Studio Exec Richard Frank Went Off Script And Into The Wine Business
Richard H. Frank was the newly appointed head of television at Paramount Studios when he attended one of his first table reads. That’s where the writers, actors directors and producers sit around a large table — hence the name — and for the first time collectively read the new script out loud.
In this case it was for an episode of “Laverne & Shirley,” and when it was over, producer/writer/creator Garry Marshall announced: “The big boss is here.” He turned to Frank, and asked if he had “any comments.”
Frank said he liked the script, but “on page eight, I think there’s a joke that doesn’t work.”
No one said anything until Marshall broke the ice: “Then we’re going to sit here until Rich gets a better joke.”
It was, Frank recalls, “an awkward moment.”
“Then Garry came up to me privately and said, ‘You’re welcome here. But don’t just criticize.’
“That was a great lesson.”
It was, in fact, a lesson he continued to use at Paramount Television, where he helped shepherd such hit shows as “Cheers,” “Taxi” and “Family Ties” to success and then a decadelong career at Walt Disney (DIS), where he served as president of Walt Disney Studios and oversaw the development of the Disney Channel.
He then went on to a second career as a vintner, building what became known as the Frank Family Wineries from a 200-case-a-year operation to one that currently sells 100,000 cases annually.
All of which is not bad for a guy from Brooklyn who really didn’t know what he wanted to do when he grew up. He attended the University of Illinois, starting out in the school of architecture and moving to the school of engineering before, in 1965, getting his B.A. in marketing with a minor in journalism.
“I finally found something I could do that everybody else wasn’t better at,” Frank said in one of two telephone interviews with IBD.
When he graduated in 1965, he went to work at an ad agency in the media department, planning where to place and buy ads. Then he “switched sides,” selling ads for a couple of rep firms (who sell ads for media that don’t have their own sales force in a particular area). He became sales manager for a Los Angeles television station and ultimately was hired by Chris-Craft Industries to run its television division.
The company — better known for its mahogany-hulled boats — owned several TV stations — and placed Frank in charge. The television landscape was much different then — with no cable and only three major networks. The independent stations that existed were mostly limited to repeating shows that had already run on one of the Big Three networks.
Frank contacted Michael Eisner, then president of Paramount Studios, to see if he’d be interested in creating original content for Chris-Craft and presumably other independent outlets.
Eisner “called me and invited me to lunch,” Frank remembered. “He said, ‘I really don’t like your idea, but I want you to come here and help us start a fourth network.’ “
Frank joined Paramount, and while the launch of the new network did not work out, he was named president of television at the company, where he was responsible for launching numerous successful shows.
After a shake-up at Paramount parent Gulf + Western Industries, Frank followed Eisner to Disney, where he was named head of Walt Disney Studios. There his winning streak continued.
Asked what he attributes his success to, and one word pops up regularly in his reply: learn.
“I think I understood the television business, having first started buying time at (ad agency) BBDO and then selling time at multiple stations around the country. You learn what works in different markets. And then when I went to be a sales manager at an independent station, I learned how that worked — and again at Paramount. I never stopped learning.”
His management philosophy is equally simple: “I’m responsible for overall strategy; (the people I hire) are responsible for how to get it done. I believe in hiring the right people and allowing them to do their job.
“I also believe that they should have the right to make mistakes. The people I protect the most are those who’ve tried something that didn’t work, rather than those that just sit there and are complacent.”
Certainly complacent is not an adjective ever applied to Frank, who often took sizable risks in his career. He OK’d “The Golden Girls” TV series when the conventional wisdom — and the advice of almost everyone around him — said America wasn’t interested in a show about four, uh, mature women living in a Florida retirement community.
Similarly, he had an idea for a daily syndicated entertainment news program that everyone said was unfeasible. Remember, that was 37 years ago, when computers had less power than an early iPhone and many if not most television stations didn’t have the satellite equipment necessary to receive a daily feed.
Undeterred, Frank explained, “We financed stations to install satellites.” One seemed a bit reluctant, “so we had a kid every day after we shot the show drive the tape to Bakersfield.”
