Selling Out With Melissa Carbone
Melissa Carbone and her entertainment company, Ten Thirty One Productions, scored the biggest deal in Shark Tank history this past October when she agreed to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s counterproposal — $2 million in exchange for a 20% equity stake. Apparently, Carbone and the growling zombie by her side didn’t scare Cuban. With wildly popular events, like the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride and the Great Horror Campout, that draw big crowds and bigger revenues, Cuban chose instead to bank on Carbone, who’s gearing up to expand her attractions nationwide. The gutsy entrepreneur loves creating live events from scratch, and her enthusiasm is infectious. Here, she explains her formula for winning: heaps of passion, experiences in environments that the typical horror fan isn’t used to and being prepared for the marathon rather than the sprint.
Jim McCarthy: How did you get started producing live events?
Melissa Carbone: My background is with Clear Channel Entertainment and through the many facets of a 10-year career there, I became very interested in creating live events and concepts from scratch and watching them come to life. It was motivating to me, and I absolutely loved the creative side of live production. No second chances, no do-overs, just one shot to get it right in front of big audiences — challenging and exhilarating.
JM: Your popular horror attraction, the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, is a big part of the reason you recently won the biggest deal in Shark Tank history. Can you tell us about that deal and your experience on the show?
MC: We have been wanting to expand our assets (attractions) into other markets, and we used the show as an opportunity to potentially do that. I knew that $2 million would be a tough putt since that large of an amount had never been pitched historically but, candidly, anything less would not have done us much good in regards to our expansion, so we just went for it. And I’m sure you saw the shock on my face during the episode when Mark [Cuban] took the deal so quickly. That was legitimate shock, and it lasted the entire day. We’re using the funds to do exactly that — expand our Hayride brand into NYC and expand our Great Horror Campout brand into a tour along the West Coast that will ideally stop in 10 cities.
JM: When you think about all of the year-round attractions you produce, what have been some of the common characteristics of the successful ones?
MC: It is critical to engage the audience, and create experiences in environments that the typical horror fan is not used to. We create attractions in places that haven’t typically hosted horror/haunted attractions, environments that in their own right (without the sets, cast, special effects) have a haunting vibe and magical ambience. Though hayrides have been done before, they haven’t been done in L.A., so we decided that putting a bunch of people who spend their entire lives on concrete amongst the bright lights in the woods at night could be something pretty special. And in the case of Great Horror Campout, allowing people to have a 12-hour experience sleeping in tents and being stalked by every monster, demon or creature your mind can create would give fans who want more than a couple of mazes that last two hours a new addiction. Additionally, we want the guests to be able to touch or be touched (not necessarily being literal, but maybe I am). Campout is a different model that entails digging through corpses, reaching into eggs, bathing in the blood of a Pope Lick [monster] and even partaking in a sacrificial voodoo ritual. You may also be bagged, bound and (simulated) tortured. This is targeting what we refer to as the “High-Horror Fan” who wants extreme. The Hayride uses other more family friendly ways to engage. For example, we have zip lines and bungee stunts that put the action all around you in a 360-degree experience. We’ve supplied ponchos in the past, then sent guests into an oblivion of blood and guts spray. Even a demon Santa annihilating you with snow as you ride through Wicked Wonderland is a fan favorite. Every single year we change the entire experience and rarely do something twice identically. This is important to keep fans coming back and actually gets them excited to find out what the new theme of the year will be. The biggest fans send emails all year wanting to take guesses and find out when they can get a glimpse of the new artwork. We love them.
JM: Do you have any tips for other producers about how to consistently get people through the door?
MC: Marketing is beyond vital. Don’t skimp here. A large presence in the marketplace will get people to your door, but to keep them the experience better be kick ass because there are just too many others out there ready to scoop up your dissatisfied customers.
JM: Are there things you do differently today when producing live events than you did when you first started your production company?
MC: Yeah, everything! Our philosophy has never waivered, and I think that is really what has separated us. But structurally and logistically, most has changed or at least evolved in a significant way. For instance, we went from using a lot of third parties to produce our events to pulling everything in-house. Concessions, casting and costuming/wardrobe are all things that we own in-house now. We fabricate all our own special effects, props, masks and large costumes and even produce all our creative — from radio commercials to video content — that you see at the events. This has been a great evolution for us. Creating live attractions is incredibly difficult if you’re in it to win it. It’s an alluring business for people because for some reason people think it’s an easy buck, but most end up failing because of that. The learning curve is great, and you need to be in it for the marathon rather than the sprint, or you’ll find yourself wasting a lot of time and money. Lastly, the passion has to be massive, and that is where I know we win. My team is the most passionate team in the business. We’ve been together for the entire five years, and all of us feel like it’s our company and these attractions are our offspring. That’s our magic.