From the outset, Sumner Redstone was a curiosity.
A cluster of power players 50 years ago were suddenly bidding for control of Hollywood’s revered movie studios. Competition was intense but most of the bidders were not even “movie” people. In fact, they’d rarely seen a movie.
The exception was a cantankerous lawyer from Boston who’d inherited a small chain of theaters. Unlike characters like Steve Ross (funeral business), Kirk Kerkorian (airplanes) or Rupert Murdoch (newspapers), Redstone was passionate about film. He wanted to champion filmmaking and build a media conglomerate around that zeal.
A new book by James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams chronicles the successes and lurid failures of Redstone and his troubled domain – Paramount, CBS, Viacom, etc. Titled Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire, the book, like its protagonist, becomes overwhelmed by legalistic intrigue, family rivalries and sexual aberration involving both Redstone and Les Moonves, the powerhouse chief of CBS.
While the book vividly captures the corruption of power and excess, its principals become ghost-like figures hovering on the sidelines. Also in the shadows is Shari Redstone, Sumner’s daughter, who successfully tightened her control over her father’s empire while sharing none of his passion. “She was intrigued by the power, not the product,” noted one key executive.
Unscripted drifts into the almost comedic details of Redstone’s bizarre social life, which prompted Shari to claw back the $150 million paid to two of her father’s girlfriends. It also details how a succession of investigations of Moonves derailed the complex plan aimed at delivering corporate control to the CBS dealmaker.
But Stewart and Abrams’ saga lacks the vivid characters and mythical landscape of Disney Wars, Stewart’s superb analysis of the battle for control of the Magic Kingdom. Part of the problem stems from Unscripted‘s determination to ignore movies – the industry that inspired Redstone’s mission.
“Those of us who knew Sumner when he was a young shlepper trying to survive as a film exhibitor would never have imagined his evolution into a corporate monster,” comments one former associate.
I was a young film executive at Paramount when Redstone would come in to passionately pitch his movie circuit and vie for what he considered “promising product.” He was eager but modest and did his homework; he had seen every movie up for distribution and was eager to dissect them and their filmmakers.
Years later when I was editor of Variety I heard many stories from filmmakers praising Redstone for championing movies – even the more esoteric art movies – often promising them better platforms. He sustained this passion even after he acquired Paramount.
“If a movie tested badly and was under attack, Sumner would call me with encouragement – even funding further reshoots,” one filmmaker said.
Redstone was greatly supportive of Sherry Lansing, his studio chief, stoutly defending her hits as well as the occasional bombs. The two presented a strongly united front at industry functions in promoting the studio slate.
Redstone also nourished his friendship with Robert Evans, renewing his producing deal at the studio and actively working with him to re-edit and rerelease Cotton Club, a gangster musical that failed in its initial release.
The CEO would join stars and filmmakers at Evans’ screening room, leading the cheering section for films he liked. He even played an occasional show tune on the piano that sat in Evans’ living room.
To be sure, Redstone shared Evans’ appetite for beautiful women, but was an utter failure matching Evans’ seductive charm. Where Evans’ game was one of candlelight and soft music, Redstone only understood the weapons of power and money, taking girlfriends on extraordinary trips to glamorous resorts.
“When Sumner went to dinner he was consistently rude to waiters, shouting orders at them,” one companion observed. “On his way out he would casually peel a hundred dollar bill from a wad in his pocket to mark his benevolence.”
To old friends, Redstone’s shows of rudeness seemed a contradiction of his sophisticated background – the Boston Latin School followed by a Harvard education.
Most of his old friends abandoned him in his later years when he was confined to a wheelchair, ate through a tube and needed devices to help him speak. His main source of companionship consisted of a giant fish tank and an occasional movie.
He believed that he would live forever and informed everyone he met of this intention. But dementia clearly clouded his judgment; efforts to find a voice in the ultimate corporate struggles became pitiable. His daughter Shari was adept at the corporate wars and Sumner was a mere bystander.
The last conversation I had with him was not about health. He wanted to talk about the box office results.
This content was originally published here.