Reel FX is Ready For Its Close-up

Calm and tactical, Steve O’Brien leads the super-creative studio to new heights in commercial and animated-movie work.

Noodles with Protein
What’s important now, Peil says, is that Reel FX continues to operate like a startup: nimble, focused, and excited about the future.

“We are a 20-year-old company, but I feel like we are a startup again—in a good way,” he says. “In the first few years of the company you are a startup, and at any moment the difference between staying in business or not is a razor’s edge. You knew when we were having a good week because we had Top Ramen noodles with protein. A bad week is when you don’t get the protein.”

O’Brien, Peil says, was the right guy to help the company reach this critical junction: a tactician and a sharp businessman, but one who knows more than numbers. Chemistry and creativity are key.

“You need to understand the art side of the business, or you can kill a business,” Peil says.

Creative studios often operate on the edge. The inevitable delays in the movie-making business can be killers for the work-for-hire animation shops that support the big studios, because the smaller payrolls need to be met despite the delays. The recent Oscars, dominated by the Life of Pi, a movie acclaimed for its visual effects, drove that lesson home. The animation studio involved in the Academy Award-winning film filed for bankruptcy protection in the months leading up to the Oscars. The animation industry was incensed after the director of the film—which won multiple awards—failed to acknowledge the studio, Rhythm & Hues, from the stage.

The Rhythm & Hues bankruptcy also hit home with Reel FX, which held a recruiting event at its Santa Monica studio, interviewing nearly 200 of the laid-off workers.

“There are other studios that are having tons of trouble—big studios with big names,” O’Brien says. “We’ve been keeping our heads down and doing it our way.”

Now that it’s doing its own movies, part of Reel FX’s strategy is to keep its projects on track. “If we are successful keeping a continuous flow of work through the pipeline, we are good,” O’Brien says. “Our budgets are very tight and efficient. Hopefully our films”—here he pauses to knock on wood—“sell tickets.”

In 2012, O’Brien says, Reel FX was slightly profitable for the first time in years.

“For years we have been reinvesting all our profits, and then some, into intellectual property and films,” he says. “It’s an exercise in patience to be a film studio. Now we’re beginning to see this investment pay off. We … are very bullish on 2013, with our first film hitting theaters on Nov. 1.”

It has been 20 years now since Reel FX’s founding. So, is it time for a celebration? “The first part of our journey is over. It’s setting the platform for the next 20,” Peil says. “Everything is hitting on all cylinders. We should take a shot of whiskey or drink a beer or some champagne and take a deep breath.

“But it has to be just for a beat, because we’ve got to get going again,” he says. “We are on the highway. We are on the fast track in this space. We’ve arrived where we’d hoped to be.”