EXCLUSIVE: Hallmark Men Bond on meaningful new project
When actor Benjamin Ayres first came up with the idea for Romance University, a tongue-in-cheek ode to the passionate and savvy fans of rom-com films popularized by Hallmark Channel, he never imagined that in less than two months , it would blossom into a living one online community of fans, whom he calls “alumni” and collects substantial donations for women’s shelters. But in an exclusive interview with Heavy, Ayres also said he’s been pleasantly surprised at how the effort has turned into a “cool bonding experience” for him and other men who have become popular regulars on the network but rarely work together.
After starting the project on a whim in early 2023, Ayres sold hoodies and buttons with a parody design based on The centuries-old coat of arms of Harvard, Romance University has grown rapidly, raising over $9,000 for women’s and children’s organizations. On Valentine’s Day, actor Andrew Walker personally delivered the recent donation to the Alexandria House, an animal shelter in Los Angeles.
After Ayres raised $4,000 for two Toronto animal shelters with his first sale of hoodies and buttons, his Hallmark peers and enthusiastic alumni encouraged him to continue merchandising. Changing the name to encompass all networks and platforms that now feature the kind of TV romance Hallmark is known for, he then turned to Walker, Paul Campbell and Tyler Hynes – the stars of the 2022 hit “Three.” Wise Men and a Baby” – about creating a Valentine’s collection. Ayres suggested putting their faces in the Romance University crest, which they all loved, and Walker was allowed to choose the nearest shelter to receive the proceeds of the effort.
What started as a quirky idea has quickly grown into a full-fledged — and likely long-term — operation. Ayres, who lives in Toronto, told Heavy that he was recently granted incorporation rights after opposition from authorities in Canada Romance University as an official company, opening the door for him and his Hallmark peers to grow the brand – and their bond – in exciting ways, including potentially offering actual courses taught by network talent.
Hallmark ‘Hunks’ Bond Over Benjamin Ayres’ Romance University
Ayres said Romance University has not only become a collaborative avenue to make a difference for women and children in need, it’s also inadvertently become a avenue for him and many of his fellow actors — affectionately referred to as The “Hunks of Hallmark” from fans – to make a meaningful connection. While Ayres is very appreciative of the support he has received from actresses associated with his previous co-stars such as Taylor Cole and Nikki DeLoach, he has particularly loved the opportunity to exchange ideas or chat live online with many of his male colleagues including Walker, Kristoffer Polaha and Michael Rady.
“You know, the men in the Hallmark universe never work together,” he said, adding that they would occasionally see each other at fan conventions or casual meetings. “We usually know all the women because we work with them. So that, for me at least, created this cool bonding experience for me and some of the guys.”
Ayres believes this is partly because he has started hosting frequent and occasional Instagram live chats for the Romance University community, which many of his Hallmark colleagues have joined to say hello and support the effort .
Ayres explained, “I’ve never really done lives before and, you know, people come over and I’m like, ‘Hey, come on and talk!’ And I think a lot of them just love it, they want to be involved.”
The experience of directly impacting women and children in need was also meaningful to him and his colleagues, Ayres said, sharing that Walker excitedly called him after he presented Romance University’s latest donation to LA’s Alexandra House had
He said: “Andrew called me right after and just said, ‘You were right! I just couldn’t have guessed how great it was. They’ve all come down and we’ve met up with everyone, we’ll go back and volunteer and do cooking days with them! So, you know, I think that’s a real gift… I want to be able to get the actors involved to go to the charity of their choice and really bring that community together in that way too.
Benjamin Ayres was granted the right to found Romance University as a learning community
Ayres didn’t expect Romance University to take off the way it did and says he never considered a business model for it — until his accountant told him he had to stop personally managing all the funds. But when Ayres applied to have Romance University incorporated as an official Canadian corporation, he told Heavy, authorities pushed back on the name, saying it wasn’t a real school. But Ayres and his attorney argued that it’s a sort of learning community made up of people who have become virtual romance film experts.
He said: “We worked for hours with all this legal stuff to prove we’re a university teacher romance and we won! We got it because the alumni are strong. We said, ‘These are all the people who feel like they’ve learned a lot from our films. That’s why we taught romance in a way, so it kind of makes sense. It was amazing that we got it.”
Now that that distinction is official, Ayres said he’s considering offering real courses in addition to Romance University merchandise.
“I’d love to find a way to be able to do that,” he said, referring to the tongue-in-cheek images of the actors-turned-professors starring them Romance University Instagram account.
“We have Professor Polaha and Rady, and I was called ‘The Chancellor,'” he laughed. “So we could actually have these courses. They’ve even reached out – both Kris and Michael Rady – like, “I’d love to teach something!” So it could become sort of a subscription where we actually teach something. I think that would be kinda cool. It would be like master class!”
Ayres now has a team of people working behind the scenes on the effort, including several suppliers, his entrepreneurial wife Erin, and a designer and publicist in Phoenix. While plans are in the works for a March 2023 merchandise collection dedicated to one of Hallmark’s best mystery franchises, Ayres said he probably won’t be running themed promotions every month, especially if he has a movie to direct. But right now he loves that it keeps him creative, connected and busy.
He said: “As a creative person, it was very fulfilling. A lot of people say, “It must be so much work,” and if it felt like work, I would have closed it. But I really, really enjoy it.”
Even top executives at Hallmark have supported the effort, with some executives placing large orders, he said.
“Branding is something that brings everyone together…essentially made by us, for all of us,” he said. “That’s why there was such a supportive response. It’s a direct way for us to connect with a fanbase and build a community that is sort of the most incredible fanbase ever.”
https://heavy.com/entertainment/hallmark/exclusive-romance-university-peer-bonding/ EXCLUSIVE: Hallmark Men Bond on meaningful new project