Sumner Redstone Dies: Giant Of The Media World Was 97

By Jake Kanter, Jill Goldsmith, Dade Hayes

Sumner Redstone
Sumner Redstone in 2012 Alex J. Berliner/ABImages via AP Images

Sumner Redstone, an imposing industry figure who built a business empire including Viacom, Paramount Pictures and CBS out of a regional chain of movie theaters, has died at the age of 97.

National Amusements, the controlling shareholder of ViacomCBS, confirmed the news Wednesday morning.

“It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Sumner M. Redstone, the self-made businessman, philanthropist and World War II veteran who built one of the largest collections of media assets in the world,” the company said in a statement (read it in full below).

ViacomCBS CEO Bob Bakish, who joined Viacom in 1997, called Redstone “a brilliant visionary, operator and dealmaker, who single-handedly transformed a family-owned drive-in theater company into a global media portfolio. He was a force of nature and fierce competitor, who leaves behind a profound legacy in both business and philanthropy. ViacomCBS will remember Sumner for his unparalleled passion to win, his endless intellectual curiosity, and his complete dedication to the company. We extend our deepest sympathies to the Redstone family today.”

The media world hadn’t heard for years from the long-ailing mogul, who was born Sumner Murray Rothstein on May 27, 1923 in Boston. Since 2016, he held the title of chairman emeritus at the company he built. A series of small strokes left him unable to speak in his final years, though he communicated via a specially designed iPad. (In a column for Deadline last year, Peter Bart described visiting Redstone.)

Whenever he was pressed on succession planning over the decades, the hard-charging Redstone half-joked that he intended to be around forever. It certainly felt that way over several decades, as he created a colossus of film, television, radio and book publishing. Remarkably, his major forays started when he was already in his 60s, an age when many in corporate life are mulling retirement.

Sumner Redstone
Suzanne Plunkett/AP Photo

With a decisive hand, the shrewd instincts of a trained lawyer, an impetuous manner and an unambiguous Boston honk, he cut a singular figure in media and business circles. His rise mirrored that of a collection of moguls — Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, Barry Diller and others — who shaped modern media with a blend of business savvy and human ambition. Redstone frequently jousted with many of his contemporaries, collecting and shedding assets along the way as strategy or sometimes whim dictated, and he merged his two core companies – CBS and Viacom – twice.

A tenacious dealmaker, Redstone created his kingdom by fearlessly snapping up companies at the height of the merger craze in the 1980s and 1990s. Prior to that phase, though, came a more formative period in the exhibition business, where his legacy is particularly lasting. Redstone made a series of industry-shaping moves while helping run National Amusements. He sued studios for refusing to book first-run films at drive-ins and took them to court again, getting them to stop their practice of “blind bidding.”

When the popularity of drive-ins waned in the 1960s, he used the land on company-owned drive-in sites to build some of the first theater locations with multiple screens. While AMC founder Stanley Durwood gets credit for popularizing the multiplex in the U.S., it was Redstone who owned the trademark on the term.

After buying and selling stakes in Fox, Columbia Pictures and MGM Home Entertainment, Redstone turned his attention to Viacom in 1987. He managed to thwart an effort by Warner Communications and American Express, who then owned the Viacom assets, to take them private. Despite interest rates in the mid-teens, he took on enormous debt, tapping Michael Milken’s junk-bond financing and using National Amusements as collateral in mounting a $3.4 billion cash-and-stock offer.

In 1994, Redstone confounded Wall Street analysts by wresting Paramount from a heavily favored rival bidder, Diller, who then ran QVC. John Malone, another major media figure, was also in the running. Since his days tearing tickets at his father’s theaters, Redstone had esteem for Paramount, and as an executive he spent years trying to persuade Martin Davis to sell him the studio. He prevailed after agreeing to pay $7.6 billion in stock for Blockbuster Entertainment. Before that deal closed, Blockbuster bought $1.25 billion worth of Viacom shares, giving Redstone enough cash to raise his Paramount offer to $9.8 billion in cash and stock.

“Sumner Redstone was a media visionary, a tenacious competitor, and a fearless builder, who left an enormous legacy for his family, our industry, and all of our colleagues in the company he created,” current Paramount Pictures chairman and CEO Jim Gianopulos said today following the news of Redstone’s death.

Six years after the Paramount coup, Redstone pulled off an even bigger one — paying $35.6 billion in stock to Westinghouse for CBS in what was then the priciest media deal of all time.

Redstone’s luck was mixed: Viacom paid off as MTV became a cultural phenomenon. Paramount was aided by the surprising success of Forrest Gump in 1994, its co-financing of Titanic in 1997 and syndication rights for The Cosby Show. But business downturns forced Redstone to sell Blockbuster and Madison Square Garden (which had been owned by Paramount when Viacom bought the studio). 

Born in decidedly modest circumstances on Boston’s West End, Redstone graduated from Harvard and, during World War II, worked with the Army team that broke the Japanese code. After the war he graduated from Harvard Law School and worked at the Justice Department’s Tax Division before joining his father’s theater chain.

