Frank Out At Disney

In the latest stunning personnel change at The Walt Disney Co., Richard Frank confirmed late March 10 that he would leave the company just seven months after being named chairman of Walt Disney TV & Telecommunications.

Frank will be replaced by Dennis Hightower, an exec completely unknown to the TV community who’s been president of Disney Consumer Products, Europe and Middle East region, since July 1991. Hightower, 53, who has been with the studio more than seven years, instantly becomes one of the highest-ranking African- Americans in the entertainment industry. He assumes the somewhat-less-lofty title of president, Disney TV & Telecommunications.

The announcement came after a week of rumors regarding Frank’s potential exit and inevitably adds to a sense of chaos at Disney. In 1994 the Hollywood studio experienced the death of Walt Disney Co. president Frank Wells and the very public exit of studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. Latter has already lured away other one-time Disney execs to his new venture, DreamWorks. Frank’s departure could further fuel that exodus.

What remains unclear is what ultimately prompted Frank to go. Having staunchly denied the rumors up until the middle of last week, Frank told Variety March 10 that he had a desire to do something of an entrepreneurial nature. “I was not ready to be a maintenance guy,” he said.

Frank also denied rumored clashes with Disney chairman/CEO Michael Eisner and the suggestion that he was unable to land the sort of equity deal he was seeking. “Everything that’s been written about us not getting along is not true,” Frank said, contending that his thoughts about leaving date back to Wells’ death and Katzenberg’s exit. One Disney insider was stunned that Eisner would allow Frank to go given the recent rash of defections.

As chairman of TV & Telecommunications – and before that in nearly 10 years as president of the Walt Disney Studios – Frank oversaw a fiefdom that by his own estimate is responsible for more than two-thirds of the company’s revenue. The division is expected to generate more than $4 billion this year.

Frank assumed his latest post at the company in July as part of a reorganization initiated after Katzenberg’s exit, with Walt Disney Motion Picture Group chairman Joe Roth and Frank both reporting directly to Eisner.

For his part, Eisner said in a statement that Frank had “wanted to explore new opportunities for some time but was gracious enough to stay at the helm of the TV group while we reorganized the company.” The statement said that Frank would assist in the transition and serve as a consultant to the company.

Despite rumors regarding Frank’s exit, staffers within his division were stunned by the news, contending that Eisner had “gone nuts,” as one put it, by cutting loose so much high-octane manpower.

Though Frank reported to Katzenberg in his previous position, Disney insiders have long indicated that Frank for the most part enjoyed a wide berth in overseeing TV operations, with Katzenberg devoting most of his attention to the feature film division.

Frank has been one of the TV industry’s highest-profile executives, currently serving as president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, having served an earlier term in the mid-1980s.

Frank is the consummate TV industry insider: His first cousin, Randy Reiss, is an exec VP in the Disney TV wing; his brother, Bill Frank, is a high-ranking exec at United/Chris-Craft, one of the most influential TV station groups; his son, Paul, is an agent at the William Morris Agency.

During the last few years Disney has consistently ranked behind Warner Bros, as the leading supplier of primetime series, with a roster that includes “Home Improvement,” a show that’s expected to generate more than $600 million in off-network syndication.

The timing of Frank’s exit could hardly be less fortuitous, since it comes in the middle of the primetime development season. Dean Valentine, who was promoted to president of network TV shortly after Frank’s ascension to chairman, continues to oversee that area.

In his most recent capacity, Hightower’s responsibilities included such areas as book and magazine publishing, merchandise licensing, film promotion and TV sponsorship. Notably absent: direct involvement in TV production or distribution. Hightower first joined Disney in 1987 from an exec recruiting firm, Russell Reynolds Associates Inc., where he was a partner and managing director of the L.A. office.

A Harvard MBA graduate, Hightower prior to that served as VP of corporate planning at toy marketer Mattel Inc. and in several non-showbiz positions, including VP-general manager of General Electric’s lighting business in Mexico.

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