Apr 12, 2004  •  Post A Comment

It was 7 a.m., a little more than a year ago, and Rich Frank was just waking up. His 6-year-old grandson, on a visit, climbed into bed and wanted to watch television. “I said, `Great,”’ Mr. Frank recalled. “`Do you want the Disney Channel? Nickelodeon? PBS?’ He said, `I want to watch TiVo.’ I said, `Why TiVo?’ And he said, `All my favorite shows are on and they are always on when I’m ready to watch them.’ And I went, bingo!”
It was a defining moment and the impetus for Mr. Frank to close a deal to create a new kind of company that became Integrated Entertainment Partners. Then a month ago, IEP merged into the talent management and production company The Firm, creating a new kind of Hollywood business truly designed for the 21st century.
It started when Mr. Frank had lunch with two friends, who were also his longtime lawyers. It was just supposed to be friends catching up, recalled Mr. Frank, a former top executive at Disney then retired for the third time and living in the Napa Valley. “I said I was getting bored,” Mr. Frank recalled. “That was a big mistake, because they had a bunch of clients that needed, to the extent that they knew the world was turning and the business models were changing, connections to the advertising community and the brand community.”
IEP was created to “go between brands and agencies, studios and producers,” Mr. Frank said. “Each needed the other. They all spoke English. But the words didn’t translate the same way. They didn’t know how to talk to each other.”
“It was tough the first nine months because people didn’t know what it was,” Mr. Frank said. “We brought stuff to producers and then heard from sales departments, who thought it was their money. They didn’t recognize that there was integration money as well as advertising money. Now they are starting to see that.”
Mr. Frank thrived on the challenge: “It’s an evolving business, which, by the way, is why I’m doing it. Otherwise, I promise you, my golf score would be a little lower and I’d still be drinking wine in Napa.”
At age 61, Mr. Frank can afford to be retired. His career began on Madison Avenue as a time buyer and media planner. He moved to Paramount Pictures under Barry Diller and Michael Eisner. Over nine years, he rose to be president of the Paramount TV Group, helping create shows like “Cheers,” and “Entertainment Tonight.”
In 1984 Mr. Frank followed Mr. Eisner to Disney, where he joined with the late Frank Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg to create the quartet that over the next decade turned the company into a major player again. During that period Mr. Frank also became an industry statesman, serving for six years as president of the TV Academy and at the American Film Institute, where he is still on the executive committee.
“Then when Frank died and Michael and Jeffrey started fighting it became uncomfortable,” recalled Mr. Frank, who denies he was pushed out when he didn’t get Mr. Katzenberg’s position. “I told Michael on my 10th anniversary I was going to retire,” Mr. Frank said.
He moved to Napa and created the Frank Family Vineyards, but remained restless. “As my wife says, I’ve been a miserable failure at retiring,” Mr. Frank said with a chuckle.
Two decades ago, when his oldest son was going to Northwestern, he brought home several fraternity brothers on vacation, including Jeff Kwatinetz, who soon saw Mr. Frank as a mentor. Over the years they kept in touch. “Whenever he had a question,” Mr. Frank said, “I was always glad to be there for him.”
Starting with a base in the music business, Mr. Kwatinetz built The Firm both to manage talent and to produce, with a focus on selling to 12- to 24-year-olds. When Michael Ovitz’s Artists Management Group faltered in 2002, Mr. Kwatinetz acquired most of the assets.
Mr. Kwatinetz and his associates had an even broader vision: to also have equity in related businesses. The Firm owns the Pony footwear brand and has joint ventures with a kids toymaker and an animator. Last November, it entered into an agreement with Richard Branson to jointly own and distribute Virgin Cola in the United States. The soft drink rolls out in Los Angeles in June, followed by the rest of the nation.
The Firm has a talent roster that includes actors Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Samuel L. Jackson and Brittany Murphy, director Martin Scorsese and music acts such as Korn, Linkin Park and the Dixie Chicks.
“Jeff was saying, `How do you change business models on the music side?” Mr. Frank said. “Meanwhile, I was focusing on the [ad] side. So that’s where it came together. We looked at each other and said, `We’re both fighting changing business models. We should do it together.”’
After IEP merged into The Firm. Mr. Frank became chairman with Mr. Kwatinetz as president and CEO. “I look forward to redesigning the future of the entertainment business with him as my partner,” said Mr. Kwatinetz.
“Now, do they all dress the way I dress?,” mused Mr. Frank. “ Do some of them play music louder than I like? Yeah. I don’t have tattoos, but a lot of them do. I don’t have things stuck in my body. A lot of them do. But they are all smart and into what they are doing.”
The Firm is a role model for show business in the future. It can guide the career of an actor, director or musician not only in traditional ways, but also by getting them involved with brands in a way that makes them a real partner. It sells talent and content and owns as well as manages brands. Within a year, Mr. Frank is expected to help The Firm expand its TV production (without deficit financing).
One thing Mr. Frank won’t discuss is Disney and Comcast, where he also had a two-year association. He remains friends with Disney’s Michael Eisner and Comcast’s Brian Roberts. “If you ask me just in a vacuum from knowing the two companies,” said Mr. Frank, “I think it is a beautiful match. There is really no [business] overlap.”
Now, Mr. Frank is focused on his return to the front lines of show business. Is he having fun? “If you can’t hear that in my voice, I’m not projecting well,” he said. “I’m having a ball.”