Peter Burt: Sumner Wants to Be a Champion in the Redstone Movie, But His Lust for Power Turns Him into a “Corporate Monster”

From the beginning, Summer Redstone was curious.

50 years ago a cluster of power players were suddenly bidding for control of Hollywood’s venerable movie studios. Competition was fierce but most bidders were not “film” people. In fact, they rarely watched a movie.

The exception was a controversial Boston lawyer who 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 group around that passion.

James B. A new book by Stewart and Rachel Abrams details the successes and failures of Redstone and its troubled domains – Paramount, CBS, Viacom, etc. title Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media EmpireThe book, like its protagonist, is overwhelmed by legal intrigue, family rivalries and sexual perversions involving both CBS powerhouses Redstone and Les Moonves.

Although the book vividly captures the corruption of power and excess, its protagonists become ghost-like figures. Also in the shadows is Shari Redstone, Sumner’s daughter, who has successfully tightened her grip on her father’s empire and shares none of his passions. “He was interested in power, not product,” noted one chief executive.

unscripted Flows into an almost comical account of Redstone’s eccentric social life, which prompts Shari to return $150 million lent to two of her father’s girlfriends. It also details how continuing investigations into Moonves derailed the complex plan to give corporate control to the CBS dealmaker.

But Stewart and Abrams’ story lacks vivid characters and mythic landscapes Disney Wars, Stewart’s excellent analysis of the battle for control of the Magic Kingdom. Part of the problem stems from unscriptedA determination to ignore the movies—the industry that inspired Redstone’s mission.

“Those of us who knew Sumner when he was a young helper trying to make a living as a movie showman never imagined he would evolve into the corporate monster that he is,” commented one former associate.

I was a young film executive at Paramount when Redstone would passionately pitch his movie circuit and fight for what he considered “promising products.” He was eager but polite and did his homework; He watched every film for distribution and was eager to dissect them and their filmmakers.

Many years later when I was editor diversity I’ve heard many stories from filmmakers praising Redstone for championing movies — even more esoteric art films — often promising them a better platform. He retained this passion even after acquiring Paramount.

“If a film tested poorly and was under attack, Sumner would call me with encouragement — even finance more reshoots,” said one filmmaker.

Redstone was heavily supportive of his studio head Sherry Lansing, staunchly defending his hits and occasional bombs. The two presented a strongly united front at industry events promoting Studio Slate.

Redstone nurtured his friendship with Robert Evans, renewed his production contract at the studio, and actively worked with him on re-editing and re-releases. Cotton ClubA gangster musical that failed on its initial release.

(L-R) Sumner Redstone and Robert Evans in 2003

Carlo Allegri/Getty Images

The CEO will join stars and filmmakers in Evans’ screening room, leading the cheering section for films of his choice. He even occasionally played show tunes on the piano in Evans’ living room.

To be sure, Redstone shares Evans’ appetite for beautiful women, but fails miserably to match Evans’ seductive charms. Where Evans’ game was one of candlelight and soft music, Redstone understood only the weapons of power and money, taking girlfriends on extravagant trips to glamorous resorts.

“When Sumner went to dinner he was constantly rude to the waiters, shouting orders at them,” observed a companion. “When going out he would casually peel a hundred dollar bill from a wad in his pocket for his welfare.”

To old friends, Redstone’s displays of vulgarity seemed a contradiction of his sophisticated background—a Harvard education followed by the Boston Latin School.

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 sources of companionship were a large fish tank and an occasional movie.

He believed that he would live forever and communicated this intention to everyone he met. But dementia clearly clouded his judgement; Attempts to find a voice in the ultimate corporate struggle become pathetic. His daughter Shari excelled in corporate warfare and Sumna was a mere bystander.

My last conversation with him was not about health. He wanted to talk about the box office results.

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