Neon Carnival at Coachella: The Inside Story Behind Hollywood’s Biggest Party

On the eve of its eighth incarnation, creator Brent Bolthouse reveals to TheWrap how Neon Carnival became the desert’s most sought-after invite, why reaching out to him now is “transparent” and how Gwen Stefani helped inspire a can’t-miss annual event on the industry social scene

Bolthouse Productions

Before headliners Pharrell Williams, Nas, Skrillex and Muse take Coachella’s main stages after 10:30 p.m. Saturday night, thousands of well-connected festival goers will already be driving further east past Indio, down a dimly lit two lane road in the middle of nowhere looking for another illuminated oasis hidden in the dark, disorienting desert.

The finish line: Neon Carnival.

The massive outdoor fair and party on the tarmac at a private airport, where a few thousand invitees (and a few hundred more hopefuls left outside) will try to access the open sky dance floor, ferris wheels, bumper cars, free food, plentiful cocktails, and rare night of a flip-flop dress code on the Hollywood scene.  In a few short years, the one-night-only gathering chock full of the entertainment marketing community and young Hollywood stars has evolved into the “Vanity Fair party of Coachella’s first weekend,” meaning an invite and appearance represents a social status symbol of sorts.

Also read: Coachella 2014 Parties: Everything You Need To Know

Its legend has grown with its production. It takes four days in two cities 120 miles apart to handle wrist band credentialing, and a potential mishap concerning this year’s bands itself caused an outcry on social media amongst nervous attendees. A shoulder economy of car services, celebrity wardrobe deals tied to concert tickets, and ambush marketers now circle the event.

In the midst of crawling out from under a few hundred unread emails from those who know (or pretend to know) him seeking an invite, running his lounge Bungalow in Santa Monica, and fitting in a SoulCycle class, Neon Carnival creator and producer Brent Bolthouse spent some time with TheWrap this week pulling back the curtain on how the Los Angeles celebrity nightlife pioneer handles being the ringmaster of the much-talked about, much sought-after Neon Carnival near (but not affiliated with) Coachella.

See photos: Party Report in Pictures: Lupita Nyong’o, Elle Fanning, Kate Mara and More

TheWrap: Before this carnival was outdoors, it was indoors in the hangar. I went a few times and it was this hidden hideaway that was like a secret that only my favorite people in the industry knew about. Can you clarify, once and for all, the lineage of this event?

Triple DJ AM Aoki Danny Masterson
Mikey Glazer, file photo from 2008

Brent Bolthouse: I’m pretty sure it was seven years ago, 2007. The one where there was Adam (DJ AM), Danny (Masterson), and Steve (Aoki), all DJ’ing that was the second year. That was with T-Mobile. Oddly enough, I had pitched that same carnival idea to T-Mobile, and they wanted to move in a different direction. Every year there was a phone launching around Coachella, and one year, there wasn’t a phone launching, so they didn’t really put the resources in to do an event. So that’s when the Neon Carnival was birthed. T-Mobile is the mother of Neon Carnival [laughs].

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Mikey Glazer

Bolthouse on stage taking his own photos last year.

You have said that of all the events you’ve done in your 20 year career, this is the thing you are most proud of.
This idea kind of birthed out of the launch of a ride we did at Magic Mountain years ago.  Did you go to that party?

Unfortunately no, but, I remember it was the thing everyone was talking about.
It was literally, one of those things where – Magic Mountain holds, 40,000 people, right? And I think they brought 5,000 kids from Hollywood and basically closed it down. And it was around the time there was some sort of radio show. Literally, No Doubt and Incubus were like, “We’re coming! Keep the rides open. We’ll be there. We’ll be there. Don’t worry.”

Artists were like, “We can go to Magic Mountain. There’s no fans there.” Gwen Stefani can run around and ride rides and no one’s bugging her. So she was just like, “I’m coming!” To me, it was like one of those “things.”

At that party, that was where the idea for Neon Carnival started. I looked around and saw, literally, people like (Gwen) and friends just running around. And everybody had this look of euphoria on their face. Everybody was so happy, you know what I mean? All the riding rides endorphins were like flying high, and there was like food and cotton candy. (The late DJ AM, a close friend of Bolthouse) was spinning and everything was just like crazy because no one had ever really done a party like that. I was like “God. I need to do this.” A carnival is the baby to an amusement park, right?

That party was probably 10, 15 years ago now. I kept trying to find a client that would let me do a carnival-esque party. And it wasn’t until we pitched it to (prior sponsor) Armani Exchange, and they really believed in the idea. And that was the first year we did it.

Now the faces have changed. There’s a new generation of young Hollywood and new clients. It’s Olay Fresh Effects, Nylon magazine, and Guess as your clients. With their guests and your guests combined, how many people are you actually wrist banding for Saturday night?
Somewhere between 2-3000.

People go really crazy for this. They stress out, they plan their weekend around getting their wrist band and getting in. Could you ever replicate this in L.A.? Is it because you can only do this once a year in this random place in the middle of nowhere that people get so engaged? You couldn’t pull this off on the roof of the Grove one Saturday night in the summer, right? People would love it.
No. You could do it at maybe like Barker Hangar or something. You need a big footprint to do it. It’s not a cheap endeavor because we go to an airfield that has no power, no restrooms, no running water. We bring everything there. Everything comes. So basically, we’re just sitting on dirt or concrete slab, and we erect this situation.

