“He was a showman at the highest level and the sales experience may have been more dramatic than the programs we purchased.” This quote from veteran TV executive Bill Baker best summarizes Sandy Frank: the man and the myth.
From 1976 through the early part of 1980, Sundel “Sandy” Frank was an imposing figure at MIP-TV markets. Some people still remember the large booth space he rented at the old Palais, and the bus trips he organized during those markets for press and program buyers to visit an orphanage outside Cannes, where he ceremoniously donated a large check each time.
Recalled Frank: “The biggest challenge I faced when I began my business in the fall of 1964 was surviving alone. The networks controlled all of primetime and the majors controlled all of the early fringe with their off-network programming, so there was virtually no place for an independent [like me] to find a time period for [my] show. But I managed by selling travel adventures as a strip from independent producers. I also got some programming from a local station, which I managed to sell to a national advertiser who bartered it.
The one break I did get was getting Bill Cosby’s first off-network show in 1970, which was on NBC at 8:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. Sundays, and sponsored by Procter & Gamble, but there were only 52 episodes, so it made it impossible to sell as a strip, and difficult to sell as a once-a-week show, [and] I had to guarantee $1 million to get the rights from the William Morris Agency.”
As for today, Frank said, “In the international marketplace, it used to be that you could make a deal on the spot with a buyer. Nowadays, a buyer has to go back home and meet with a broadcast committee where they make decisions about which programs to buy among countless offered at MIP or NATPE.”
Frank’s career in the entertainment business started in 1949 at Paramount Pictures when, at the age of 20, he served as a part-time booker and sales trainee, keeping records and making contacts with local distributors throughout the New York metropolitan area.
That was the same year he arrived from Mt. Kisco, New York to complete a two-year film school course at New York University.
In 1952, Frank became a sales executive at Guild Films, and four years later he moved to NBC Network, where he worked as a sales executive for a year before being appointed as senior vice president of Worldwide Sales at Wrather Corp. He remained there until going solo.
It was 1964 when Frank ventured out on his own, first as Sandy Frank Program Sales, then in 1975 as Sandy Frank Film Syndication, and most recently as Sandy Frank Entertainment. All of his companies have been based in New York City.
Frank’s 67-year career is full of lively anecdotes, some that he likes to recall, and others he would rather forget. But the recurring theme of those anecdotes is rubbing shoulders with program buyers, both U.S. and international. One of such anecdotes took place in the first year of NATPE in 1964 — when the TV association did not yet permit distributors to mingle with the 70 U.S. TV station managers that attended. Frank simply reserved a suite at the New York Hilton, the hotel where the meeting was held, and invited all of them to his room to screen TV shows. It wasn’t until 1979 that NATPE organized its first TV program sales market.
Another amusing incident occurred in 1978, when Frank acquired the rights to Egyptian Prime Minister Anwar Sadat’s “In Search of Identity” for $100,000. This was the basis of the production of a two-part miniseries distributed by Columbia Pictures in 1983. It starred Louis Gossett, Jr., whose skin color was darker than Sadat’s. This upset the Egyptian government, which promptly banned the sales of Coca-Cola, which, at that time, was the parent company of Columbia Pictures, Frank recalled.
There is yet another anecdote reported by a TV executive who wanted to remain anonymous: “I was in Israel on a mission and we were in the Knesset when in walked [then] Prime Minister, Menachem Begin. [TV Executive] Ave Butensky walked up to him and said: ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I have regards for you from Sandy Frank.” To which Begin replied: ‘Please tell Sandy to hurry up and make the movie of my life like he promised me he would do.’”
Over lunch with this writer, Frank said that meeting both Sadat and Begin was the highlight of his career, and as an American Jew, he was proud of being in Sadat’s limousine when he announced he would visit Israel in 1977. However, the movie on Begin (based on his 1951 book “The Revolt,” for which Frank paid $100,000) was never made, and Frank blames a former ABC executive who considered Begin a militant terrorist.
Throughout his program distribution life, Frank followed three basic rules: never pitch to someone who can’t give you an order; never pitch a program over the phone, and be well-researched in the particular market you are pitching.
Over the course of his career, Frank sold franchises such as Lassie, Name That Tune and The Dating Game. “I felt very confident that I could sell anything,” Frank said in an interview.
Frank’s dedication to the art of selling TV shows, however, has distanced him from other contemporary master sales executives — they tend to be more easygoing, while Frank always keeps a very serious expression.
