

‘It’s a very unique experience, and it’s one of the reasons why everybody comes back year after year,” says Devlin. “And although it’s a complete nerd-fest celebration, you have the biggest stars in Hollywood, the biggest movie directors, the biggest producers. They all want to be part of it. It brings out the inner nerd in everybody.”

“But at the same time it still has this kind of shadow over it, like it’s somehow not as good as art house movies,” he adds. “I love art house films, but I also love genre films, and I think they should be celebrated just as much.”

Clearly, it was time for the Saturn Awards to step into a new future: one with as much prestige as its recently discovered relevance.

Where ‘popular’ is not an insult

To that end, the Saturns turned to Justin Hochberg, a prolific television producer whose work has appeared across a multitude of broadcast and cable networks (most notably, “The Apprentice”), to take the helm as CEO of the awards themselves. “My specialty is looking at things and seeing what they can be, as opposed to what they are,” Hochberg tells CNN.

He also counts himself as a major fan of the kinds of entertainment the Saturns celebrate.

“I waited in line in 1977 for ‘Star Wars,’ and then ‘Empire Strikes Back’ and then ‘Return of the Jedi,” he says. Today, “genre has extended to beyond just your normal superhero movies and ‘Star Wars’ movies. It’s everything from ‘Stranger Things’ down the list to ‘Outlander’…it’s exciting to see that it’s become something that is so broad and so diverse: 50% of its audience is female; a third of the audience is 34 to 55 and a third of it is 55-plus. It’s making content for all ages and all styles.”

Still, traditional awards ceremonies — despite infrequent outliers like 2003’s “The Lord of Rings: Return of the King’s” best picture win at the Academy Awards and “Black Panther’s” best picture nomination — have struggled to include the most popular entries within the flourishing genres. “The Academy Awards have been trying to figure out how do they incorporate pop culture icons like ‘Black Panther,'” says Hochberg. “So what do they do? They try something like the [briefly planned] popular category. But nobody wants to win the popular category at the Academy Awards, because it’s insulting.”

Hochberg quickly discovered a distinct advantage at the Saturn Awards.

“What I saw was a unbelievable aspect and an unbelievable set of goodwill that they had earned over 45 years,” he says. “It’s always been an underdog group of people, people that spent seven hours shooting green screen and getting their makeup done, and are never going to be celebrated by the Academy Awards or the Golden Globes or any of that stuff,” Hochberg says. “Yet they all come together, in one place, once a year. They don’t do it because it’s press, awards or anything like that. They do it for the love of it.”

To capitalize on that, this year the Saturn Awards will experience a major upgrade as part of the an ambitious rebranding. Held on the significant date of Sept. 13 — Friday the 13th, for the non-horror savvy — the ceremony relocates to the Avalon, a swankier, more production-friendly locale in the heart of Hollywood, and will be hosted by actress and TV personality Aisha Tyler, an self-proclaimed geek with deep affection for genre.

A powerhouse lineup of current genre giants has been selected for special honors during the evening: actor and filmmaker Jon Favreau {“Iron Man,” “The Lion King’) will receive the Visionary Award; Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige will receive the Stan Lee World Builder Award, named for the legendary Marvel Comics writer, editor and publisher; and Marvel Television president Jeph Loeb will receive the Dan Curtis Legacy Award, named for the creator of “Dark Shadows.” And fandom favorites including “Supergirl’s” Melissa Benoist, filmmaker Kevin Smith, “Stranger Things” creators the Duffer Brothers and “Halloween” icon Jamie Lee Curtis are slated to appear.

Not your typical award show

The ceremony will also return for public consumption, simulcast online across one of the largest aggregates of genre-centric streaming media partners, including Cinedigm’s CONtv, Nerdist, the newly launched Pluto TV Sci-Fi Channel, Shout Factory TV, Twitch and the popular YouTube channel, as well the official Saturn Awards YouTube Channel, as well as via the Saturn Awards website and iOS & Android apps.

“Now something like 100 million fans around the world on every single device and platform will have a chance to actually watch the Awards,” says Devlin.

“We’re not producing this for linear broadcast,” says Hochberg, who says the ceremony has been designed specifically for the social media age. “We’re building this thing for digital distribution, for interactivity, and for moments in show which are built like little clips that will channel through social media.”

Hochberg promises a surprising, unconventional, immersive approach in contrast to conventional awards ceremonies.

“We’re going to have special things on the red carpet and in the room happening that make you engage, just like you would at Harry Potter Land or a pop-up [experience]…so the attendees have an experience like stepping into a theme park,” he says.

There will also be cutaways to panel discussions with top industry figures.

“Genre people like to talk to other genre people about ‘What was it like being on the set riding a dragon?’ or ‘What was it like working with James Cameron, going below the water for 10 hours a day on specially designed subs?'” Variations on a popular annual Comic-Con panel, “Starship Smackdown,” in which panelists debate nerdy topics like whether the U.S.S. Enterprise or Battlestar Galactica would win in a space battle, will also be incorporated.

“Instead of having everywhere you look it’s just a boring limo, why can’t you show up in the DeLorean from ‘Back To The Future,’ or the Batmobile?” says board member Roberto Orci, the writer-producer whose genre credits include “Transformers,” the J.J. Abrams-directed “Star Trek” films and the televisions series “Fringe” and “Sleepy Hollow.”

Still, Orci says such moments have to have an organic quality. “The best way to make sure something doesn’t go viral is to try and make it go viral,” he concedes with a chuckle. “But our hope is to have the spirit of the event, to lead to moments that are not scripted, that are not intended merely for shock value but that are part of the mood of the night.”

“Boris Karloff’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is right outside the door of the Avalon,” says Saturn Awards board member Regina Carpinelli of the more subtle inspirations. But Capinelli — a veteran event producer of specialty conventions, including the late Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee’s Comikaze and RuPaul’s DragCon — says the Saturn Awards are also seeking a bigger footprint beyond the night of the ceremony with an ongoing online presence, active social media interactions, special events, podcasts and other forms of engagement.

“Why can’t this be celebrated all year long? Fandom doesn’t start and stop at one point of the year,” she says. “We have to keep [the fans] salivating….so it’s not just ‘Here is this awards show.’ It’s all year round.”

Futurism, is turns out, is also essential to the Saturn Awards. “Part of our mission is to look forward and to be at the center of pop culture,” says Hochberg. “Much like MTV in its early days was leading the conversation and dialogue, our job at the Saturn Awards is to be future-looking and to find the people that are at the forefront of making pop culture.”