Frank Price has resigned as chairman of the motion picture group and president of Universal Pictures, a spokesman for the studio said Tuesday.
The studio issued a sparse two-sentence statement, but sources at the studio said Price telephoned MCA President and Chief Operating Officer Sid Sheinberg from New York on Monday evening to announce his departure.
Sean Daniel, 35, currently president of production at Universal, is now the top-ranking production executive at the studio.
In the wake of disappointing summer box office returns from Universal's "Legal Eagles" and "Howard the Duck," rumors had been circulating for weeks about Price's departure. According to sources inside the studio, MCA Chairman Lew Wasserman summoned Price, Sheinberg and Daniel for an all-day meeting last Thursday at which every movie and development deal was reviewed. The meeting, which began mid-morning, did not break up until 5 p.m., sources said.
Price, who came to Universal after a similar stint at Columbia, is a veteran television and motion picture executive who in recent years has been known for gambling on some of Hollywood's most expensive talent. At Columbia, Price was the executive responsible for "Tootsie" and for the "Ghostbusters" deal that cost the studio about $11 million in "above the line costs" (star and director salaries alone) but went on to become one of the most successful comedies ever.
At Universal, Price green-lighted "Out of Africa," which starred Robert Redford and Meryl Streep and won the best-picture Oscar in 1985.
According to those who worked with him inside and outside the studio, Price, who was also a vice president of Universal's parent, MCA Inc., and sat on the board of directors, had great autonomy at Universal. "Price had full carte blanche to put anything into the works at whatever cost," a powerful talent agent said. "Frank did what he did at Columbia: He bought the big talent. In effect, he was spending a lot of money in an attempt to play it safe."
But the strategy failed most conspicuously on the comedy-adventure "Howard the Duck." Produced by George Lucas, "Howard" reportedly cost the studio more than $45 million (including prints and advertising). It performed so poorly at the box office that the studio is no longer even tracking the box-office numbers, an insider reported. "A duck brought Price down," said one producer who insisted on anonymity. "An innocent, lovable duck."
Calls to Price, who was out of town, and Sheinberg were not returned Tuesday.