On the sidewalk, our hero, optimism intact, bumped into an old friend from his alma mater, Vassar College, who had added a Harvard MBA on his résumé. When the successful classmate asked what he wanted to do, our young man told him he wanted to become an entertainment marketing executive. By a far greater coincidence than running into a former classmate in the nation’s most populous city, the classmate happened to have taken charge of a new division at Columbia Pictures and was looking for a marketing manager.
And thus, starting as a marketing manager, Fritz Friedman began his illustrious 34-year run at Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment, which was ultimately to become Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
After an exciting first year in New York City, Friedman was transferred to Los Angeles and assumed increasingly more responsibilities to become, ultimately, head of worldwide publicity for two divisions at Sony Pictures – Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions. Friedman became part of a management team whose divisions generated billions of dollars. He performed countless acts of charity, was the recipient of numerous honors and retired on his own terms.
Typical American Beginning
Fritz emigrated from Manila to Boston at age five. Three-quarters Filipino and the rest of him Austrian, he arrived with his father, Fritz Friedman, MD, an anesthesiologist, and his mother, Catalina Cornista, an emergency room nurse.
Fritz the younger attended Jesuit-run Boston College High School and went on to become, in 1974, the first Asian male in the first class of men to graduate from Vassar, historically a women’s college. He then earned a master’s degree in Communications from the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania before moving to Manhattan.
From there, he proceeded to shatter the prevailing image of the Asian American as quiet, always in the background and usually earning a stable living in some form of science.
“People had preconceived notions when they first saw me,” recalled Fritz. “I looked like Pat Morita (the actor who played Mr. Miyagi in “Karate Kid”). The moment they heard my name, and when I opened my mouth, they basked in my personality, all stereotypes were blown out of the water!” Indeed, anyone who has met Fritz will never forget his razor-sharp wit and the over-the-top self-confidence he dutifully projects to separate himself from the preconceived image of an Asian male.
Fritz started his climb up the publicity ladder at Columbia Pictures as a marketing manager in 1981. Four years later, Coca-Cola bought Columbia Pictures and then sold it to Sony in 1989. That same year, Fritz became vice president of publicity and, in 1999, he was promoted to senior vice president of worldwide publicity.
Between 1981 and 2014, he was the rare survivor who went through three parent companies and nine changes in leadership. Company presidents and boards of directors grasped the wisdom of retaining an executive whose publicity efforts helped to generate over $60 billion in global sales.
“I get along well with smart people. I am also politically savvy enough to make sure that I give my bosses what they want with minimal fuss and drama. I have lesser patience with politically clumsy folks who are not on top of their game,” he said to explain his success.
Prophet of Publicity
Fritz Friedman is not a household name, but the products he represents can be found on the shelves and in the cloud accounts of most Americans. His publicity division has promoted Sony’s entertainment library in videocassettes, DVDs, Blu-Ray, Ultraviolet and other forms of digital streaming. The list spans any purchasable video recording with the Sony logo including theatrical releases from “It Happened One Night” to “Lawrence of Arabia” and the recently released “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”
Publicity is the department that manages the media profile of corporations, products and personalities. Requisite responsibilities include pitching stories to various editors (e.g., The New York Times, People Magazine, AOL News, Access Hollywood, CNN and various other international media) to ensure their representation in their respective media platforms is aligned with Sony’s corporate goals.
Publicists also help shape the messages presented in the media by its executives, movie actors and other high-profile employees and officers. In an industry where image is everything, publicity can determine whether a show is streamed 10 million times, a studio executive recovers after making ill-advised remarks and a movie recoups its costs on DVD.
“The purpose of publicity is to raise awareness,” Fritz explained. Time and again, his international publicity team has proved that good publicity is a better value than advertising.
“A company can either place its products in a magazine by paying for ad space. Or it can use publicity to sell that product to an editor and gain valuable real estate in their publication for free,” he explained.
