Stars Who Make a Difference: Melissa Carbone

“Paying it forward and moving social consciousness are in the DNA of everything I do and will ever do.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Carbone, CEO of Ten Thirty One Productions. Melissa is best known for creating the ever so popular LA’s Haunted Hayride along with several attractions around the nation which include the Great Horror Campout, Great Horror Movie Night, and Ghost Ship. Melissa is also well known for making history on NBC’s “Shark Tank” as Mark Cuban gave her the highest offer ($2 million) they’ve ever had on the show and she recently released her first book Ready, Fire, Aim: How I Turned a Hobby into An Empire in which she discusses her journey of becoming a now successful multi-millionaire. Known as the “Queen of Halloween,” Melissa has a large awareness of social issues and also takes time out of her busy life to support the LGBTQ community along with animal rights issues and humanitarian issues, etc and have brought those ideas to the company which sets them to be very unique in the entertainment industry. She is extremely eco-conscious and all materials used to create the production of her events is recyclable and all food sold at the venue are vegan and plant-based!

What is your “backstory”?

I come from a small farm in Connecticut and feel like I’ve had flames shooting out of my feet from the get go. I was always the kid walking upstream because something about traveling with the tide just wasn’t compatible with my DNA. My mom and I were on our own for a while and I think this is what really turned me into a workhorse. I never claim to be smarter or more talented than anyone, but I will out work everyone. That pushed me to get my first big job right out of college at Clear Channel Entertainment and move up in that company at lightening speeds. And it’s what pushed me to jump from that career after a decade into the direction of building my own empire. I left a cushy high paying very secure career to hurl myself into the great-unknown abyss of risk. I trusted the unrelenting fireball growing in my gut and knew I’d give every part of my constitution to building the life I had always wanted and dreamed of. My best life, a life that would give me back ownership of my own time. I decided to “choose” the uncommon path because I wanted to be on my most extraordinary path. That’s what lead me to Ten Thirty One Productions, Activism, Love, Success, Heartache, Anxiety, Gut Punches…and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

In the very early stages of forming the company, I was incredibly fascinated by how large the revenue generation behind Halloween was with very little attention on it. Upon discovering it was a multibillion dollar industry, I was shocked at how few choices existed in a market the size of LA in the realm of Halloween activities. Coming from New England, we were barraged with Halloween offerings at every intersection so I started to feel a hole in the market that I thought I could fill…or be a part of filling. My partner, Alyson was always looking for Haunted Houses and Hayrides to surprise me but had a really hard time finding them and zero luck on the hayride front . My initial hope was that I would bring a down home, old world Halloween magic to the live attraction space in LA. I wanted to provide an experience that would be super unique and intrigue a city dwelling population. A knock your socks off, “how is this possible in a city” type kind of thing. Sticking them in the woods at night seemed to be a tall order but I knew if I could pull it off, we’d hit it out of the park. Back then, the hope was to just create the most beautiful and magical Halloween world that I could. Obviously, the carrot I’ve been chasing has moved…and keeps moving. (haha)

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

I got the largest deal in Shark Tank history and became partners with Mark Cuban four years into the life of my company Ten Thirty One Productions. I had a unique experience because I hadn’t ever watched Shark Tank and only vaguely even knew what it was. They approached me to be on the show and the first time or so, I actually declined because my company was doing well and I didn’t really want to give up equity. But when the opportunity knocked again, I decided it could really be a big expediter in our plans for growth and expansion of our events. The only way I could live with giving up equity in the company was if the price tag justified it, which is what led me to securing the largest deal in the history of the show at the time. That was Season 5 and the deal was for two million dollars. The story gets even more extraordinary because I was in the middle of getting divorced from Alyson who also founded our company. It was an incredibly painful time and yet one of the best moments of our companies life.

So what does your company do?

Ten Thirty One Productions (TTO) is an entertainment company that creates, owns and produces live attractions in the horror space. Our most popular attraction is the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride, which has been expanded to a second location in New York City. We also produce the Great Horror Campout, a 12-hour overnight interactive horror camping experience which has been in six cities up the west coast, Ghost Ship, a haunted attraction that takes place on a ship that actually sets sail, and our outdoor movie series, Great Horror Movie Night.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We are the only company of our kind in the United States, potentially anywhere. We stand out for several reasons, the first being we’re the only horror genre specific live events company that operates year round. However, what really sets us apart is a formula that we have honed over the past decade to create truly immersive horror experiences. The formula is broken down into three criteria qualifiers. First, all of our attractions must exist in an environment that is already haunting, creepy, disturbing in its demeanor before we even install our footprint into it. Second, the model or type of attraction we create has to be a first of its kind in that marketplace. That means, we’ll never just roll into a marketplace and throw up a haunted house or maze. That already exists. The world has those already. When we brought the LA Haunted Hayride to Los Angeles, there had never been anything like it there. To this day, Los Angelinos think I invented the hayride. (haha) I’ve tried to explain they exist in other parts of the country as I’m a New England girl which is where my love of the hayride model started, but it has fallen on deaf ears here in LA. Ghost Ship was an attraction we launched that took place on a mega yacht that actually did leave the dock and set sail. While other boats with haunted attractions on them do exist, none of them actually set sail which to me is the environment that makes it haunted and disturbing (criteria #1). The Great Horror Campout was the first ever overnight camping horror attraction in the country. All brand new models in their respective locations. Finally, the third piece of criteria is that all attractions must be a continuous experience of complete immersion. The experience must achieve the highest level of suspension of disbelief that a live attraction can achieve. It has to be a world that does not have disruptions that take you out of it. When you enter our parking lots you enter the world and are not plucked out of it mentally until you leave the parking lot. You don’t walk from one part of the attraction to another and see content inconsistent with our narrative or visual aesthetic. While you are in my world I don’t want you to think about the stack of bills on the counter that need to be paid or the crappy day you just had at work. All I want you to think about is what is coming around this next corner to annihilate me.

