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Entertainment Attorneys Diana O’Brien and Mike Runnels Bring A Fresh Look to Hollywood

How far can the UC Law connection take you?  For two law school graduates, Diana O’Brien ‘97 and Mike Runnels ‘91, it can take you all the way to Hollywood.  See how they traveled from the Queen City to Tinseltown. 

The thought of moving from Southwest Ohio to Los Angeles was exciting and energizing for Diana O’Brien. Born and reared in Hamilton, Ohio, O’Brien attended undergraduate college at nearby Miami University. She decided to study abroad in Luxembourg and Heidelberg, Germany during her junior year. Doing so gave her a taste of life outside of the Queen City. Though she came back to Cincinnati, the seed to explore worlds outside of the tri-state had been planted.

O’Brien decided to remain in the area and study at UC. After her first year of law school, however, the travel bug bit, taking her to Japan and Los Angeles. Though she enjoyed the city and the county, she wasn’t ready to leave Cincinnati just yet. So, O’Brien spent the next two years and summers working at local Cincinnati legal institutions: Clements, Mahin & Cohen L.P.A., which practices in the area of Ohio worker’s compensation;  the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals; and Taft, Stettinius & Hollister LLP, which practices in a diverse number of areas. The allure of Los Angeles, however, did not wear off. Eventually, O’Brien found herself making the big move to California. On her way out of town, a former boss suggested she “look up” another UC Law grad, Michael Runnels ‘91.

Runnels, well-known at the law school for his good humor, had nursed a love of creative writing for many years. In fact, he had originally planned to supplement his Depauw University creative writing degree with a graduate degree in the subject area. Life, however, has a way of “getting in the way.” After a publishing stint in New York City, a stint as a clerk at a San Francisco law firm, and a job managing a record store in Ann Arbor, he decided to go to law school. UC Law’s diverse program, strong alumni base, and unique experiences were a huge draw. He was also drawn to the work of the Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights.

Bright Lights, Big City

After graduating, Runnels decided to return to California, where he spent a year working for New Line Cinema, a 42-year old multi-media company that has created some of the most successful film franchises in history, including The Lord of the Rings, Mask, and Austin Powers.  He then moved to International Creative Management (ICM), where he has been for over 16 years. ICM is one of the world’s largest talent agencies. They represent high-profile clients including Chris Rock, Halle Berry, and Beyonce Knowles. ICM also arranges financing for films, including Oscar-nominated productions such as Gosford Park, Moulin Rouge, and The Fellowship of the Ring. Runnels moved up through the ranks and today is Vice President for Business Affairs in the motion picture production department. With that type of background he was well-equipped to take O’Brien under his wing.

O’Brien and Runnels first met over lunch where Runnels showed her the ropes about navigating the LA market. Looking back on their meeting, Runnels recalls counseling O’Brien, “You are going to meet guys out here that are going to tell you they are actors,” he explained. “They are waiters. 

“You’re going to meet people here who will tell you they are writers. They teach second grade,” he clarified. “You are going to meet guys that tell you they are producers… They are unemployed.” 

A few weeks later Runnels called O’Brien to see how she was doing. She informed him that she was “producing.” He promptly set up a meeting for her with a colleague at New Line Cinema. O’Brien got the job and worked at New Line Cinema on legal issues until 2001 when she transitioned to her current position as Vice President of Legal Affairs for Warner Brothers Television Production, Inc. “I love my job! It’s really exciting to be here on the lot, working in a medium to which almost everyone can relate,” she explained. “Plus, we get to deal with really exciting and sometimes novel legal issues.”

Runnels finds working in the entertainment industry exciting as well. As VP of Business Affairs, he gets to represent directors, producers, visual effects personnel, costume designers, cinematographers, editors, and more. With 10 Oscar nominations and two wins this year for his agency, Runnels is still humble, however. When asked if he had a hidden talent, Runnels laughed, assuring that he had “no talent whatsoever.” What he does boast about is his wife Molly, who formerly was in the film business, and their two sons Jack and Riley, aged 10 and 7 respectively. 

Keys for Success in the Field

Both Runnels and O’Brien are enjoying their roles as successful entertainment lawyers. To what do they credit their success? Runnels credits his success to one thing: focusing on goals that make you happy rather than wealthy. “If you can combine your interests and the things that excite you with some sort of marketable skills, you’ll eventually find economic success on some level. Most importantly, you’ll be happy to wake up and go to work each day. I’ve never dreaded coming to work ever… and believe me,” he laughed, “my commute sucks!”

O’Brien credits her success to being humble and hard working, in addition to having a dash of patience. She comments that she waited patiently for her dream job and then worked hard to be promoted through the ranks. All of this is augmented by a great family, including her husband and new six-month-old baby, who O’Brien says is a joy.

Runnels and O’Brien’s connection is a perfect example of the importance of the UC bond. “I’m very proud of Diana,” said Runnels of his protégé. “She deserves her success.”