With the massive success here at Coachella, have you thought about porting Neon Carnival to Miami’s electronic music festival Ultra, Lollapalooza in Chicago, or internationally?
I own the copyright for the idea and the name and all that, and we’ve talked about doing that before. It is expensive to put a carnival up in some capacity. I think Chicago: there’s not a big piece of land to do it, right? Where do you do it in Chicago? We’ve looked, but there’s just no place to do it. I think San Francisco, maybe Outside Lands  (music festival) could fit something. We’ve even talked with the guys from (NYC festival) Governor’s Ball on how to do something there, but again, you need space. You want to put up a carnival, right? So it’s hard to do that. We haven’t taken it anywhere else yet, but I would love to. Like if we did a Neon Carnival at South by Southwest, people would go crazy, right?

What’s different for 2014?
This year is – for whatever reason – this year feels a little extra crazy. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s the changing of the sponsors. I think Nylon Magazine brings a whole other level of caché, and it’s a perfect marriage of our brand and their brand together. I was just texting with (radio personality) Stryker from KROQ, and he was like, “I was tweeting about your thing, and people were going crazy asking me how to get tickets and what to do. And everyone’s like they don’t know what to do. It’s madness! He’s a friend, but he also talks about it because he loves it, right? That’s the thing. People like him are like dude, “I love that thing. I want to talk about it.” Which is nice that people have that affiliation and feeling about a party.

How hard are you getting hit up this week with people coming out of the woodwork?
It’s the mad dash on Friday. There’s always sponsors guests. There’s always people at the last minute like “Oh my God! Oh my God!” I just find it amazing. Coachella’s something that you can’t just like decide to do on Friday unless you’re a certain person in the world. You’ve got to rent a house. You’ve got to book a hotel room. You’ve got to get tickets. You’ve got to get all these things. It’s like did this just occur, that like Friday’s the day you’re realizing that you need to sort out your Coachella stuff?

What’s your relationship like with the official festival?
There was zero to do ten years ago at Coachella in the evening. There was nothing. So we sort of pioneered that. With (Coachella co-founder) Paul Tollett and Skip (Paige, SVP of) Goldenvoice, I respect them so much. We have always just tried to be a good neighbor out there. We started our party late. We never book bands. We only use like high profile, nightclub DJs. Never touring or national DJs. We really respect what they do with that festival and really want to be part of the fabric of that weekend as something that adds to the weekend. I think we’ve sort of achieved that. From my conversations with Paul, he’s always been like, “You’ve been respectful.” And I don’t want to do a daytime party. I want people to come to us after Coachella, not during Coachella. That’s a big part of the reason why we start late and we go late. I think that’s important.

Mikey Glazer
Mikey Glazer

This is expensive. You’re able to put together more financing for this one night than the budgets for many indie films.
I’ve never made an Indie film, so it’s hard for me to say. It’s actually not as crazy because there’s a certain element of the carnival that it doesn’t have to be quite as polished as certain things need to be. Does that make sense? You put up games. You put up the rides. That’s kind of your backdrop. And the fact that the Carnie rides and the games are a little bit used and you feel that you’re at a real carnival, that’s the feeling you’re looking for. This is just like, “Of course, we have string lights. String lights are cheap.” So there’s aspects of it that do that, that are nice.

If this were a feature, it is the equivalent of a summer tentpole movie. How does this complement your regular year-round book of business like Bungalow in Santa Monica and your regular events in Los Angeles?
What’s interesting for me is last year is the first year we had Bungalow during Coachella. And normally, Hollywood becomes a ghost town. But that’s not the case in Santa Monica. Our numbers were exactly the same as they were the week before. We learned there’s people on the west side that don’t go to Coachella. So we were shocked too. We were like, “Wow.”

Everyone wants to know how you get invited to your parties. What is your message to the entertainment industry?
Obviously, we’ve been doing this for over 20 years in Los Angeles, and if you’re in the industry and you don’t have a relationship with us, I mean, I don’t know what to say [chuckles].
It’s like we’ve just been here forever. So we cover a lot of the industry. All of our friends at William Morris. All of our friends at CAA. All of our friends at Red Light Management. So a lot of people we’re dealing with, and we take care of a lot of people. Between myself and my partner, Jeffrey Best, who haven’t we done parties for? We have deep-rooted, industry relationships –  if it’s with friends winning Oscars or if it’s junior publicists that are running agencies now. We tend to be good, honest, hard-working people that value the relationships that we have, so we cultivate them.

And for others, how do you field all the new faces that want in?
The thing that’s interesting is this week, like on the Wednesday before Coachella was probably the wrong time to cultivate a relationship with us. Cultivate that relationship maybe in the summer? We’re pretty accessible. We’re around town. I always think that’s interesting how people are like, “Hey. Yeah, we should really do some stuff together.” It’s like, “really?” That’s transparent. It’s Thursday. Coachella’s in three days. “Maybe we should have lunch tomorrow and see what we can pull together.” That’s the funny side of what we do. I think it’s funny at least.

Mikey Glazer
Mikey Glazer

The arrivals, after the line.

What can you tell me about the list and how it comes together?
Thousands of people go to the party, so it is a private party. It is meant for the sponsors. So they control a good portion of the list. So this isn’t a party for 200 people. It’s not like Oscars. This party is thousands of people, and we know how Coachella is. And we’re not necessarily stingy or say no to that many people, but obviously, at some point, I can’t say yes to every stranger that I don’t know when I have hundreds and hundreds of emails from people that I’ve known for the last 20 years that I have to take care of. It’s sort of that balance of, you want to do it, but at some point you have to be like, “Okay. Where does it stop?”

It stops at 4 a.m. Sunday morning when the event shuts down.