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SMALL BUSINESS | ENTERPRISE ZONE: Lessons and Insight
on Southland Businesses

Ready, Ms. De Mille

Women Shaking Up Hollywood With Start-Ups

September 03, 1997|MARLA DICKERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like thousands of aspiring actresses before her, Jean Kini Chang arrived in Los Angeles looking for a career in film. She found it, but not in the form she'd originally envisioned.

Rather than wait tables when parts failed to come her way, the Dallas native recognized there was plenty of work to be had on the other side of the camera. Chang immersed herself in classes on digital film editing and last year emerged as JKC Digital, editing industrial films, creating TV public service announcements, jazzing up actors' demo tapes and producing other video projects.

"I'd rather be working in this industry than waiting for my agent to call," she said. "It's a digital world. So I decided to find out what was going on behind the scenes."

Much has been written about the glass ceiling in the executive suites of Hollywood's major television, music and film studios, not to mention the dearth of women in the director's chair.

But a glance at new business formations in Los Angeles County reveals that female entrepreneurs in the entertainment industry are creating their own opportunities rather than waiting to be discovered.

In contrast to the rest of the nation, where businesses such as beauty salons and child-care agencies dominate the list of women-owned start-ups, Los Angeles is unique in the relatively large number of women stepping into the technical, creative and service realm of entertainment.

Female entrepreneurs entering the field of "audiovisual production service" doubled between 1993 and 1996, to 402 new entrants last year, according to an analysis by County Data Corp. of Winooski, Vt. That put the category fourth among the top 20 types of new businesses formed by women in Los Angeles last year. In the first half of 1997, another 138 women took the plunge, accounting for nearly 30% of entrepreneurs venturing into that business segment in Los Angeles this year.

Most are sole proprietors providing everything from commercial TV, film and video production to set design, music scoring, special effects and other support services, in addition to corporate video and industrial filmmaking.

Observers credit the mini-boom to a host of factors, from the surging California economy and increasing global demand for Hollywood entertainment to the falling cost of computers and technical equipment and an industry shakeout that has turned many former studio employees into independent contractors.

But entertainment entrepreneurs say cultural changes also have enabled them to see beyond the footlights.

"It used to be that when women thought of the business, they only thought about being an actress," said Harri Mark, co-founder of Studio City-based Evil Twin Productions, which performs creative and technical production of commercials, electronic press kits and trailers for film and music clients. "We're a lot more confident now."

With good reason. The Southland's entertainment industry is one of the engines that has powered the region out of recession. And like their male counterparts, women are climbing on board.

Nearly 250,000 people are employed in motion picture and television production in Los Angeles County, according to statistics from the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles. Chief economist Jack Kyser says that segment is on track to add another 22,000 jobs this year, thanks to growing demand for American entertainment worldwide and expanding outlets such as mega-channel satellite TV, home video and new media.

Few of those workers will be added to the payrolls of the major studios, which have been rocked by a wave of mergers and downsizing in recent years. Instead, small and medium-size businesses will generate most of those jobs through myriad freelance technicians, independent production companies, post-production houses and other auxiliary firms that service big-name studios and corporate clients.

"This is an industry in constant turmoil," Kyser said. "It's a revolving door. But that change also offers a lot of opportunity for those that can adapt."

Kristin Armfield credits that turmoil for turning her into an entrepreneur. A former copywriter and production coordinator who made commercials for MCA Records, she found herself transformed overnight from an employee to an independent contractor after Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. purchased MCA Inc. in 1991 and began trimming the payroll.

That's often a ticket to lower income and vanishing benefits. But Armfield thrived in the new atmosphere, tripling her income with a steady influx of clients.

Last year, she and Mark teamed up to form Evil Twin. Business is so good they have taken on another partner (they have no plans to change the name to Evil Triplet) and are eyeing more ambitious film projects.

"Fear is a great motivator," said Armfield, reflecting on her plunge into self-employment. "It was sink or swim. I didn't have a choice."

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