Just when Paramount Pictures was beginning to stabilize under the 10-month reign of movie chairman Sherry Lansing, the studio was purchased this week by Viacom Inc. in a multibillion-dollar deal that will transform the studio’s parent company into a mega-media giant.
The sale--which the parties say they hope will be finalized by December--raises the question of what the impact will be on the venerable movie studio, which only now is emerging from management upheaval and a prolonged box-office slump with such hits as “The Firm” and “Indecent Proposal.” What is clear is that Lansing and her New York-based boss and former producing partner, Paramount Communications President Stanley Jaffe, have the blessing of their new boss, Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone, to continue running the movie studio without interference. “I would say my involvement on the movie side will be very unintrusive for obvious reasons, " Redstone said in a phone interview from New York. “I know a lot about movies from playing them (as an exhibitor), but not from making them.” Redstone assured that he would leave the operation of Paramount’s movie division in the hands of Lansing and Jaffe.
“I don’t have the competence to be green-lighting movies. I have a lot to do without getting involved in areas of our combined businesses I know nothing about. That’s basically for these guys.”
It had been speculated that since Redstone, who owns one of the nation’s more successful theater chains, is so personally involved in the exhibition business that he might roll up his sleeves and plunge into day-to-day operations at the movie studio.
“Sumner is very hands-on, but we’re not going to see him picking movies,” said 20th Century Fox executive Vice President Tom Sherak, who has done business with Redstone both as a supplier of movies and as a competitor, when he was head film buyer at General Cinema from 1977 to 1983. “He’ll have people who he counts on deal with it. More than anything Sumner respects somebody who has a point of view and can stand by it. And he enjoys a good argument.”
For their part, both Jaffe and Lansing said they support the merger, which they say will provide exploitable resources in the form of Viacom’s cable-television and movie-theater properties.
In recent years, filmmakers have looked on with concern as studio after studio has fallen into the hands of such corporate giants as News Corp., Sony and Matsushita.
The 70-year-old Redstone, however, is no stranger in town. His long-felt passion for movies stems from his ownership of one of the nation’s most successful theater chains, Viacom parent National Amusements, a family business that he built into an 800-screen circuit.
“I’m addicted to movies,” Redstone said, acknowledging, “When we have a movie opening in our theaters, I get on the phone and get our grosses from all over the U.S. I can’t help myself. I have such a strong emotional attachment to the movie business.”
Redstone, who will have 69% voting control over the newly formed Paramount Viacom International, said, “The main thing I like to play are pictures that do business.” From an exhibitor’s standpoint, he said, what matters are quality, cast and a good story line: “Like Shakespeare said, ‘The play’s the thing.’ ” And when it comes to successful casting, he quipped, “We know Harrison Ford will do better than Sumner Redstone.”
Redstone said that he is “extremely impressed” with Paramount’s release schedule for the next year, which includes “Addams Family Values” and “Wayne’s World 2.”
As for what Viacom offers Paramount, Jaffe said, “What they have are some of the best franchises possible to exploit for the future, whether it’s (MTV’s) ‘Beavis and Butt-head,’ which is going to be a Paramount picture, or (cable TV network) Nickelodeon, which will become our brand name going into the children’s (movie) market.”
Jaffe said that while Redstone would be involved in the strategic direction of Paramount, a diverse conglomerate, which also includes Madison Square Garden, publishing giant Simon & Schuster, the New York Knicks professional basketball team and the New York Rangers, he would not be involved in the day-to-day operations. “Neither he (Redstone) nor (Paramount Communications chairman) Marty Davis or I envision that even slightly.”
Lansing, who was overseas when the merger was announced last weekend, said she believes that “it’s going to be business as usual, but bigger and better. I don’t see any interference in the stability of the studio. I think it’s great. We’re obviously now one of the strongest media companies in the history of the business.”
When asked whether Paramount would be likely to launch a second film label (a la Disney) to handle family entertainment movies, Lansing would only say: “I think there are unlimited opportunities.”
With Viacom’s resources and media outlets, she said, Paramount’s prior goal of increasing its slate to 25 releases a year “seems even more realistic now than before.”
One key question is how the personal dynamics of the strong-willed Redstone, Davis and Jaffe will play out. Another key player in the corporate suites is Frank J. Biondi Jr., chief executive officer of Viacom, who may or may not be positioned over Jaffe.
Redstone wouldn’t speculate on what the likely hierarchy would be, saying only, “Stanley and Frank are getting along extremely well. Their job will be with the transition team to sort out everything.”
Jaffe downplayed any potential rivalry between himself and Biondi. “It may be very chic to write that b.s., but there’s not one scintilla of truth to it. . . . Frank and I will get along just fine.” A rivalry is unlikely, he said, since Viacom does not have a theatrical film division.
Entertainment attorney Peter Dekom, noting that Redstone is not the type to “hang around with agents and talk about who the next big star might be,” said the Viacom chief’s big challenge will be “blending the managements.”
“Both Stanley and Sumner are clearly defined men with clearly defined goals,” he said, “but there’s more similarity between them than people would expect. The one huge difference is that Sumner is clearly the boss. In an event of a dispute between the two, we know who will go and who will stay.”
Paramount will become a formidable force in exhibition. To Redstone’s National Amusements’ 800 screens in the United States and Britain, Paramount adds the Canadian circuit Famous Players (441 screens), Cineamerica, a joint venture with Warner Bros. (341 screens) and United Cinemas International, a 50-50 ownership with MCA/Universal (345 screens).
Redstone said he does not plan to combine the theater assets of Viacom and Paramount but is considering naming someone to oversee all theater operations so that Paramount, for example, can potentially command the same high level of film rentals--that portion of the box-office revenues that is returned to the studios--that National Amusements does.
Before this week’s sale, Paramount was just beginning to stabilize after being somewhat adrift for years. Since Lansing took the helm of the studio from former Paramount chairman Brandon Tartikoff last November, the studio has stepped up its production and distribution of movies.
Two of Paramount’s most prolific producers say they see no cause for alarm about the merger.
Scott Rudin, who has given the studio such megahits as “The Firm” and “The Addams Family,” said: “This place is working for the first time in a very long time, so why would they change it? Sherry and Stanley have put a ton of movies together and for the first time in about five years Paramount has a competitive schedule.”
Robert Rehme, who with his partner Mace Neufeld produced such Paramount hits as “The Hunt for Red October” and “Patriot Games,” said he “can’t imagine (the sale) will have anything but a positive effect” on Paramount. “They will want as many or more movies than Paramount is already making and they’re trying to increase that dramatically.”