In his homage to Fritz, Home Media Magazine news editor and Variety contributor Thomas K. Arnold stated, “Fritz had long ago broken out of the bounds of standard studio publicity and had emerged as a true public relations strategist. Like the finest craftsmen, he saw publicity as both a science and an art, grounded in developing close relationships with the press built around mutual respect. If Fritz wanted a story, you ran with that story — not because he begged and pleaded, but because it made sense. Fritz never gave reporters a hard sell because he didn’t have to.”
Fritz’s division handles worldwide publicity for over 200 products annually. “Public relations is a volatile area not intended for the faint of heart. If you fail, as in all things, you’re fired,” Fritz said. “You have to be smart, fast and confident in your decisions. The risks I take don’t always work out, but I don’t make the same mistake twice.”
Fritz’s legacy is secure not only within the Sony Pictures empire, but also industry-wide as the recognized pioneer in event marketing, which involves throwing lavish parties exponentially bigger than the festivities Filipinos everywhere are known to host. He was the mind behind the studio lot extravaganza that transformed “Boyz N the Hood” and its USC Film School grad director John Singleton into touchstones for the new Wild West of the 1990s.
As a tribute to Hollywood’s Golden Age, Fritz engineered the coup that brought Jimmy Stewart, the first A-list celebrity, to the VSDA (Video Software Dealer’s Association) Convention. In 1996, Fritz made the VSDA Convention a must-attend event by treating an audience of 7,000 to Riverdance. He has rung the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange twice to promote the latest Spiderman release. Not to be outdone, the web-slinger himself recently rang the closing bell, thanks to a referral from Fritz.
His position has given him access to such celebrities as Barbra Streisand and the late Lucille Ball as well as to President Barack Obama and The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who visited Sony two years ago as part of their first international trip as married royals (before baby Prince George).
His Next Chapter
After he leaves Sony Pictures, Fritz will take his first extended vacation in 34 years. With the companionship of spouse, Jeffrey Krebs, MD, he is determined to make “every day a Saturday.” He looks forward to serving as an associate producer on several film projects, including a movie about Manny Pacquiao.
As fit as he looks, Fritz plans to ramp up his philanthropic work as a co-founder of the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE) and recent appointment by Governor Jerry Brown to the Cal Humanities Board. He will stay an active alumnus of Vassar College, assist the Jesuits in Loyola Productions and advise the foundation of Apl.de.ap, the Filipino member of the Black Eyed Peas.
Fritz will continue to pass on his knowledge as an adjunct faculty member in the Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism at USC, where he will teach graduate students about advanced strategic public relations.
The general advice he gives students starts with: “Don’t take advice from people unless you trust them and they are happy. Why would you take advice from losers? And don’t second-guess yourself, follow your instincts, and you’ll be fine. If you make a mistake (which is not necessarily a bad thing), at least it’s your mistake.”
Young people are wise to listen to an unusually rich and probing mind that turned a study of the lyrics found in disco music into an Ivy League master’s thesis. Complementing his intellect is the care he has always shown to others: “I believe when someone needs help, you should help in any way you can. Once you figure this out, you’ll be fulfilled.”
Sony’s Loss Is Humanity’s Gain
With a wealth of years between his current age of 64 and the young man whose life changed at a New York intersection, Fritz looks back without regrets. “The industry has been good to me. But then again, I have been great for the industry. I am proud of my legacies in both my professional as well as personal arenas. At this point I am at peace with the fact that my accomplishments —in all their varied manifestations —are unassailable and cannot be taken away from me.”
Like all successful people who have earned much or to whom much has been given, much more is expected from Fritz now that he has more time, energy and heart to devote to others. In the coming years, many will observe and some will experience how much Fritz improves our world through his acts of gratitude and compassion for those who seek his assistance. Each day in his life may be a drumbeat for all of us to do the same.
Anthony Maddela is working on a novel. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Susan, daughter, Charlotte, and son, Gregory. In his day job he finds funding and helps design programs for the over 21,000 residents of the 14 low-income public housing developments of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles.
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