The concept of the show was so new and foreign to the TV playing field that Frank had to negotiate new union rules — so that movie industry regulations concerning the number of lighting and sound people that went out on shoots could be modified.
That show, of course, was “Entertainment Tonight,” which, he said, “changed the industry and changed the entire world of TV now.”
His willingness to push the boundaries of technology doesn’t surprise Bob Gazzale, the president and CEO of the American Film Institute. Frank joined the AFI board in 1991 and serves as its vice chair even today, a volunteer position.
Gazzale said that despite Frank’s “extraordinarily busy schedule, if and when I need Rich he’s always there.”
“Perhaps his greatest contribution,” Gazzale added, “aside from the generosity of time, spirit and resources — is his visionary take on the art form that AFI celebrates. … From movies to television to streaming to gaming to VR … Rich has always carried the flag for what’s next.”
Ironically, a portion of his success also can be attributed to Frank’s past — that he never strayed far from his Brooklyn Everyman roots.
“I think I have the same taste as most Americans,” he said. “I think I know what people want to see, who they want to see and what they want to see them in. I’m good at picking talent and have a crazy sense of humor. In a nutshell, I have commercial tastes.”
Perhaps the best example of that occurred when he spotted an unknown comedian named Tim Allen at a comedy club doing his grunting male routine. Although Frank concedes that there are “so many people involved in so many projects,” it was that sighting that led Disney to produce the show “Home Improvement,” starring Allen, which ran eight seasons on ABC.
Turning To Wine
Even shows as successful as that one have shelf lives, and so do jobs. Following the untimely death of Disney corporate president Frank Wells in a 1994 helicopter crash, the vibe at the company changed.
So Richard Frank left, content to do some consulting work and spend more time at his weekend vacation property in California’s Napa Valley. That home started as a respite from work and included eight acres of grapes, which he allowed a neighbor to harvest in return for a few cases of wine that Frank could share with friends.
But Frank got a call from a buddy — winemaker Koerner Rombauer (nephew of “The Joy of Cooking” author, Irma Rombauer) — that a nearby vineyard was for sale. Frank and Koerner decided to partner on what was initially known as Frank-Rombauer. (Around 2000, for a number of reasons including estate planning, Rich bought out Rombauer’s interest and renamed the winery Frank Family Vineyards.)
As Frank recalls, the winery he purchased, Kornell Champagne Cellars, was producing 100,000 cases and losing $ 3 a bottle. You didn’t have to be a genius to realize that was an unsustainable business model. So he and Rombauer, who spent much of his time at his own winery, immediately cut production to 200 barrels a year.
Frank understood the old wine industry axiom that the quickest way to make a small fortune in the business is to start with a large one. He quickly — and here’s that word again — learned the major ins and outs of the business and realized that he had to use the same principles in the wine business that he used in the entertainment industry that made him sufficiently wealthy to buy a Napa Valley winery in the first place.
So he made a point to hire a quality GM and winemaker to guide him through the morass. He understood the difficulty of distribution, with 50 states each having its own liquor laws. So he expanded territories very slowly, always keeping the bottom line in mind. And he understood the importance of a good and popular tasting room, the only place he received full value for his wines.
Ultimately, though, he understood that more than anything, the bottom line depended on the quality of the wine. “I compare a bottle of wine to a movie script: If you don’t have a good script, you don’t have a chance of success.”
So he decided to go beyond the law. According to state regulations, you have to lay a bottle of sparkling wine down a year before it can be sold. He laid his down for three years to enhance the flavor. And his new Lady Edythe brand (named after his mom), he lays down for five years.
It delays his return on investment, but ultimately he virtually assures one.
After a successful career as a top Hollywood executive, he chucked the limos and private jets to become a winemaker.
Overcame: The need to apply what he learned in corporate life to life on the farm.
Lesson: Sometimes the answer is simple.
Quote: “I wasn’t sure we ever would make money, but I was pretty sure I knew how to make money. In its simplest form it was make good wine and sell it for more than it cost you.”
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