Hollywood's new heroines

Entrepreneurial women claim more of an industry's key roles

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).

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."

An advancement avenue

For Jessie Nagel and Colleen O'Mara, co-founders of Hype, a publicity firm here that serves entertainment clients, being their own boss was a way to advance their careers.

"I saw very few women in power positions," says Ms. O'Mara, who edited for a trade publication. "I saw that I was going to hit the glass ceiling pretty soon in my career, and I wanted more options for myself."

Ms. Nagel, formerly a publicist for a post-production company, would pitch stories to O'Mara at Film & Video magazine. When they each discovered that the other wanted to strike out on her own, they decided to team up. Two years later they have 15 steady clients.

Many women entrepreneurs also see running their own company as an opportunity to set a higher standard in an industry not known for treating its employees well.

A model citizen

For Shannon Blake Gans that's a personal mission. Four years ago, she and her friends Ian Hunter and Matthew Gratzner, started Hunter/Gratzner Industries, a visual-effects company here in Los Angeles. Ms. Gans, the CEO, handles the business operations, while Hunter and Gratzner oversee and run the projects.

The company has quickly become a contender in the visual-effects business. Among their credits: designing some miniature sets and space-ships for the movie "Alien Resurrection," building four miniature spaceships for a soon-to-be-released Back Street Boys music video, and designing the miniature and mechanical effects for the upcoming Arnold Schwarzenegger movie "End of Days."

A big part of the company's success, Gans says, is treating its employees - most of whom are contract workers - well.

"There are so many abusive people in the film industry and a real lack of business management," says Gans, who majored in entrepreneurial business at the University of Southern California. "This is one of America's biggest exports and it's one of our most poorly run industries."

One of the biggest problems in the industry is that companies force workers to underreport their hours as a way to keep production costs under control.

"We don't do that," Gans says. "Why continue with bad habits?"

But it's more than breaking a bad habit - it's good business.

"The employees we use work in every shop," she says. But their company continues to produce higher-quality visual effects more efficiently. "How we run our shop makes a difference," Gans contends.

At AudioBanks, Banks put in both a nursery and playroom for children of employees, clients, and the owner - Banks has a two-year-old.

She even had to "do battle" with her husband when the company was small because she wanted to provide health care. "It's the principle. It's something I want to stand for."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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