What were you doing on New Year’s Eve? Looking at fireworks or the bottom of a Champagne glass? Or were you among the 1.4 million people who watched at least some of a two-hour game of Jenga, played by Rick Lax and his friends on Facebook.
It was a fitting way for Lax to end the year. The magician spent most of it building up a phenomenal Facebook following for the short, interactive magic tricks he creates on a laptop in his Henderson condominium.
If you haven’t heard of Lax, you aren’t one of his 3.3 million Facebook followers. Or one of the 61 million people who have played along with a couple of his mind-reading tricks.
But don’t feel too bad. Lax isn’t a live performer on the Strip. He sold the concept for SyFy’s “Wizard Wars” but never performed on that competition show either.
“I don’t want to do a Vegas show. There’s a lot of good shows on the Strip. I’m not going to make the mistake of the ‘Band of Magicians,’” he says, referring to a recent Tropicana flop involving some of his performer friends.
And yet, Lax pulls up his Facebook analytics to show more than 1.5 billion people have watched one of his videos. “If I’m allowed to brag, I think I’m the most-viewed magician in the course of human history.”
(This isn’t a certainty, he’s quick to add. Taiwanese magician Lu Chen and others who perform on Chinese television specials may have him beat, if you believe government claims that a billion people watch them).
Murray Sawchuck does have seats to fill in his ongoing show at Planet Hollywood. The magician known for his shock-top blond hair and black glasses dived into the world of targeted social-media content 14 months ago, making short films for YouTube.
He says the first one, “Escaping From Cops Using Magic — How to Drink in Public” took less than 20 minutes to film in downtown Las Vegas. It has 3 million views.
“I don’t think most YouTube (stars) have a live show,” Sawchuck says. When he first started his “Magic Murray” channel, he would ask Planet Hollywood audiences if they had watched any of the videos, and “less than 10 percent would respond.”
“Now, it’s upwards of about 30 or 40 percent of the audience.” And people cite their favorites.
But the real surpise may also explain why his videos perform so well: Sawchuck didn’t get into this simply to promote his show. They are a 50-50 partnership with Los Angeles-based YouTube daredevil/stuntman Seth Leach, and more of the revenue comes from advertising and sponsorships.
“We designed and developed that channel strictly as its own world, not just a place to put my links or get a little bit of exposure,” Sawchuck says. (For years, he’s had a more conventional YouTube channel with clips from shows such as “Pawn Stars” and “America’s Got Talent.”)
“We work backwards. Say I’ve got a cool trick. That’s lovely, but it doesn’t mean it will go viral,” Sawchuck says. So he and Leach work backward from a cool title, concept or guest star, “and you write your story based on it.”
Anything that promotes the live show is a bonus. “It’s just one more branch of the tree,” Sawchuck says.
He sees a tectonic shift here. Sawchuck’s happy to be back for the next season of The CW’s magic variety show, “Masters of Illusions.” And if 2.8 million people watch it, that’s still great by traditional standards.
“But I can sit in my living room in my robe, do a trick (and) upload at the right time” and get comparable or even better numbers. “It definitely is a different world,” Sawchuck says. “When you’re not 20 anymore, you need to bring in someone who is 20. It’s a young person’s game.”
Lax is quick to admit, to the point of apology, that his success may be due in large part to figuring out this new way people consume entertainment.
He shoots his videos square or vertical, because young people look at Facebook more on their phones, and don’t like tilting them into the horizontal position.
He subtitles most everything he says in huge block letters, because most people don’t have their audio turned up when they scroll through Facebook.
When people would denounce his early videos as “fake,” he learned it wasn’t because they didn’t understand the fundamental role of a magician. They thought the people he performed to in coffee shops were plants or actors. So now, most of his work is straight into the laptop camera, just for you, the viewer.
If you’re engaged in the trick, he’s sure to ask you to hit the “Like” button. If the trick works, he asks that you share it.
On this day he’s filming a counting bit with his fingers that’s “somewhere between a magic trick and a puzzle.” He sits at a desk illuminated by three studio lights and speaks his lines a few times into a studio-quality microphone to get the right intonations.
But that’s about as fancy as it gets. “Everyone else is spending a ton of money for video production. But I realized when you share something on Facebook, you’re trying to say to your friends, ‘Look at this cool thing I found,’ ” he notes. “If I’m always looking perfect, then I’m losing relatability. There’s weird shadows, my face is all shiny, and I’m fine with all that. It might even be good.”
Lax doesn’t make money from the videos per se but does have a partnership with Diply to create “click-worthy content” and get it into the Facebook feeds of people who “Like” his page.
He has worked as a Las Vegas journalist and written a couple of books, one about his law school experience. His video stardom stems from working for online seller Penguin Magic. “To sell more magic tricks to magicians, I had this crazy thought: Maybe I can reach more magicians if I just reach more people overall.”
But, he admits, getting recognized when he’s out in public is sweet revenge. Though he created the premise for “Wizard Wars” and all his friends performed on it, “SyFy said that I was bad on camera.”
Their attitude may have changed. But Lax isn’t sure where all this is leading.
“I don’t know what the goal is,” he confesses. “I’m building towards something. I’m hoping to parlay these numbers into something big. I don’t know what I’m going to trade this up for, but I’m OK with not knowing, just because it’s going so well.”