Arcana: From Dream to Industry Leader
2003 was a very different time. Comic book sales had been in decline for years but were slowly clawing their way back into the mainstream thanks to a number of successful film adaptations; Blade, Blade II, X-Men, and Spider-Man had all recently been released. Sean O'Reilly had an idea for a comic book and rather than sell off his idea for pennies, he decided instead to realize one of his bucket-list dreams: self-publish.
Seventeen years later, Arcana is Canada's largest graphic novel producer. The company also boasts a successful animation studio, and over 300 original titles. Not too bad for what started as a little side hustle by an enterprising artist.
The Early Years
It was clear early on that Arcana was going to be more work than one individual could handle. Enter Michelle O'Reilly: Sean's wife and the VP of Arcana. In addition to running the day-to-day operations of the company, she is also responsible for producing all of the studio's animated features, sales, and business development. And she's a mom of four. Talk about a superhero!
Taking time from her busy schedule, Michelle spoke with me as she was walking through the company's busy Burnaby headquarters.
"By 2005/2006, that's when the company grew to the point where it wasn't just an independent 'lets do this just for fun' operation. There was a lot of paperwork involved, and we realized that there was a lot we needed to do in order for the company to grow so I stepped in and took over all of the boring business affairs and paperwork."
The O'Reilly's saw potential in their business from early on. "The original book did somewhat decent in the comic world. As we started growing with the publishing end of things, I realized there was a market for an independent graphic novel publisher in the publishing world. I kind of saw a bit of potential there in the beginning but never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would be running the business affairs of an animation studio. It literally just occurred. Every year we just kept adapting to what was happening and it just grew to where we are now."
IP is King
One of the buzziest phrases in Canadian media production is intellectual property and Arcana is easily one of country's most prolific intellectual property producers. "Our philosophy was if you own it, then that's long tail economics." Michelle continues, "If you own the IP, you can make your pay-cheques from many different avenues. 'Transmedia,' they call it now. We incorporated that right in the beginning."
Taking full advantage of all that IP is what lead to the launch of Arcana Studios in 2012, to develop that material into television series and movies and while they're always on the lookout for new opportunities, they can be choosy. "When we do go to animation conferences, we just came back from Cartoon Movie in Bordeaux, we get pitched a lot of different ideas and we listen. But because we own 330 graphic novel titles that are all in house, and we own those IPs, it's hard for us to take in a new IP when we're sitting on so much of our own."
It certainly helps that the company has its own Stan Lee at the helm. "98% of the IP that we own, Sean created."
Levelling the Playing Field
Being a woman in two under-represented industries is no easy feat, but Michelle takes it all in stride. "To be honest, I don't give it a lot of thought in the day-to-day. We do our job. It's not something I realize a lot until we go to the markets and conventions. That's when I really realize 'Hey, wait a second, there is a bit of a disconnect here'." Michelle takes full advantage of whatever opportunities she can to close the gap. "We try really hard, especially within the studio, to give women opportunities in any way we can. As an example, a program just came through for female art directors, women who work in the studio level but who want to move into the role of art direction. I gave all the women who work here the opportunity to go. We sent all of those who were interested."
It's small steps like these that provide a more even playing field for women in the industry. As the "old boys club" slowly starts to fade away, new opportunities are coming to the forefront and Michelle is taking advantage to nurture and grow her staff and taking those opportunities as they come.
"I see it immensely. When we do applications for any of the Canadian funding for TV and film, preference is given if there is a female director attached, whether or not she has experience. That was definitely not the case in the past when preference was usually given to directors with experience. Now, they've kind of switched it to say 'Hey, it doesn't matter if you had experience or not. If you're a woman and you're willing to navigate your way through this world, then we're going to look at you'."
The Future is LBC
When asked why they have opted to keep the studio locally, Michelle doesn't skip a beat. "Our tax credit system [in BC] is amazing. Especially within animation. So from a financial standpoint, it does make sense to keep everything in house here in Vancouver." That's not to say she hasn't considered moving some of the work overseas but there's a big draw to keeping the work under one roof. "We see everything that's going on here day-to-day. We see it. We feel it."
But it's more than just tax credits at work. There's a real sense of family as Michelle shares details about life inside the studio. "We take care of our people as much as we can rather than just 'here's your six-week contract.' We roll our people over so that they aren't just contract to contract and always searching for a new contract elsewhere. We try and keep everyone in." Her approach is certainly working, "One of our guys, Gary, has been here for 10 years."
Arcana is already in full swing on their next slate of projects. "We're focusing on quality, quality, quality. We call it the LBC: lighter, brighter and more colourful."
"LBC" also seems to be a good description of Arcana's future.