Bill Baker further recalled: “I got to know him when I was program director of WEWS in Cleveland and he’d come selling his programs with great flair and style. He’d pull up to the front door of the station and tell the cabbie to ‘keep the meter running’ and tear in with his presentation. After a few hours the driver thought he had stood him up, but Sandy slipped him some money and said to wait. Usually the cab was there for five or six hours! We never knew what those meter bills were, but for us in Cleveland it was like something not to be believed.
“He had his hard and crazy side, but a loving one as well. When I moved to New York as president of Westinghouse Television he was very concerned that our children be safe and cared for.
“Of course, he was a tireless and aggressive negotiator, but, in fact, he did have some really fine programs that we often wanted. But for me his greatest contribution to the business was his use of rather sophisticated research. No syndicator spent the time or money to really analyze and predict viewing behavior. Sandy was a real pioneer in that science and may have made his biggest contribution there,” Baker said.
Steve Leblang of Sony Pictures Television recalled a similar experience: “One of my first jobs was in the programming advisory department of the MMT rep firm. Over time, I developed a list of contacts at program suppliers that I could readily reach out to for quick updates as needed. Sandy was at that point the more established, and the more intimidating of the folks I was dealing with.
“When I connected with other sales executives in tracking down clearances, few would give me any more than a minute or two of their time, believing that I was of little influence to my clients. Not so with Sandy. Every market I would ask about would be covered in detail. He knew which time periods were underperforming, he knew what competitive shows were already sold and where they would most likely play — in short, he made me believe he knew the market better than I did. After every call, within a couple of hours of it there would be a follow up note dispatched via messenger to my attention, with the points he made.
“Years later, I learned that a great deal of what Sandy represented in our conversations was not always fully true — ratings stories were positioned in their best possible light for his shows and in the least favorable manner for competitors. Sandy was (and is) hardly alone among program distributors with such degrees of honesty. The point was, he made me believe he was accurate, and went out of his way to curry favor with someone who most of his competitors wouldn’t otherwise waste their time on. He taught me early on the value of thinking quickly, approaching every opportunity to engage, educate and earn trust with a client, and to be persistent in making your point.”
From early on, Frank was known to be health conscious and a germophobe, always traveling with lots of medicine. He would send employees home if they sneezed in his presence. Naturally, tobacco smoking was anathema to him. Recalled John Ranck: “I had a meeting with the always punctual Rocky Gluck. When I arrived his secretary came out rolling her eyes, saying ‘Sandy is in there.’ After 15 minutes, I told her I was leaving, but [suddenly] Sandy came out all agitated. When I went in, Rocky was there with a big grin. He apologized [for the delay] and pulled out of a drawer a big Cuban cigar. As I loved them, I thought it was a gift. No, the cigar was always in his drawer to use to clear the room of Sandy when he overstayed. Indeed, he immediately raced out of the office when the cigar appeared.”
This writer remembers Frank when in 1979 he introduced at MIP-TV Battle of the Planet, a Japanese animated series he acquired a year earlier, which helped to launch Japanese animation worldwide. Frank’s association with Japanese programs landed him in the comedy series Mystery Science Theater in 1988, which spoofed some of the Japanese movies Frank acquired for international distribution. One of the series highlights was also a tune called “The Sandy Frank Song.”
Also memorable were his press tours to the Sainte-Famille, an orphanage just on the outskirts west of Cannes, during MIP-TV. He would bus the press, suppliers and clients to the orphanage to witness donations of up to $25,000 followed by receptions. Since Frank was a major trade advertiser, all publications were represented. Even though at that time it was thought of as a press stunt, his dedication was real and continued (quietly) for 25 years.
The donation, which started in 1976 (Frank’s first MIP-TV), as a way to attract attention, culminated in 2000 with a gala at the Carlton Hotel. Previously he would organize gala receptions in the presence of the orphanage’s president Yvonne Vallé, the former wife of Maurice Chevalier. Frank stopped donating soon after Vallé died and because, he said, “with the loss of Vallé the institution turned into a drug rehabilitation center for young adults (instead of orphaned children between the age of four and 10), and I didn’t want to do anything associated with drugs.”
Frank’s generosity was as well known as his eccentricities. He would lend money to friends in need. He would call friends who were not feeling well to offer medical advice, and at times, even make their doctors’ appointments.
Frank’s most recent MIPCOM was in 2015. Nowadays, he spends most of his time in Sarasota, Florida, but makes regular visits to his New York City office.
He lives in Florida, near his 29-year-old daughter and only child, Alexandra, who resides with her mother, Frank’s former wife Susan Chandler. Frank was married before, but that first marriage lasted “six months, while with Susan we are still good friends. She’s a great lady,” he said.
by Dom Serafini
Audio Version (a DV Works service)