Around here our motto is “Feel Good and Be Good TV” and Hallmarkies regular Benjamin Ayers is an ambassador of both. In December, initially for his enjoyment and ours, he debuted a line of Hallmark University buttons and hoodies just in time for Christmas Con. When the response from fans was so positive, he decided to throw a store up online and make the hoodies available for purchase. Yours truly happily handed over the cash to snag a nifty green one.
Cut to a few weeks later and Ayres announced that line would be retiring but in its place he was launching an expanded line of rebranded Romance University merch that includes apparel, drinkware, pet gear, jewelry, and more. Now, just under two months in, he’s created a community of “alumni” and distributed over $11,000 to charity. I caught up with Ayres this week for Zoom chat about his labor of love turned juggernaut that’s very luckily coincided with a hiatus between acting projects.
“I 100% have another job. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that. Every once in a while you have this kernel of an idea and you cannot let it go. And oftentimes that can happen as a filmmaker or as an actor or as a writer. Or you have an idea for a script that you can’t stop thinking about,” he explains.
“And you try to push that through development, but it’s such a long process before that thing ever gets made. It’s easy for it to fizzle out. For this, it was like, ‘Here’s a great idea. Two weeks later, the whole thing’s happening, from the idea to making buttons and a couple of hoodies was less than a week. So I was so passionate about it.”
“And then getting to go to the convention and people really liking it and asking, ‘Well, how do I get a hoodie? [I didn’t know]. So then it was a whole rabbit hole [to] figure out how to make it available to everybody, because also I have to come back to Toronto and 90% of the alumni are all in the US.”
Ayres’ wife, Erin, has her own successful online business with ready-made pancake mixes, and between her business model and their friends with online businesses, he got the hang of it, and is grateful it’s much easier now to set up e-commerce than it would have been a decade ago. The bigger piece of the puzzle has been sourcing the products.
“It was difficult to find suppliers. The hard thing is I want to touch the sample before I sell anything, because there’s a real product. There’s nothing worse than [getting something and feeling like] it’s not as good as you expected,” he shares.
“So I started reaching out to companies online that are doing it and befriending them. It helped that I have some status where they can trust me. I could say, ‘Hello, I’m an actor. My name is Benjamin. This is who I am. This is why I’m aligned. Do you mind if we talk about a couple things, do you mind if we just have a discussion because I’m trying to figure out how I can fulfill these orders.’ And they turned me onto a few suppliers who I then contacted and now I’ve got about six different suppliers that I’m dealing with.”
“The hoodies and the t-shirts are the most popular, and the crew necks, but also the mugs and the to-go coffee drink tumblers.” Next up, he’s exploring a way to put the crest on canvas as a wall art piece.
In the case of the hoodies, the OG versions that his fellow Hallmarkies modeled and he wore were a small batch out of Vancouver that ran around $250 a piece, and while some fans clamored for those and agreed to the hefty price tag, Ayres found an alternative for the website’s main stock at a much more reasonable $60 price point. And I can vouch they’re substantial and so soft.
Ayres has now found himself on the receiving end of suppliers suggesting new products and companies looking for tips to replicate his success. “There’s so much going on. I’m trying to focus mostly on design and products and I now have a small team [handling communications and logistics]. All this to say, two months ago I knew nothing about any of this. And now these companies are calling me up and asking, ‘How are you doing this? What is this company you have?'”
The charity aspect of the venture also grew out of Christmas Con, in a way. “I think it’s all been very organic in its growth and what it can become and what it will become. It’s this malleable piece of clay that’s constantly changing, and originally with these hoodies, I [thought] ‘I can do this thing.’ And oftentimes in interviews you get asked, ‘What are you doing for your community?’ It made me [look at that],” he says.
“And at the convention we sat down in front of a thousand people talking about the differences we try to make within our communities and the different causes we work with. And there was one in particular in Toronto that I was working with called Project Sunshine. When children go to hospitals, they don’t have crafts and stuff for them to do.”
“The hospital can’t provide that. So there’s this one company in particular I was working with and we would provide coloring books and crayons and things so that when kids are there overnight or for a couple days, there are some things for them to do if their parents aren’t bringing anything for them, or are unable to.”
“So it was sort of top of mind because I had just come from the convention. I was thinking about it and wanting to do more for the community and it just kind of made sense that if I was gonna do this and sell these hoodies, that it doesn’t just look like this, like a ‘Ben Ayres’ kind of thing. I thought we could do something just coming off Christmas. It was a really nice thing to do.”
“And I thought that in particular women’s shelters. My neighbor here in Toronto, she’s a social worker and we had been talking and when I told her that I want to raise money, she’s the one who brought it to light that there are many underprivileged women and children’s shelters in Toronto. And she gave me a list and I did my research and chose two. And from that first batch we raised money and dropped off $4,000 in the first two weeks.”
