Major Viacom Shareholder Wants Alibaba to Buy a Stake in Paramount

Sumner Redstone and Mario Gabelli - H 2015
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images; Hal Horowitz/WireImage

Mario Gabelli owns the second-largest block of voting shares in Viacom, and he has suddenly become a very vocal, activist shareholder.

Two days after asking Viacom to disclose details about the mental state of executive chairman Sumner Redstone, billionaire investor Mario Gabelli is recommending the conglomerate sell a piece of its Paramount film studio to Alibaba, the Chinese Internet giant founded by Jack Ma.

Gabelli, who owns 10 percent of Viacom's voting shares — more than any other entity not controlled by Redstone and his trustees — told Financial Times that selling a chunk of Paramount to Alibaba would not only generate needed cash, but also pave the way for more Paramount films in fast-growing China.

Alibaba, in fact, already has a relationship with Paramount via its Alibaba Pictures unit, which helped finance Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.

"If Alibaba is going to be serious about getting into the entertainment industry, Viacom should sell Jack Ma a piece of Paramount," Gabelli told FT on Thursday. "Jack Ma has a great understanding of the Chinese movie market."

Ma is known to want a bigger slice of the U.S. moviemaking pie, and has previously considered taking a 37 percent stake in Lionsgate. That hasn't happened, but Alibaba has partnered with the mini-major studio for the creation of Lionsgate Entertainment World, a subscription service in China for streaming shows such as Mad Men and The Royals and films from such franchises as Divergent and Twilight.

Gabelli, who founded GAMCO Investors in 1977 and is worth an estimated $1 billion, has rather suddenly become a more vocal, activist shareholder when it comes to his Viacom stake. He disclosed on Wednesday that he contacted a Viacom executive a day earlier to demand that the company share more details about Redstone's health.

Redstone and Viacom have been dealing with a widely publicized effort from 46-year-old former girlfriend Manuela Herzer to be legally installed as a caretaker to 92-year-old Redstone. "All I want is transparency about what the board knows and what they're going to tell the world," Gabelli told The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday.

Viacom had no response to Gabelli's suggestion that it sell some of Paramount to Alibaba, but William Schwartz, chairman of its Governance and Nomination Committee, emailed a statement regarding Redstone's health.

"As has been widely and publicly disclosed, Mr. Redstone's physicians have publicly attested that he is mentally capable, and this information is consistent with other medical and other information available to me," said Schwartz.

In the meantime, Viacom shares keep dropping like a stone. They lost 2 percent Thursday after dropping 4 percent Wednesday. The stock has fallen five days straight and is down 36 percent so far this year.