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Hollywood's new heroines

Entrepreneurial women claim more of an industry's key roles

By Shelley Donald CoolidgeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 13, 1999


Sarah Banks spent six years working her way up the marketing industry's corporate ladder, eventually managing a sales force of 50 men (in Italy, no less).

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But when her husband - a composer who ran his own business - split with his partner, Ms. Banks volunteered to leave her job and set up and run a new company for him.

She has since launched a second company independently - an audio post-production house. She expects to bring in more than $3 million this year. And she is not alone. Banks is among a small but growing number of women setting up shop in the entertainment industry.

"I had really felt that I had done enough of that corporate thing," says Banks, CEO of three-year-old AudioBanks in Santa Monica, Calif. "I wanted more freedom to make my own decisions and do things my way. And I wanted a sense of control and that I was contributing to something everyday."

While it's no secret that women are starting businesses, until recently women entrepreneurs have been virtually absent from entertainment - an industry still very much controlled by men.

Today, the opportunities seem as unlimited as the types of businesses women are starting - visual effects, animation, costuming, sound and audio, and script-writing consulting.

Many are driven by a desire to be their own boss, break the glass ceiling, and create more flexibility in their lives. And in an industry known for substandard working conditions, they hope to bring a higher standard to the business.

"I have always believed that no matter how hostile an industry is - and the entertainment industry is a hostile industry - if you find a niche and you start building credibility and trust and act ethically, I don't see why you would ever be held back from being successful," says Kathy Allen, assistant professor of entrepreneurial studies at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

No doubt the recent boom in the entertainment industry is creating new opportunities. Here in southern California, the industry helped pull the region out of its most recent recession. Since 1990, the number of people employed in motion pictures and television in California has jumped 55 percent to 186,600, according to UCLA's Anderson Forecast group. (Many agree the numbers are significantly higher due to the rising number of contractors.)

At the same time, small start-up companies and contractors are playing an increasingly bigger role in making movies and TV shows.

Enter companies like AudioBanks, which mixes final sound for TV and radio commercials. Inside the company's 10,000 square-foot headquarters, which houses six state-of-the-art sound studios, engineers marry music with dialogue and add voice overs and sound effects. Recent spots the company has worked on include Tommy Hilfiger, Sprint, and Toyota.

Banks does not do any of the technical work - rather she focuses on operations and number crunching. "I am not a technical person and I don't feel I need to be," says the British native. "My role has been a strategic one. I look for the opportunities and look for ways to make it happen."