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‘Iron Man’ Robert Downey Jr. is betting on this Comic-Con biz that's raking in millions

Robert Downey Jr. knows a hit when he sees one. The actor, who stars as industrialist Tony Stark and his Iron Man alter ego, was an early investor in Maker Studios, a YouTube-based video supplier that Walt Disney acquired in 2014 for $500 million.

Downey's Spidey sense tingled last June when he joined the $18.5 million Series A investor group backing Loot Crate, a Los Angeles-based subscription service that delivers monthly boxes of nerdy memorabilia to geeks and gamers.

The five-year-old company is one of the fastest-growing players in the red-hot market for trinkets, toys and T-shirts that appeal to fans of comic books, sci-fi movies and animation. Riding a wave of Walking Dead soap, Star Trek beach towels and Game of Thrones books, Loot Crate generated an estimated $116 million in revenue in 2015, according to co-founder Chris Davis. This is the most recent figure he would provide. The company isn't profitable.

"We're like Comic-Con in a box," says Davis, alluding to the annual San Diego convention of geeks and gamers. "We're curators for collectibles for a very serious fan."

Davis and co-founder Matthew Arevalo began Loot Crate in 2012 with $25,000 in money from angels. The serial entrepreneurs met at a 2012 Hackathon Convention in Los Angeles. At the outset, they packed boxes in Davis' father's house and enlisted family when the demand got heavy. Today more than 240 full-time employees pack up to 70,000 boxes a day in a 130,000-square-foot warehouse and ship them to an estimated 600,000 subscribers in 35 countries.

Five-year-old Loot Crate is an LA-based subscription service that delivers monthly boxes of nerdy memorabilia to geeks and gamers.
Source: Loot Crate
Five-year-old Loot Crate is an LA-based subscription service that delivers monthly boxes of nerdy memorabilia to geeks and gamers.

"They've hit the sweet spot for collectors," says Marty Brochstein, senior vice president of the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association. "Their customers are passionate and want to be the first of their friends to have something that's unique."

For $8.99 a month to $44.99 a month, Loot Crate subscribers sign up for a monthly care package of selected chachkas. In January, subscribers of its "Origins" box received items that included a miniature replica of a Captain America shield, a small Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle mug and a reprint of a 1930s Action Comics in which Superman made his first appearance.

Loot Crate isn't alone in the nerd market. Denver-based Geek Fuel offers monthly and yearly subscription plans of up to $19 per month and boxes with merchandise licensed from some of the same content creators as Loot Crate, including DC Comics, HBO and Star Trek. Canadian company Nerd Block offers several subscriptions geared to gamers, comic fans and horror aficionados, including those tailored to younger girls and boys.

Even legendary Marvel Comic creator Stan Lee offers a $49.99-a-month subscription, according to his website, "with everything Stan Lee loves, delivered to your door."

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Hollywood comic book companies and other content creators, of course, welcome the expansion of the nerd market, which brings new customers for the action-hero films, TV shows and other 'fancentric' products they churn out with increasing frequency.

"It's a great business model. It allows us to super-serve our superfans and bring them the magic of our brand," says Josh Silverman, executive vice president for global licensing for Disney's consumer products unit.

Disney licenses its Marvel, Star Wars and Disney Princess characters to Loot Crate and other subscription companies and sells its own subscriptions for its Tsum Tsum plush toys and other products.

Targeting a red-hot market

To distinguish itself from its competitors, Loot Crate churns out unique products by manufacturing more than 80 percent of the items it sends to its subscribers. It promotes its service on Facebook and other social media, which allows it to also follow fans and divine new products that the most rabid fans might want, says Davis.

Pushing the traditional boundaries of geekdom, it created special Loot Wear crates that feature "franchise-inspired fashions," including shipments with socks, "undies" and Superman necklaces and other products "for her." Pet owners in October received a Gremlin pet food mat and a Scooby-Doo plush toy in the Loot Pet crate.

It's also expanded into sports fandom, with a special "Slam" crate for followers of World Wrestling Entertainment and signed agreements with 10 Major League Baseball clubs to provide crates — which include an action figure for each of the teams' starting pitchers — to their fans as well, says Davis.

"They've hit the sweet spot for collectors. Their customers are passionate and want to be the first of their friends to have something that's unique." -Marty Brochstein, senior vice president of the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association

Loot Crate was introduced to Major League Baseball by Sterling VC, another of its Series A investors, says Rohit Gupta, a founder of the firm. The sport, media and real estate venture fund is backed by Sterling Equities, which owns the New York Mets baseball club.

"Loot Crate is great at executing at scale and satisfying what the true fan wants, and few fans are as fanatic as sports fans," said Gupta, who says he expects other sports teams to follow.

How long before someone scoops up Loot Crate? In 2015 private equity firm ACON Investments acquired Funko, which also sells collectibles and other products for pop-culture fans that include products licensed from Disney, DC Comics and others. Terms of that deal were not disclosed.

"We're open to all options," says Davis. "We have no long-term plan. Acquisition, IPO, staying private. Right now we're just focusing on being the best curators we can be."

— By Ronald Grover, special to CNBC.com