Sumner Redstone: the man who sacked Tom Cruise

Sumner Redstone, 83, once said his big disappointment in life was his inability “to get a guarantee that I could live forever”. But with the endgame fast approaching and Viacom’s stock falling, the mogul is fretting about his place in history as a master of the universe. Thus, a fortnight after dispatching “creative suicide” Tom Cruise from Viacom’s Paramount studios, he summoned CEO Tom Freston to his Beverly Hills home, and amid his prized collection of rare saltwater fish, summarily fired him. The only thing saltier than the fish were Redstone’s crocodile tears: “I was practically crying,” he told The New York Times.

Redstone once had a cameo role in a Spiderman movie, playing a corporate chief sacking an “an out-of-control superstar”, notes The Sunday Times. “Moments later, the superstar blew the board to pieces.” It was a fitting tribute to Redstone’s career and the “trail of corporate dead” in his wake: Freston, the celebrated architect of MTV, is the third hand-picked CEO he’s sacked in a decade. His chief failing, said Redstone, was letting Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp snap up social networking site MySpace.com for $580m last year – thus stealing a march in the internet strategy game. “It was there for the taking,” moaned Redstone, apparently forgetting he’d shouted down “impassioned speeches from top executives” that Viacom should counter-bid. Freston has been replaced by old Viacom hand Philippe Dauman. But the big worry on Wall Street is that Redstone is back at the wheel – Viacom’s key task of “rediscovering cool” is being led by an octogenarian.

That won’t faze Redstone, whose autobiography, A Passion To Win, is stuffed with references to his “bright moves, very bright moves, and extremely bright moves”, says the Canadian National Post. In media mogul terms, he was a late starter. The son of Jewish immigrant parents, he won a Harvard scholarship and spent World War II cracking Japanese naval codes before launching a legal career. Friends date his “renaissance” to 1999, when he dumped Phyllis, his wife of 52 years, for Paula Fortunato, a primary school teacher 40 years his junior. But the central event in the Redstone legend, as he sees it, came in 1979 when he survived a hotel fire by hanging onto a third-floor ledge with one arm while the rest of his body burned. This near-death experience drove him to transform a chain of film theatres, inherited from his father, into the world’s second-largest media group. Acquiring Viacom in 1987, he went on to buy Blockbuster, Paramount and CBS. “The tougher the fight, the greater the satisfaction”, is his mantra.

“I have an obsessive competitive spirit,” says Redstone. And he rarely forgets a slight – he still calls a Harvard professor who had the audacity to give him a D “a known drunk”. “Redstone aligns his passions with his [financial] interests,” says The Guardian’s Malcolm Gladwell, “and when his interests change, so do his friendships.” But he still finds it expedient to list erstwhile rivals and sacked underlings as “good friends”. Redstone likes to keep ’em guessing. He once said his daughter Shari would never succeed him – yet made her his successor designate last year. A tough negotiator with “a thick-as-gravy Boston accent”, Shari is a chip off the old block. “Like father, like daughter,” he says. “She has no great weaknesses…”

Is there a crisis in the film industry?

Sumner Redstone might have a deadly eye for a deal, but he’s been caught napping by the digital media revolution, says the Los Angeles Times. When he split Viacom into two public companies earlier this year, the “new media” arm – MTV, Paramount and DreamWorks – was meant to be the growth stock. Yet it has been consistently trounced by the group’s “old media” interests under the CBS banner. The problem is “the death of cable”. As market leader, Viacom “had most to lose when the tide turned” and advertisers started spending more money online. MTV, the once-hip channel that fuelled Viacom’s mushroom growth, now looks increasingly like an albatross.

The situation is none too pretty in the group’s film unit either, says Time. The “nasty, public send-off” Redstone gave Tom Cruise has been much raked over, with some even suggesting it was due to Redstone’s wife, who objected to Cruise’s attack on Brooke Shields’s use of prescribed medicines. The truth, of course, is that it was down to money. Cruise’s Paramount films grossed $3bn in the past, but takings from Mission: Impossible III disappointed. Had it grossed more, Cruise “could have distributed Scientology pamphlets door-to-door” indefinitely for all Redstone cared; as it was, “the star had simply become too expensive”. Studios and stars break up all the time. But the ousting of Cruise, and the hype around DIY film sites such as YouTube.com, taps into a “simmering existential crisis” in the industry. “Maybe studios don’t need stars. Maybe stars don’t need studios. Maybe – and this is the one that really scares Hollywood – audiences don’t need either of them.”