Are you working on any meaningful non-profit projects? How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I work and have worked with so many non-profits throughout my career and life. Paying it forward and moving social consciousness are in the DNA of everything I do and will ever do. We created Ten Thirty One Productions from day one with green coaches from the Environmental Media Association because I wasn’t going to be another live entertainment environmental nightmare like the industry was known for. It costs us so much more to “care” than it would if we didn’t but it’s not an option for me. Most of our work takes place outside, often in parks, so to date we’ve given almost a million dollars to the LA Parks Foundation, which preserves parks for the people of Los Angeles. But aside from just basic financial support, Ten Thirty One Productions has an opportunity to educate and help move progress towards environmental consciousness in business. We don’t have to get rich off the backs of the planet and other living beings. It’s important for me to put our money where our mouth is so we created an intense program where all of our sets are reused and recycled materials, including wardrobe and costuming, we have recycling and composting programs, for most of our history have used electric or hybrid production vehicles, biodiesel, biodegradable materials, are plastic free in all concessions and serve only plant based food. This is highly uncommon in the live space.

On a personal side, I have been working against injustices in the factory farming and animal welfare worlds and ocean degradation for over a decade including financial support to Farm Sanctuary, World Wildlife Fund, PETA, Earth Island Institute and even being part of the team from the Academy Award winning documentary The Cove traveling to Taiji, Japan each year to lobby against annual dolphin slaughters and the captivity trade. I was part of a five-person delegation selected to go to the Japanese Embassy to try to negotiate an end to the slaughter.

Years ago I was introduced to sCARE Foundation which provides financial support for youth programs in the horror genre and got really passionate about early life experiences setting kids up for success or failure in life. Through Ten Thirty One and our partnership with LA Parks, we donate 2000 tickets every year to inner city youth programs who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend our attractions and at this point have become family traditions for thousands of kids and families who couldn’t afford these experiences. It also helps keep kids in safe environments during the Halloween season and to bring it all full circle, have these experiences in an environment that cares about our global environmental footprint. We can help these kids, give them a good time and also promote great environmental messaging.

I’d be completely remiss if I didn’t talk about how absurdly obsessed I’ve become with trying to get fiery young (or not young) entrepreneurs to go for it. The wealth of the world doesn’t have to belong to a few people. I’ve seen the same behaviors on repeat keep people handcuffed to a life that they wouldn’t describe as their best life or a life where their time belongs to someone else. That’s not a mandatory existence, we’re not victims of circumstance. How many brilliant minds and ideas are out there that have yet to be actualized. Can you imagine if Steve Jobs or Bill Gates didn’t activate on their ideas? How different would our world be today? I want people to find the guts to activate. I want to help unleash the next wave of magic makers who were just crazy enough to think they could. I wrote a book called “Ready, Fire, Aim” (How I Turned A Hobby Into An Empire) specifically for that purpose and am going to use that platform to mentor as many aspiring entrepreneurs as I can. This has become the passion of my life.

Wow! Can you tell me a story about a person who was impacted by your cause?

I can’t tell you how many families approach me each year at our events and tell me how much the LA Haunted Hayride has meant to their family but one of the stories that has stuck and kind of sent a lightening bold through my spine when I heard it was a 17 year old girl who saw me walking out of our box office from quite a distance and ran, I mean literally ran to catch me. She gave me a hug which at first was a bit jarring but followed it up by saying “I’ve grown up with The Hayride” which already was shocking and stopped me in my cerebral tracks for a second as I confusingly was trying to deduce how anyone had grown up with us. Had we really been around long enough for this generation of young adults to have grown up with us? Aside from feeling like I should go jump in the car a race to the nearest Botox needle I could find because I must be ancient and didn’t know it, I realized we in fact had become an iconic Halloween staple in the biggest city in America. But what she said after that was the really good stuff. She and her brothers had been a few of the kids who were able to get the tickets we donated to the inner city youth programs each year. Her parents had gotten divorced when they were much younger, they were financially devastated, the kids were getting split up between parents and shuffled around and life just seemed so tumultuous for them but on this one night a year they would all come together as a family and forget for a second. It was the bridge that brought her parents back together to an amicable place and the only fun they were really able to enjoy all year long. Not sure about the rest of the family but this girl was also a vegetarian, lol which of course I loved hearing. Whether or not that had anything to do with our plant based concessions and environmental messaging who knows but it was an awesome feeling. She was now there with a bunch of her friends and boyfriend.

