Wonderland One-Act Play Festival Flyer

Chapter 3: The Last Two Grand I Had

Here's the third installment of how my life in marketing got off to a very rough start. Chapter 3 of Marketing Mishaps.

Haven’t read Chapter 2 yet? Do that first.

It Was the last two grand i had

I was twenty-two and had nothing but the 2K my grandma had given me as a “loan” to get my life together.

I had no idea what to do. I had no high school, no college, nothing. All I knew was theatre. Maybe I was fearless, maybe I was dumb, maybe I’m a fucking genius, who knows? But here’s what I did…

I found out about this theater-festival-producer guy in the city who produced a one-act play competition every year and was rakin in tons of cash. I was intrigued. My idea was simple: Copy everything this guy did, but do everything better.

So, I picked apart his entire website. I printed out the rules and regulations required to get accepted. I called him and pretended to be an actor (even though I was an actor, I pretended to be an interested actor) and asked all the questions that I still had:

How much do you pay talent?

How many shows does each play get?

Where do we rehearse?

…All that shit.

First thing I did was came up with a name, The Wonderland One-Act Play Festival.

Then I paid $350 for a graphic designer to come up with a flier. It was the greatest flier in the world and it caught the attention of playwrights across the globe.

Here’s how.

I spent the last of the 2K on a full page ad on the back cover of the Dramatist Guild Magazine (the playwright union’s magazine) to advertise The Wonderland One-Act Play Festival, and put the required $15 application fee to submit your one-act play in bold font.

Only problem was, none of it existed… yet. Just the name, and the idea. Oh, and the marketing materials.

That didn’t stop me from promising any playwright that was accepted into this prestigious festival that didn’t yet exist that they would receive nothing shy of the most preferential of treatment. All they had to do was send in their script with a check.

I told them–that if accepted–I would pair their script with a director, who would cast and rehearse their play. They would then receive a full-blown production in New York City, on 42nd Street.

Seemed like a sweet deal… if I could pull it off somehow. Remember: None of this existed at the time. Well, it did. In my head. But I submitted the ad to the magazine anyway, paid the advertising fee, and then my money was all gone. I figured all I had to do then was sit back and wait for the money to flow in.

I drank scotch like soda at the time (currently 12 years sober) and washed down Xanax by the dozen for a solid two weeks before I checked my mailbox every afternoon. Not one goddam script came in.

I was terrified. The food was runnin out in my fridge. I thought to myself… If I get NO submissions, I’m fucked… and drunk.

If I got ten submissions, I’d be even more fucked (and drunk) cause THEN I’d have to call off the whole festival, and refund the few checks I did get… How the hell can I do a festival with only ten plays?

The submission deadline I had set was approaching.

I was stumbling over my feet on my way to the mailbox that last day. The mailbox guy at at the UPS store probably thought I was an alcoholic–which as it turns out, I was, which is why I’m now 12 years sober.

Anyway, I asked him one more time if any fuckin mail had come in for me. He handed me a big box full of over 250 manilla envelopes, each with a one-act play and check for $15.

Holy shit.

IT WORKED!

Oh no.

Now I need to figure out how to deliver on all the millions of promises I made.

I didn’t even have a festival venue at that point, so I immediately cashed the checks and put a deposit down for the best Off-Broadway Theatre in the city I could find: Theatre Row Studios on 42nd Street. It was in the heart of the Theatre District.

There it was: a venue on 42nd Street ✅

But I needed help, so I brought on two partners and we frantically read through all the scripts and picked out a hundred plays that didn’t completely suck.

Then I realized that the guy I was stealing the business model from–the theater producer–I realized he was charging, not only a submission fee, but an entrance fee as well. The New York Fringe Festival was charging an entrance fee too, and they were charging like $1,000 or some shit.

So we quickly made a website–cause back then websites were so damn ugly and hard to build that we didn’t even have one–and added (cryptically) that we ALSO required an additional $185 entrance fee for acceptance, and that the additional money would be used for cast, publicity, insurance, the venues, props, and set costs. I just copied what all the other festival producers put on their applications.

Then I emailed those hundred playwrights with an “Official Acceptance Letter,” which also included the new hidden $185 fee request.

Forty-four of those hundred playwrights told me to “go fuck yourself you crook and refund my $15 check,” which I did…

…But the other fifty-six playwrights sent me a check for the extra $185 and were pumped as hell to get the ball rolling.

So I went back to the venue and paid for the theatre in full, hired a general manager and three stage managers, a carpenter to build a universal set and prop pieces, and came up with a month-long schedule of when each play would be performed. Actually, my ex-girlfriend did that for me. Christine. Hi Christine.

Then I put up the synopsis of each of the fifty-six attending plays on our website and listed an ad for directors to pick a play that they’d be willing to cast and rehearse on their own.

Luckily, New York is full of eager theater directors looking to build a resume, so in no time, I had successfully paired each play with a director, ready to cast and rehearse their chosen play.

Within three weeks we had accumulated over 300 actors, forty or so directors, and a staff of ten or so. By the time we opened, with the combined submission fees and entry fees, we had already broken even.

We ran five shows a day, and three one-act plays per show for an entire month. Every ticket was pure profit. Then we held an awards show AND gave the winning play a $1,000 grand prize. What a hero I am.

In short, we turned that 2K into over 40K within two months (a massive amount of money for a kid–at that time. Now teenage gamers make a million-a-second), but for me? At that time? In like 2003? I was a fuckin hero. But… I felt so bad that I overworked everyone that I gave everyone bonuses and was left with only like $850 to pay myself.

Not only that, but I received a fuckload of bad press (you can probably still find it). I had nights of extreme stress, and I had nights of extreme sex. It was scary, educational, amazing, and horrible all at once.  One thing was for sure: I did it, and it was invigorating. And it all started with marketing.

An idea, a name, a flyer, and back cover ad space.

So, years later, when I moved to Los Angeles, I went ahead and tried to do it all over again. This time, as an adult.

…but the LAPD helicopters started chasing me around in my uHaul that I had rented. More on that later.

First I’ll tell you the insane story about how I was introduced to email marketing, and the all the mishaps along the way. It’s time for you to meet Mike Z.

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