How Philippe Dauman Is Playing His Cards in the Fight for Viacom

Shari Redstone and Philippe Dauman_Split - Getty - H 2016
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Shari Redstone and Philippe Dauman_Split - Getty - H 2016

As Shari Redstone moves to gain control over Viacom, her father's replacement of Philippe Dauman and George Abrams with National Amusements lawyer Tad Jankowski and Shari ally Jill Krutick as trustees on the trust that will control his media empire marks a dramatic provocation.

Sumner, who turns 93 on May 27, next could sack Dauman, 62, from Viacom's board, too, although corporate bylaws, litigation and the prospect of paying Dauman a massive severance will factor into whether to move quickly or play the long game. Shari, 62, and Sumner are demonstrating confidence by asking a California court to affirm his trust changes. They may feel emboldened by a judge's dismissal in early May of the health care lawsuit brought by Redstone's ex-companion Manuela Herzer. Meanwhile, Dauman is fighting back with his own lawsuit in Massachusetts probate court against Shari for allegedly manipulating her father.

As this Shakespearean drama moves forward, Dauman will have to contend with his past statement in a declaration in the Herzer suit that Sumner Redstone was "engaged, attentive and as opinionated as ever" as late as last October, but that opinion is hardly definitive. "People's conditions can change radically, and Dauman might not have known all the facts or appreciated the full situation. I don't think it will be fatal to him," says Phillips Nizer attorney Elizabeth Adinolfi.

Of potential interest is the deposition that Dauman gave in late April in the Herzer case. Recall that at the time, a judge had not yet ruled on Herzer's attempt to regain control of Redstone's health. When Dauman gave sworn testimony last month, he must have been in a particularly uncomfortable spot. Did he show loyalty to Redstone by repeating his opinion that Redstone was engaged and attentive or did he foresee what was about to happen and walk around his earlier impression of Redstone's mental state?

Because a judge stopped the Herzer trial in the midst of proceedings, what Dauman had to say in his deposition has never been reported. But according to sources, he didn't exactly do Redstone any favors then. Those with knowledge of what happened describe him as backing away significantly from offering any opinion. Surely, had he said anything positive about Redstone's mental state, his lawsuit probably wouldn't be asserting that in early March, Dauman found Redstone during a visit to be "totally non-responsive."

Dauman is now suing to be reinstated on the trust and will argue Sumner is being manipulated by Shari. He will look to use as evidence the awful things Sumner himself has said over the years about his daughter. And as the saying goes, the enemy of thine enemy is my friend. Dauman will now look for testimony from Shari adversaries like former Sumner girlfriend Sydney Holland and hostile granddaughter Keryn Redstone.

But obtaining a finding that Sumner was unduly influenced won't be easy. Although the judge in the Herzer case made no competency ruling, Sumner's comment that Herzer is a "f—ing bitch" suggests he's at least of sound enough mind to register an opinion. If this is any indication of what to expect in the fight, advantage Shari. Will history repeat? Observes attorney Stuart Slotnick: "Ultimately, Sumner Redstone is going to have to show up. A judge is going to want to hear from him. Control of the empire is going to turn on this."

Dauman's biggest weakness continues to be that his last name isn't Redstone. His position as head of Viacom is at the grace of shareholders, and the trust he is fighting over is set up not for him but for the benefit of Redstone's grandchildren. Dauman's moves in a courtroom this week may or may not buy him some time as he pursues a sale of Paramount Pictures among other acts as Viacom chairman, but at some point with the difference between being fired with or without cause being substantial under his employment agreement, money becomes a factor. Negotiating an exit is a looming doorway.

A version of this story first appeared in the June 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.