“And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:” — Hebrews 9:27
Sumner M. Redstone, the billionaire entrepreneur who saw business as combat and his advancing years as no obstacle in building a media empire that encompassed CBS and Viacom, died on Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 97.
His death was announced in a statement by National Amusements, the private theater chain company founded by his father. No cause was given, but an assistant said the death was not related to Covid-19.
Mr. Redstone had vowed never to give up the reins of his conglomerate, but in February 2016 he stepped away from managing it, and his daughter, Shari E. Redstone, with whom he had a contentious relationship, took control of day-to-day affairs.
Beginning with a modest chain of drive-in movie theaters, Mr. Redstone negotiated, sued and otherwise fought to amass holdings that over time included CBS, the Paramount film and television studios, the publisher Simon & Schuster, the video retail giant Blockbuster and a host of cable channels, including MTV, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon. At their peak, the businesses were worth more than $80 billion.
Toward the end of his life, he controlled about 80 percent of the voting stock in Viacom and CBS, presiding over both through National Amusements. And almost to the end, his grip was tight and his enthusiasm undiminished.
“Being a competitor of Sumner Redstone’s is a fate worse than death,” Barry Reardon, who oversaw distribution for Warner Brothers, a rival studio, told Premiere magazine in 1994. “He never lets up. He’s relentless.”
That kind of tenacity helped save Mr. Redstone’s life. At 55, he survived a fire that engulfed his Boston hotel room by clinging to a window ledge while half his body was scorched. “I think I was driven before, but out of that fire came most of the exciting things I have ever done,” he told Forbes magazine.
Mr. Redstone was a ripe 64 when he burst into the business limelight in 1987 by winning control of Viacom, a cable television operator at the time, from an investment group led by Viacom’s management. To acquire major companies, he frequently dueled with powerful, and much younger, entrepreneurs. In 1994, after a grueling struggle, he confounded Wall Street analysts by wresting Paramount from a heavily favored rival bidder, Barry Diller, who was almost 20 years his junior.
Well past 80, Mr. Redstone was running his businesses with little thought about retirement. One after another, associates who had been groomed to succeed him either resigned or were fired. In 1996, he dismissed his highly regarded chief executive, Frank Biondi Jr., and took the reins of Viacom himself. When critics suggested that at 72 he was too old for the top job, Mr. Redstone, at a news conference, compared himself to Bob Dole, the Republican candidate for president that year, who was the same age.
“If he can run America, believe me, I can run Viacom,” Mr. Redstone said.
At 83 and a billionaire several times over, he roiled the entertainment world again in August 2006 by emerging from luxurious semiretirement in Beverly Hills to sever ties with Paramount’s biggest star, Tom Cruise.
Mr. Redstone had been irritated by Mr. Cruise’s offscreen behavior — proselytizing for the Church of Scientology, denouncing psychiatry and jumping up and down on a sofa as a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s television show. He was also concerned that Mr. Cruise’s contract gave the actor a hefty chunk of the profits from his films.
About two weeks later, Mr. Redstone fired Thomas Freston, the chief executive at Viacom, saying he had not done enough to increase the company’s share price.
Besides being an empire builder, Mr. Redstone was an innovator. He was a pioneer in the wide-scale adoption of multiplex cinemas. He conceived a revenue-sharing arrangement with film companies that radically changed the economics of the video rental business by convincing Hollywood that video stores — just like movie theaters — should be allowed to split revenues with filmmakers rather than pay flat fees. He also devised deals that allowed him to limit the risks and to share expenses involved in film production with other studios and investors.
Mr. Redstone, who was a successful lawyer before becoming a businessman, was an unyielding negotiator. “I believe in taking every penny off the table,” he wrote in his 2001 autobiography, “A Passion to Win,” written with Peter Knobler.
When he was stymied by competitors or exasperated with big client companies, he did not hesitate to take them to court and almost invariably won or got them to settle on his terms. At one time or another he sued almost every major film studio and the leading cable operators. Using the courts as a weapon of business would become a signature move, helping him expand his empire.
“I would rather handle disagreements through discussion and accommodation,” Mr. Redstone wrote. “But if that fails, and it often does, litigation is an appropriate tool.”
In the end, new media trends and old age overcame him. A younger generation had turned increasingly toward video streaming rather than broadcast and cable television, and his obvious infirmities had weakened his ability to lead a business on so vast a scale.
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SOURCE: The New York Times, Jonathan Kandell