In the tumultuous world of advertising and entertainment, where change is the only constant, the talent at Alkemy X labors to stay ahead.
It is here, at the firm’s Curtis Center offices a few steps from Independence Hall, that creative staff fashion reality television programming and film special effects and other products at the core of its business. Alkemy X president and CEO Justin Wineburgh, once an entertainment law partner at Center City’s Cozen O’Connor law firm, is eager to explain that there’s life after a career at a law firm.
“I had this fabulous practice, right,” Wineburgh said. “But then you look at what your life looks like, you take a step back, and you realize you only get one turn on this big Earth; I’m only going to get to go to this dance once, and it is not a dress rehearsal.”
Wineburgh, 43, was named CEO of the company last February. He had been the outside counsel for the company and had headed up a search to find a new CEO. But at the end of the process, the board decided the best person to run the company was Wineburgh himself, not the candidates he had brought in.
The job offer “gave me the ability to assume the helm of an aircraft carrier,” says the casually clad Wineburgh, whose studious mien stands in contrast to the rough and tumble of the entertainment business.
The company that Wineburgh now heads is a complex enterprise with multiple businesses. Alkemy X creates political advertising – it did work for Hillary Clinton last year and some Republican candidates, but not Trump — traditional television commercials, and special effects for movies. Its product line also includes film and television promotional spots and post-production shaping of all kinds of entertainment and advertising.
Talent commands a premium, and top directors are paid as much as $25,000 a day.
“We don’t stay in our lanes,” the company crows on its website. “We’re so far outside the box that we can’t even see the dang box anymore.”
Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan is a client – he was spotted visiting Alkemy X offices not long ago – and the company handled special effects for his latest film, Split, currently having a record box office run. It has done well in the reality television space, creating the program Dinner Impossible, later succeeded by Restaurant Impossible, which had a long run on the Food Network.
One new project, Wineburgh says, might be a reality series based on a typical middle-class couple running a middlebrow chain restaurant in the Midwest. Networks have said such shows must eschew “educated, coastal elites” as subjects, hence the chain restaurant, in a nod to this last year’s election results and the populist currents coursing through U.S. politics and culture.
The company also recently finished a development deal for a television show with Mike Finnegan, an automotive writer and editor who hosted the popular car repair and road trip show on YouTube called Road Kill.
Production and editing take place in Philadelphia and New York. Commercial clients include GEICO, Comcast, BMW, Pepsi, Palmolive, Lexus, and more. Total full-time employment is about 100, divided between offices in Philadelphia and New York, and includes sound engineers, film editors, writers, and others. But on any given day, employment can balloon to 350 or more, depending on the project, as the company takes on additional temporary staff.
Founded by two TV cameramen and a location sound engineer, the company dates to 1981 and focused initially on shooting film and post-production editing, eventually adding a sound studio, color correction, and other services.
For much of its history, the company’s name was Shooters Inc., and it had the market pretty much to itself. With top equipment and staff, it dominated the Mid-Atlantic region. But as competition sharpened, the firm branched out, developing its own programming.
Since Wineburgh’s arrival as CEO, the company -- which generated “tens of millions” in revenue last year; Wineburgh says he can’t be more specific -- has been in the midst of a reengineering phase.
New staff has been hired, and some staff has left. He’s moved the New York office to save on lease costs. The company for years had a solid revenue stream thanks to the success of Dinner Impossible, but began to feel the strain as competition tightened in the early 2000s, especially in the post-production end of the business.
That raised the stakes, but so, too, did the fracturing of the viewing audience. Viewers for a program streamed on Netflix, for example, might be very different from the audience on YouTube, or the traditional broadcast networks, which also are available online. They’re watching on phones, tablets, televisions, and laptops. Reaching those segmented groups and understanding what motivates them is a key part of the business plan, what the company calls its “X-factor.”
So is the concept of vertical integration. Wineburgh says that as the company evolved from its focus on shooting film and post-production work to the development of television programming, the change created work for film editors and sound engineers. He likens the business to a restaurant, where a featured specialty might be the draw, but then generates side orders for other departments, such as sound engineers and film editors.
“I use the analogy with my people that we are like a steak house,” he says. “You go to a steak house because you want a great steak, but while you are there you say, you know their vegetables are fabulous, and their appetizers are great, and the shrimp cocktail is fantastic and you know what while I am here, I am going to get dessert because you know the desserts are good. But you just walked in for the steak.”