Ex Execs Find Reel Work as Consultants

By Leah Hochbaum Rosner

In the film and television business, life doesn’t end at retirement or when “looking for new opportunities.” In fact, in many cases, it starts at those stages — most often, in consulting. And that’s when the real work begins. But what exactly does a consultant do? And why are they so in demand? VideoAge sought out the folks who’ve done it and lived to tell the tale.

Frank Mulder
Frank Mulder

Consultancy is now an art that is in demand worldwide. We contacted a wide selection of former TV executives in Europe and Canada, but it was mostly the Americans who were willing to speak openly. However, Frank Mulder, who recently retired from his job as a buyer for Holland's Public TV Broadcasting, commented: “It's no use being a consultant in the Netherlands,” noting that what buyers want is only to be informed early about upcoming product. “Nowadays, buyers prefer to deal directly with production companies and majors.”

As far as money is concerned, a consultant tends to make a good living, with income around $200,000-plus per year. Jobs are few and far between, allowing for “good-quality” family time for those who still have kids at home or a tolerable spouse. For steady income, some American consultants, especially those in the Los Angeles area, also toil as expert witnesses in court cases involving disputes over contracts, libraries and the dollar value of content. And some even generate revenue by sitting on various media company boards.

“Consultants, as a rule, are unemployed executives with a certain skill set,” said Los Angeles-based Norman Horowitz, a former bigwig at MGM (and other studios) who’s worked in an advisor capacity since he was “thrown out” in the late ’90s at the ripe old age of 65. “People want to hire you to exploit that skill set,” he said, then continued: “People might also hire you out of fear. When an exec has just left his or her job, people think, ‘What can he do for me later?’ or ‘How can he hurt me later?’ They take my calls to make sure they’re covered.”

According to Horowitz, the word “consultant” is actually a misnomer. “They hire you to do a job, but it’s not every day all day. Few companies actually hire people to ‘consult,’ they want the consultant to actually do things for them on a part-time basis. They don’t want you to just consult.”

Horowitz didn’t mean to get into consulting. He just sort of fell into it. Shortly after his ouster at MGM, he took a trip to Australia with his son. “An independent movie producer said to me: ‘While you’re there, here’s a list of features I haven’t been able to sell Down Under, why don’t you try to sell them,’” said Horowitz. When he got there, the head of a network took a quick meeting with him — and agreed to buy six movies on the spot. “I made $100,000 in 15 minutes,” said Horowitz. “They were buying my knowledge, my pedigree, my business expertise.” In addition to selling films to Aussies, Horowitz has also ventured to Hong Kong to hire a manager for an animation company and was recently retained by a concert promoter in Canada to “put some stuff together.”

While Horowitz only got into the consulting biz accidentally, others pursue it as if it were a regular job. In the late ’90s, Farrell Meisel served as managing director in the London offices of The Movie Channel. During his tenure, he was often approached by competing companies for business advice. “I couldn’t do anything because of the conflict of interest,” he said. “But all the while I was amassing a large filofax of contacts.”

As he prepared to leave The Movie Channel and the U.K., Meisel began fishing among those who’d expressed interest in his services. The first to bite was Turkey-based Ihlas Media. “I helped reposition them,” said Meisel, who’s currently working with the firm on another initiative. “They’re very enterprising people in a very conflicted part of the world,” he said.

As a consultant, Meisel sees himself as a jack-of-all-trades. “I’ve done everything. I’ve gone from department to department to examine [a station’s] workflow, or lack thereof. I’ve taken a look at every part of management and how each department is managed. When I go in, it’s usually to reengineer or reorganize — not necessarily to cut.”

Consulting has led Meisel to nearly every nook and cranny of the world —including Warsaw, Romania and the Middle East — and he wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s exciting,” he said. “It’s harder work than a full-time job because you’re working in so many different time zones at the same time.” He especially loves lending a hand to TV stations in emerging markets such as Eastern Europe. “There, a lot of the channels are only now coming out of the deep freeze of the Cold War,” he said. “They’re only now getting into the first generation of people who weren’t raised on Communist TV. The stations there have more of a desire to take risks and to try things. We don’t really do that anymore in the U.S.”

Meisel has heard the old adage that most entertainment consultants are retired studio bigwigs, but sees things differently. “When I got out of the day-to-day stuff,” he said, “I didn’t like where broadcasting was going — excessive advertisements, excessive repeats, etc. This way, I get to take what I’ve learned and be entrepreneurial… And I don’t have to go back to a corporate job.”

Whereas Meisel thrives on the fact that he gets to work for different companies in different cities on any given day, others loathe the lifestyle. “I’m not really doing an awful lot right now,” said a Los Angeles-based consultant and retired studio VIP who would rather remain anonymous. “I don’t want to spend half my life looking for work. I don’t like having to go out and sell myself.” Lucky for him, though, “clients always seem to come to me. My rep is out there. My work ethic is out there. People know that I know things. If, on the other hand, I was Joe Blow who worked in the back office of some indie for years, I’d probably have to actively stimulate business.”

On the very day that he left his job, he got a call from a firm looking to establish its sales department. He liked having something to do, but “it was sort of intense,” he said. “Whether it’s eight days or eight weeks, when you’re a consultant, you just go go go all the time.”

For this consultant, the hardest thing about the gig is keeping as much up to date as you possibly can... now that you’re out of the day-to-day business dealings. “The challenge is to network, research and to stay in touch with the people who can help you stay current.”

Russ Kagan, a New York consultant who’s worked with companies such as Italy’s RAI, disagreed, saying that through consulting, he essentially gets a master’s degree every couple of years in where things are. “What I love about this business is change,” he said. “I’ve been very lucky to be able to go from distribution to launching channels to producing miniseries to mobile to digital to the net, etc. With each opportunity, I get to deal with different people and different companies. I thoroughly enjoy what I do.”

For the most part, Anthony Friscia, an Oak Park, California-based consultant, concurred. However, he said, “I’d prefer a regular job. There’s more stability there. Plus, with consulting, you don’t get bonuses such as medical insurance or a 401(k) [retirement fund].” Friscia, who began his career as a financial analyst at Viacom in 1975, and has served as a consultant for Twentieth Century Fox, among other companies, has recently become involved with Computer Applications Development (CAD), a Burbank software firm that created a computer system that studios can use to check the availability of a film or TV show’s rights in a given territory. Friscia, who cites his areas of expertise as finance and contracts, finds his line of work especially fulfilling when he gets in on the ground floor. “I see big things ahead for CAD,” he said.

Whether you’re reading contracts, picking apart a company’s silly hierarchical structure or selling films in all corners of the globe, when you’re a consultant, you might think you work for yourself, but you’re on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“I often tell people that I work nine to five,” said Kagan with a laugh. “But I mean nine to five in every time zone where I have a client!”