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Sumner Redstone Uncensored: Murdoch Divorce, Brad Pitt's Exit, Succession Plans

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Boston Beginnings
Christopher Patey
Sumner Redstone

The combative 90-year-old mogul sits down with THR at his home and expounds on whether CBS should buy Sony's studio, why Rupert Murdoch was right to divorce Wendi Deng, whether he's concerned about Pitt's departure for New Regency and why he hasn't named a successor: "I'm not gonna die."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

It's a mid-December afternoon and Sumner Redstone is arranged in a large taupe armchair in his Beverly Park house wearing a dark suit. At 90, the ever-colorful mogul, who transformed a family theater business into global media powerhouses Viacom and CBS (valued at a combined $70 billion), peers out from a frail body, still mentally sharp and determined to demonstrate that he is very much in the game.

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Unprompted, he begins. "I should tell you what happened last night," he says. Redstone briefly had appeared at an industry dinner at the Beverly Hilton honoring producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who had just signed a deal with Viacom's Paramount Pictures. Redstone proceeds to recite a list of friends he saw: "Jerry, [Paramount CEO] Brad Grey, Jon Voight, Ben Kingsley, Cuba Gooding and Marjorie -- what's her last name? She's in a new show called Intelligence for CBS."

This is a reference to Marg Helgenberger, whose new series indeed premiered Jan. 7. Although he stumbles in reference to Bruckheimer's hit franchise CSI, calling it CIS (easily confused with another CBS hit, NCIS), the names seem far less important than the power involved. With satisfaction, he declares that the veteran producer "will now be making pictures for both of my companies."

Such victories, both small and large (typically the latter), have defined Redstone's six decades in Hollywood. A legendary (and legendarily combative) force, he was born in a Boston tenement to a father who changed the family name from Rothstein to Redstone and built a regional movie-theater chain. After a short career as an attorney (he graduated from Harvard and Harvard Law), Redstone joined his father's company, National Amusements, in 1954. He became CEO in 1967 and steadily grew the company with profitable investments in studios. In 1987, he took on considerable debt to engineer a hostile takeover of Viacom, owner of MTV and Nickelodeon, at a cost of $3.4 billion. In 1993, he outbid Barry Diller and John Malone for Paramount, spending $10 billion. He added CBS through a $39.8 billion acquisition in 2000. Viacom and CBS were split in 2006.

Redstone now spends his days at his 15,300-square-foot mansion. As executive chairman of both Viacom, which includes Paramount and several cable networks, and CBS, home of the broadcast network, a TV production unit and Showtime, he watches the stock of his two media giants "second by second," he says. And right now he is happy with what he sees: Both skyrocketed more than 65 percent in 2013, and in September, Forbes estimated his personal net worth at $5.8 billion.

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But Viacom and CBS face significant challenges. The Paramount studio has boosted profit margins by releasing far fewer films (only 11 in 2013) as its market share of box office dropped to last among the majors. CBS' fortunes have risen with ratings at the flagship network, which ended the most recent season as the leader in total viewers and the 18-to-49 demographic. But the broadcast business in general faces fragmenting audiences and declining ratings. At this stage, says Redstone, he offers advice on how to steer the businesses to his top executives, CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves and Viacom president and CEO Philippe Dauman, but only when it is sought. Still, he keeps close tabs on both. "I'm very busy," he says. "I talk to Philippe and Les every day. I'm very busy every day."

Although Redstone is a semiregular fixture on Los Angeles' charitable event circuit (his personal philanthropy includes a recent $20 million grant to the Motion Picture & Television Fund and a planned big gift to Harvard), he has not given a lengthy media interview since October 2012, when he attempted to clarify in The Wall Street Journal comments he'd made in The New York Times. Having initially indicated in the Times that the buttoned-down lawyer Dauman, now 59, was almost certainly his successor, he then insisted to WSJ that his 59-year-old daughter, Shari, vice chairman of Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp., remained in the running. (Meanwhile, Moonves, 64, in 2012 extended his contract through 2017 with provisions that he report only to his board after Redstone's death.)

The outcome of such a bake-off, Redstone told WSJ, would depend "on my view of the talents of each person and also their relationship to my family. My family will ultimately inherit the business." But whether the family will inherit power is not clear. Redstone controls both companies through National Amusements, but when he's gone, a trust will assume control of his voting shares -- and it's not known publicly who makes up the trust. Apparently several people are involved, including Shari Redstone and Dauman -- but not Moonves.

Redstone, twice married and divorced, shares his pale yellow mansion, his home since 1998, with longtime girlfriend Sydney Holland. She sits with him during the interview, as does friend Manuela Herzer. In the marble-floored foyer hangs a framed jersey reading, "Sumner 90," a birthday gift from New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who is on the Viacom board.

Redstone does not move from place to place easily. Male helpers assist him, even while going from one armchair to another. Age has slurred his speech, but he makes himself clearly understood as he repeats certain ideas loudly and insistently: Stick with exercise and antioxidants. Education is the key. Viacom is the greatest media company in the world. Luck has nothing to do with his success.

As his two companies finished out a remarkable year of stock growth, Redstone agreed to sit for a lengthy and at times characteristically contentious interview with The Hollywood Reporter. In the past, Redstone publicly has disparaged his daughter. (Redstone's son Brent was bought out of the family business after filing suit against his father and sister in 2006.) Previously, he has knocked competitors, particularly fellow eligible mogul-bachelor Rupert Murdoch. Now he is more careful about certain subjects, but on this day, he shares his feelings on succession, whether CBS should buy the Sony movie studio, Brad Pitt's recent exit from Paramount and his roller-coaster relationship with Tom Cruise.

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For years, you have been pestered about succession. Do --

I will not discuss succession. You know why? I'm not gonna die. So why should I discuss succession?

You've said it's Philippe Dauman or it's not Philippe but it might be Philippe but the board will decide.

Well, you can say what you want. I say nothing on that subject 'cause I have no intention of dying! So nobody will succeed me! You're trying to hassle me now!

I am.

You won't get away with it!

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Do you think Moonves would ever report to Dauman or vice versa?

Why would you ask me that? Why should they? They run their companies. Les runs CBS; Philippe runs Viacom. Why should they report to each other? No reason.

Not at the moment. Certainly if you poll the industry, Les is considered one of the finest pieces of manpower out there.

Yes. His hit shows outnumber all the other networks' together.

Do you get the sense that Les is considered a showman and an old-fashioned industry executive and Philippe is more the suit? … That Les is Hollywood and Philippe is not?

Well, so what?

You know, the industry here is clannish. These guys don't like outsiders.

Well, I don't care; I'll take an outsider any time if he knows what he's doing. … I got criticized for firing Tom Freston [as Viacom CEO in 2006]. I like Tom, but I thought that Philippe would be a better leader of the company in the future. He's one of the wisest men I have ever met. That's Philippe. And Les -- Les is a miracle worker.

Given that Les launched CBS Films and seems to have some ambition in the movie business, do you see him buying a studio?

No. Well, he couldn't buy it without my consent, and at the moment, I don't see that. Future? We don't know. It's in the future.