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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.
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.
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.
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!
You won’t get away with it!
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.
There’s been talk about CBS buying Sony’s Columbia Pictures studio.
You have to ask Les about that. My view is that is pure nonsense. It doesn’t make sense.
Because Viacom already has Paramount?
We have Paramount, and Les is making movies, but they’re smaller movies. But some of them are very successful.
He should be happy with that, in other words?
Well, I’m not gonna tell him what to be happy with. I’m happy with what I’m happy with, Philippe is happy with what he’s happy with, and Les is happy with what he’s happy about.
Do you think all the studios will be around in 10 years?
How would I know? I’m not a seer or a psychic. I know we’ll be around forever.
Do you think Viacom will ever be broken up?
A lot of people do.
They’re entitled to their opinion. They want to be wrong; they can be wrong.
Did Philippe promise he wouldn’t break it up?
Of course he wouldn’t break up the company! He didn’t have to promise!
Some businessmen, they don’t necessarily have the love of the show.
He does; he has the love of the company, and I have a love of him.
Viacom once owned Blockbuster …
I don’t want to talk about that now. We sold it. It’s no more.
But that was an example of technology moving quickly, and it’s moving faster now. Do you worry about the future of the industry?
I don’t worry about the future. I try to form the future.
For instance, this is a challenging time for the broadcast business.
The broadcast business will always be here. The broadcast business is here forever. They broadcast what people want to see all over the world!
Well, you once said that about Blockbuster.
On occasion, you make a mistake. But I don’t want to make too many.
What time do you get up in the morning?
Five. Sometimes 4:30. I walk, bike and swim every day.
And you go out sometimes? You’re a man on the town.
I wouldn’t call me that, but I do on occasion.
You’ve got these beautiful women that you go out with.
Do you think they’re beautiful?
They’re both stunning.
You really think so?
And sweet, don’t you think?
Well, they’re sweet. I don’t know how beautiful they are.
Whom do you consider your friends?
Philippe and Les, of course. Others: Jon Voight, Tom Dooley, Tom Cruise, a lot of people. Arnold Kopelson and Anne, Wendy and Leonard Goldberg, they’re all my friends. Brad Grey, Brian Grazer. Netanyahu. He’s been to my house twice. Tony Bennett is a good friend. He credits me with saving his career. I put him on MTV when everyone said he was over. And he was a hit. I remade his life.
Did you have to tell MTV to put him on?
I made the decision. Everyone thought he was over the hill. I said people still like that kind of music. I do. And I put it on MTV, and his career began all over again.
You kicked Tom Cruise out of Paramount, but you made up. What’s your relationship now?
I fired him, and I hired him. When he deserved to be fired, I fired him. When he deserved to be hired, I hired him.
What made him deserve to be hired again?
He’s a great actor. The next Mission: Impossible will be the best one. He told me about the script. He’s a good friend.
Paramount at one point was trying to transition the franchise to Jeremy Renner. Did you end that when you made up with Tom?
I met with [Tom], and he said he wanted to work for Paramount. I said the deal would be different. He said, “I don’t care, I want to come back to Paramount,” and I brought him back.
The movie business is kind of bad now, right?
No, I wouldn’t say that. The margins aren’t so good, but the pictures are great. The movies that we make are great.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken?
Maybe buying Viacom. I know I didn’t take a risk when I insisted on keeping MTV and Nickelodeon. Everyone wanted me to sell them. I followed my own instincts. I knew MTV was more than a media channel; it was a generational channel.
Do you have any regrets in life?
I regret that I won’t live forever. Although I’d like to.
Are you close with your grandkids?
Very. Brandon [Shari’s son] comes here all the time. And Tyler and Kimberlee call all the time. I’m very close to my grandchildren.
You had public trouble with both Shari and your son Brent.
That’s your comment. People always say that.
Brad Pitt’s Plan B company, which made World War Z for Paramount, is leaving for New Regency. Does that concern you?
Well, people have a right to go where they want. But I think Paramount is the best studio in the world. And Brad [Grey] is the best studio leader in the world, in my opinion. I hired him!
Is it true David Geffen encouraged you to hire Grey and then encouraged you to un-hire him?
I had no discussions that I recall with David Geffen. I don’t need anyone’s advice, like David’s, about hiring Brad. Brad is great. He was great with [management company Brillstein-Grey]. But he [might make] less money running the studio. He wanted to be a studio head.
So, when there’s studio politics, like the fact that Plan B didn’t make 12 Years a Slave for Paramount and the film is now a leading Oscar contender, do you care?
Of course I care. I care about everything that affects the studio or any part of Viacom/CBS. Anyone is entitled to go where they want. A lot of people favor Paramount. Those who do are the ones who are right.
Are you sorry about losing Marvel, which left after Disney acquired the studio in 2009?
No, I’m not sorry about that. Things come and go. We can live without Marvel or anybody else. As long as we have great leaders. And we have great leaders.
What about DreamWorks Animation? It left its distribution deal at Paramount in 2012 and now releases its films through Fox.
Well, we’re in the animation business now. [Paramount announced plans to make its own animated films in 2011; the first release will be a SpongeBob SquarePants movie in 2015.]
Yes. But it’s a very crowded business.
Well, I think we should have an animation studio, and we do.
Do you follow industry news like the Murdochs’ U.K. phone-hacking scandal?
Well, I read about it. But I keep my mouth shut.
He is equally harassed about succession, even though he’s got an abundance of kids.
Well, he just lost Wendi, as you know. [Murdoch split from his wife in 2013.] He was right to do it, in my opinion.
I’m not commenting on that.
Saying that was very intriguing.
Well, that’s my opinion. But I could be wrong, I could be right. My opinion doesn’t count.
You take a pretty dim view of the newspaper investments Murdoch has made.
I believe in TV and movies. He believes in ink. And I don’t believe in ink. It’s not gonna last! The Internet will take over.
Do you have a proudest moment?
I’m proud about the fact that I was born in a tenement without a nickel and now I control two great companies. I’m not arrogant about it, but I do feel pride in having come from nowhere to where I am today.
A FEW OF SUMNER’S FAVORITE THINGS
Favorite city: L.A. I also like Hong Kong, Paris and Beijing. I met with several officials of Beijing, including the former president of China and his son. As a result of my activities in China, the only channels that could be seen in China [once] were Nickelodeon and MTV. We had the only dedicated channel in China called MTV China.
Favorite hotel: The Carlyle in New York City.
Favorite restaurant: Dan Tana’s in West Hollywood.
Favorite sports team: The Red Sox. They won the World Series [in 2013]. Actually they won five games. They had one stolen from them by the umpire. … He was afraid Boston fans would kill him.
Favorite books: The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I’m an avid reader, and I love books in Greek and Latin.
Most valuable possession: My home. But I don’t possess things, I enjoy them.
Best room in my house: My fish room because it relaxes me and the fish mesmerize me. I have the largest private collection of saltwater fish in the country.
Last song I sang: Any song by Tony Bennett.
Most trusted person: I trust in many people, but the one I trust the most is myself.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 17, 2014 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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