Redstone tapped his legal training frequently. A cascade of lawsuits over the years reached a peak valuation with a $1 billion claim against YouTube in 2007 for its failure to take down Viacom’s copyright-protected programming. (The suit was settled in 2014, with no money changing hands.) The lawsuits continued, nearly to the end, as did the scores to settle. Even though Redstone’s 2001 memoir, A Passion to Win, included benign descriptions of many rivals, it was forgiving of Diller for his “betrayal” during the Paramount fight.

Over Labor Day weekend in 2006, incensed by Viacom CEO Tom Freston’s inability to acquire MySpace (which rival Murdoch bought, to his regret) and also by a plunging stock price, he summoned Freston to his Beverly Hills mansion and fired him. The dismissal recalled the abrupt exit of Frank Biondi Jr. as Viacom chief a decade earlier. Two weeks before giving Freston the heave-ho, Redstone banned Tom Cruise from the Paramount lot over concerns that Cruise’s personal drama was interfering with box office.

There was a business logic to the Cruise clash — given the star had a gargantuan 30% of first-dollar gross on the Mission: Impossible films — but notably less so in a series of other moves executed by Redstone in the 2000s. Chief among the puzzlements was the decision to split Viacom from CBS in 2006, a move that continues to have reverberations and what-ifs attached to it. Les Moonves took over CBS and ran it successfully for more than a decade. But the exec would eventually become a company foe, battling National Amusements in court over its control of the company before ultimately being forced out amid sexual assault and harassment allegations.

The Viacom side of the house was run by Philippe Dauman, Redstone’s former personal attorney, who replaced Freston. A far more taciturn and cautious figure than his boss, Dauman did not improve Viacom’s fortunes during his nine years at the helm. He passed on acquiring Marvel, which was pounced on by Disney’s Bob Iger, and also presided over an ill-fated alliance with DreamWorks. Dauman also alienated key distributors of Viacom cable networks, cut costs to the nub and let on-air talent like John Oliver jump to rival networks as executive talent also fled. Eventually, Redstone and Dauman filed lawsuits against each other and Dauman was forced out of the company in 2015.

On a personal level, Redstone was known for his incredible toughness. One of the enduring images of the mogul is of him hanging onto a window sill of the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston as a fire engulfed the building in 1979. He survived, as did his longtime mistress, who was reportedly in the room with him. One of Redstone’s hands was permanently damaged and he suffered lasting pain from the episode.

Redstone’s personal life was tumultuous, with acrimonious divorces and feuds with his children and business partners alike. In 2002, writer Michael Woolf called Redstone an “old-school egomaniac who has an operatic personal life that has been largely kept out of the media undoubtedly because he controls so much of it.” A decade later, less central to the company’s operations and in declining health,  tawdry stories began appearing in Vanity Fair and elsewhere as court filings revealed a series of vivid and unseemly details. Redstone had multiple girlfriends, who eventually secured a piece of his fortune. One of them, Manuela Herzer, claimed that Redstone, at age 92, still demanded steak and daily sex.

Sumner Redstone Shari Redstone
Sumner Redstone and Shari Redstone in 2012 in Beverly Hills Todd Williamson/Invision for LA friendly House/AP Images

As Bakish was installed to replace Dauman and right the ship at Viacom, Redstone’s daughter, Shari, took on a more central role. (A son, Brent, fell out with the family and agreed to sell his stake in the company in 2006.)

Once estranged, Shari Redstone and her father reached a form of reconciliation and she would often sprinkle Sumner-isms, including his best-known, “content is king,” into her public remarks in a nod to the company’s heritage. She headed National Amusements and, starting in 2015, initiated multiple attempts to reunite Viacom with CBS. Despite adamantly insisting on the breakup in 2006, Sumner Redstone supported the merger and voted to approve it in 2019.

Sumner Redstone’s later years were marred by messy legal feuding between caretakers, girlfriends and his daughter as he grew increasingly incapacitated. Those suits have been settled, as has the structure of his beloved company, which since last December has operated once again as a single entity.

Here is the full statement from National Amusements today:

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Sumner M. Redstone, the self-made businessman, philanthropist and World War II veteran who built one of the largest collections of media assets in the world. He passed away yesterday at the age of 97.

Over the course of his distinguished life and career, Sumner played a critical role in shaping the landscape of the modern media and entertainment industry. At National Amusements, he transformed a regional theater chain into a world leader in the motion picture exhibition industry. Sumner was also a keen investor who took stakes in a variety of companies, including Viacom Inc. and CBS Corporation – today merged as ViacomCBS – which he built into prominent, international and industry-leading conglomerates in the media industry.

Sumner was a man of unrivaled passion and perseverance, who devoted his life to his belief in the power of content. With his passing, the media industry he loved so dearly loses one of its great champions. Sumner, a loving father, grandfather and great-grandfather, will be greatly missed by his family who take comfort knowing that his legacy will live on for generations to come.

David Lieberman contributed to this report.

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