The transition in naming stemmed from Ayres wanting to recognize the broader romcom landscape. “We launched the original thing then we moved to Romance because I felt that Hallmark was so specific and inclusive to only that network and I wanted to make it inclusive to all the networks, all of the streamers that make our movies,” he says.
As Valentine’s Day approached, Ayres did a bromance shirt with a smoochy pic of him and Tyler Hynes and thought about playing with the logo, which has three graphics. He reached out to the Three Wise Men and a Baby trio of Paul Campbell, Hynes, and Andrew Walker about putting their faces on the crest. It turned into another fantastic fundraiser, this time for an LA shelter selected by Walker.
“We raised $5,000 and he chose Alexandria House and he and his wife, Cass, went and dropped it off and he called me right after and he said it was such an amazing experience. ‘It one thing to say we’re raising money or I’m donating my time, but oftentimes, maybe it’s just an email or a thing or my name to it. But to go down and meet them and have lunch with them and you know, it really made a difference,’ Walker shared with Ayres.
“They want to go down and do charitable work and have different chefs come in and prepare meals for everybody there. He donated a bunch of juice to them and other things that they needed.”
The sense of community from the project has been really lovely, and Ayres says seeing fans up close at Christmas Con and then extending that through Romance University has been very special. “I have been to Comic-Con conventions a very long time ago. It was just a different experience than this. [Here], it was overwhelming when I first walked into the room and saw that many people,” he recalls.
“And then slowly over the course of those days, everybody was just so kind and warm. And I hugged everybody I met and it really felt like family. And I wasn’t prepared for that. I just loved the feeling of it. And I think it all kind of just grew out of that. I know we’re making these movies and I know it affects people and we hear about it online, but there’s still kind of a detachment that comes from reading about it or you meet the odd person on the street that will stop and say, ‘I love the movies.’”
“But to have that many people tell you that, it really made me just love making these movies that much more. And I realized there was nothing designed by us for all of us. [Romance University] was a way that I could bring us all in. The support by all the other actors at the network and all the networks has been tremendous.”
“The texts and emails and direct messages I get from some of the actors I know, but don’t know that well or we weren’t following each other and now [they are offering support and interested in collaborations]. It’s been really cool for the community of actors as well as being able to bring the community of the alumni together.”
“I love that we’ve created professors and chancellor [titles] and the freshmen are here. It’s really fun, isn’t it? People ask, ‘How do I become one of the alumni?’ and I tell them, ‘All you have to do is just be here. You don’t even have to buy anything. Just by being here watching these movies, you are alumni, you are part of the university.’”
The university idea began as a lark and now is a real thing, and Ayres fought for the name. “When my accountant told me we had to turn this into a company, to incorporate it, we incorporated it up here, in Canada,” he explains.
When he got some pushback that they weren’t an accredited university, he made a good case that they are. “I argued. I said, ‘In a sense we are. We have all learned a lot about romance. Everybody pays monthly to watch these movies. They subscribe to all these different channels. They’re paying for the merchandise, which is part of the thing we’re giving the money away,’” he pointed out.
“’And eventually we could do some classes. We are all learning about romance and in a weird way, it is actually a university.’ We got it. They said okay. Romance University is ours. We are now a university.”
As for the timing, Ayres says that’s been a gift all its own, falling during a hiatus after shooting movies for Hallmark and Lifetime and an arc on Canadian series Family Law all in 2022. “One of the nice things about this, too, is, as an actor, you’re an independent contractor. It’s very busy. The second the phone call happens, you’re busy, you’re doing all your research, you’re working with wardrobe, you’re discussing with the writers, you’re already reaching out to the other actors and the director and next thing you know, you’re on set and, and then you’re working and it’s busy and then as it kind of comes to an end, you’re very excited to have some time off and to go home. And then, after about two weeks, you’re like, ‘Well what’s next?’” he laughs.
“It’s a constant [cycle of], ‘It’s great to be working. I can’t wait to have some time off again.’ And as an actor you don’t have control of when that next job’s coming. This has been so good for my mental health, because I’m very passionate and creative and purpose-driven and this has just given me all three of those things.”
“And it doesn’t feel like work. The moment it starts to feel like work, I don’t know what it will become. Right now it’s just fun. If it feels like work, there just won’t be as many designs and the store stays open and the whole thing kinda slows down. But, for now I’m just gonna focus on this until an audition happens and then I put stuff on tape and [go back to work].”
You can check out the latest merch, including new limited edition items, at the Romance University general store here.
Photos courtesy of Benjamin Ayres and Romance University.
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