Another point I like to make is from the stance of the kind of impact our philanthropic efforts have not from an individual’s personal story but an overall impact in water usage, carbon footprint, lives saved, ocean pollution, soil pollution, rainforest. For example if we look at just our concessions being plant based and plastic free, the numbers are staggering. In one month, we save over 10 Million gallons of water just by being plant based. Clean water supplies are in crisis so those kinds of conservations matter. That’s just one issue. The tens of thousands of square feet of soil and ocean not being polluted, 800–1000 animals spared, and lest we not forget the health benefits are all part of the impact equation.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1) “Take a day” — meaning when someone calls your baby ugly, which happened in 2011 when we launched our second brand and brand new attraction, I got some very cruel comments and basically started a mosh pit on social media by responding to the comments in defense of the attraction. I should have just “taken a day” and probably would have calmed down and not in-sighted a riot online.

2) “Remember this moment” — The struggles and focus on building something can be all you look at because it’s so acute. I can’t tell you how much I love my company and feel shocked every day that this is what I get to do and how I get to live. But like many, my head was down for a lot of it because of deadlines, timelines, the race to keep pushing and we need to be able to take the time to stop and really feel what’s happening viscerally.

3) Diversify every department and party involved in your company — When you only have one person who handles all the production since day one, that person has you hostage. This happened to me. I counted on the fact that this person would take care of a big piece of the company so I didn’t learn it the way I should have or depended on others on the project who knew it who could step in. A critical person on the team who held all the blueprints abandoned the project on the day we were to install it and it knocked the wind out of us for a while. This can happen so easily. Now everyone from material suppliers to lighting designers to costume designers are all valued part of the team but everything is diversified so we aren’t taken out by someone leaving the company.

4) A Join me or die demeanor isn’t hot! lol. I came out of the gates a little overzealous in the very beginning.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.

-Oprah Winfrey is a trailblazer and powerhouse and seems to have this divine power that can move people like few can.

-Elon Musk — innovator of life. He’s changing the world like Jobs and Gates but what I love most is how outlandish his ideas sound and most people think it’s crazy until he delivers it to their door. Godly.

Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

Right at this very moment, I am in the throes of the LA Haunted Hayride’s 9th season and busiest week of the year. This attraction will always be in the “most interesting projects” category because it’s what launched Ten Thirty One Productions and started the whole entrepreneurial life story. A week ago a writer said this as they described the hayride:

“One aspect that always sets the Los Angeles Haunted Hayride apart from other Halloween attractions is Artistry. With its agile performers, the Hayride and its other attraction suggest a demented Cirque du Soleil — as colorful and flamboyant as it is horrifying.”

I love this quote because I think it gets us. Each year we completely reinvent the narrative, theme and content to keep surprising our guests. We’ve created one of the only completely immersive worlds of the season that keep you inside the experience in a cerebral way the entire time we have you in our arms. It’s a giant 30 acre magical world that always pays attention to keeping your mind in the fear of the content.

As far as new interesting projects, I just released my first book and it’s been a whirlwind of a learning curve. The process of writing it was so cathartic, but then once it’s out in the world, the vulnerability of having your entire life available in every store across America and open for review and judgment is intense to say the least. I’ve been doing a lot of talking about the book with outlets and organizations, which I love because I’m watching aspiring entrepreneurs get the motivation to jump. I wanted to unlock more magic makers in the world so as I’m out on the streets to promote the book and see that very thing happening, my jaw hits the ground. It’s surreal.

I’ve also been collaborating on a new film project that’s been a lot of fun. Details haven’t been released yet so there isn’t much on which I can elaborate, but I’m getting to work with some of the best in horror which is this kids dream.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

There are so many people that have helped me along the way. People who have believed in me and supported me to the ends of the earth. But I’d have to say my ex-partner, Alyson Richards is the person who believed in my crazy visions enough to watch me quit my job and while everyone looked at me like I should be in a padded room, she not only supported the decision, but gave everything she had to do it with me. I’d get pushed to my breaking point and throw up my hands and she’d come in behind me and figure it out and just get it done. She had to endure a lot and while that probably is the reason we divorced eventually, we are now still friends and business partners better than we ever have been. It’s one of the most unconditional types of love and support I’ve ever felt aside from my mother who would of been my other pick for this question.