Catching Breaks Without Breaking a Leg

He got his showbiz career, via the backoffice route

When Ken Williams, chief operating officer at Ascent Media Group since August, was graduating from high school, he had a sense of where he wanted to go to college: somewhere near his home in Tulsa, Okla., preferably Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where many of his friends were studying.

But his grandmother, who had never quite forgiven his father for leaving the East Coast and New York City, had a simple request: Can you apply to one East Coast school? Williams, being the good grandson, complied, applying to Harvard College. Lo and behold, he was accepted. Grandma was happy, and an unusual career in the entertainment business was born.

"I showed up at Harvard in a taxi cab having never been there before," he recalls. "It took me about 10 seconds to realize I was way behind people who had spent their whole life grooming themselves to go to Harvard."

He obviously adapted, becoming a member of Harvard's famed Hasty Pudding Theatricals, and, after graduation, considered a showbiz career (His father had been a choirmaster, his mother a music teacher). After "chickening out" from pursuing a career in front of the scenes, he got his showbiz job, but behind the scenes. It began when he took part in a training program at Chase bank that placed him in the entertainment-lending division.

It also put him on the fast track. Soon after he joined as the junior member, Chase was caught with two well-publicized bad loans. Other Chase executives were soon gone, and, within a year, Williams was field leader for the lending team trying to collect. He was mainly successful. He says, obliquely: "We didn't have to foreclose on the vineyard of a movie director who shall remain nameless."

Three years later, he joined Columbia Pictures' treasurer's office and, when Coca-Cola acquired the company, was named treasurer. He was 27.

A reverse merger with Tri-Star Pictures, a spin-off vehicle designed to get Columbia off the Coca-Cola balance sheet, provided his next opportunity. Williams describes it as a minnow swallowing a whale, but it gave him the chance to get more involved with studio operations as opposed to just finance.

"Sony swapped an interest in Warner Bros. studio for the old MGM lot in Culver City, and I was given the huge mandate and budget to rehabilitate the lot," he says. It took his career in a brand-new, more technological path.

His job at Sony put an incredible toolbox at his fingertips, and Williams and Sony made the facility one of the top technical studios in Hollywood. Digital audio, Sony's HDTV lab and the creation of Sony Imageworks, a leading digital effects facility, were all part of the success.

After brief stints with Stan Lee Media (a failed dotcom) and Technicolor Digital Cinema (a digital-motive effort that fell victim to the studios' hunt for standards), he received a call from Liberty Livewire. The company, which owns more than 50 post-production audio and distribution facilities, offered Williams the COO job. He accepted and was part of the company's rebranding effort as Ascent Media. Already, the company is living up to the new name.

"We just picked up an Academy Award for best sound on Chicago, and a couple of large clients have given us multiple-year revenue commitments," he says. "That allows us to build and invest our business capabilities against those large-volume procurement commitments."