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Who is Redstone’s target?

I have to admit that when I first read Sumner Redstone’s barbed remarks about Tom Cruise on the front page of the Wednesday Wall Street Journal -- especially that wonderfully tart “we don’t think someone who effectuates creative suicide and costs the company revenue should be on the lot” -- there was only one person who instantly came to mind: George Steinbrenner.

Although the imperious Yankees owner has had little to say in the last couple of years (apparently he’s not in the best of health), in his prime it didn’t take much to fuel an eruption, whether he was calling pitcher Hideki Irabu “a fat toad” or derisively dubbing Dave Winfield “Mr. May” when he failed to come through in the World Series.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 25, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 25, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Paramount and Tom Cruise: An article in Thursday’s Business section and some copies of the Patrick Goldstein column in today’s Calendar section about Paramount Pictures Corp. and Tom Cruise severing ties misstated the age of Sumner Redstone, chairman of Paramount parent Viacom Inc. He is 83, not 84.

If you think about it, Steinbrenner and Viacom chairman Redstone have a lot in common, in addition to being allergic to losing. They both run high-profile entertainment businesses where the star talent is paid top dollar to perform. So when something goes wrong, it doesn’t take long for the irritation to show.

Thus far the media have focused on Redstone’s beef with Cruise, whom the Viacom chief blames for wrecking the studio’s most valuable franchise and alienating female moviegoers with his promotion of Scientology during press rounds for “Mission: Impossible III” this summer. But my suspicion is that Redstone isn’t just mad at his madcap movie star. It’s instructive to remember that some of Steinbrenner’s most titanic rages were not directed at his players but at his front-office executives. When a trade would go awry, the blame always fell squarely on the poor guys King George dubbed his “baseball people.”

It’s worth noting that Redstone’s unusually blunt remarks come at a time when the aging mogul has been reinventing Viacom. In January he split the company into separate fiefdoms, one run by Leslie Moonves, the other, the one including Paramount Pictures, by Tom Freston. The biggest changes have come at Paramount, the venerable studio that has been completely transformed in the past 18 months, with an entire new team of largely untested executive talent at the helm.

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In other words, Redstone appears frustrated and angry about something far more worrisome than one movie star’s deal. To me, he seems equally upset about what’s happened to his flagship investment -- his movie studio. By all accounts, something is amiss at Paramount Pictures and I suspect that Redstone, at 83, doesn’t have the luxury of waiting forever for his new vassals to figure out how to operate the keys to the kingdom.

What surprised people the most about Redstone’s attack on Cruise was that it severely undercut the authority of his studio lieutenants. They had presumably been working out an amicable “we wish Tom well” send-off after 14 years at the studio that would have still signaled Paramount’s tough stance on talent expenditures without insulting Cruise or his agency, CAA, which represents a huge percentage of the top talent in Hollywood. Furious with Redstone, CAA has gone on the attack, with the agency’s rarely-heard-from President Richard Lovett saying that Paramount has “no credibility,” telling the New York Times “it is not clear who is running the studio and who is making the decisions.”

In what felt like a bold gamble by Freston, who made his name as a shrewd youth-culture maven at MTV, Paramount has been restructured from top to bottom. Instead of hiring proven film executives, Freston brought in Brad Grey, best known as a consummate talent manager, to serve as studio chief. Grey in turn hired Gail Berman, a successful Fox TV executive, to oversee film production. Grey also brought in Rob Moore, who’d run the business end of Joe Roth’s Revolution Pictures, to oversee most of the studio’s other areas, including marketing and distribution.

While the studio hasn’t had a blockbuster hit, its pictures have largely performed well. But the reviews of its executives’ performance have not been good. Even the town’s most plugged-in agents and managers say they have no idea what is going on at the studio. They complain bitterly about deals that go undone or decisions that are mysteriously reversed. One producer who saw a deal fall apart recently was so enraged that he threatened to sue the studio. The consensus is that there is no discernible chain of command. People complain that Grey is distant and aloof, communicating with a very small circle of powerful friends. They say Berman is indecisive and lacks passion for movies, often unable to make decisions without seeing which way the wind is blowing. Instead of having established a clear identity, the studio feels befogged. with too many executives engaged in turf battles instead of forging ahead with movie projects.

Grey says too much attention has focused on style over content. “My feeling is -- look at the movies, look at the decisions we’re making,” he told me Thursday. “We should be defined by our pictures, not by our process. There hasn’t been a picture that we’ve put out that hasn’t been profitable.” As for criticism from CAA, he said, “Tom’s representatives are entitled to be emotional, but we’re doing business with CAA today and tomorrow and expect to for many years to come.”

For his part, Redstone said Grey and Freston have his full support. “They’re doing a terrific job. Anyone who thinks I’m dissatisfied doesn’t have it right. They’re making low-cost pictures that will make us a lot of money, plus a film like ‘World Trade Center,’ which is fantastic and I would be shocked if it’s not nominated for an Oscar.”

Still, the studio has more work to do. It still seems unsure of how to exploit its most valuable resource -- MTV Films, which has underperformed for years, victim to a lack of autonomy and corporate vision. In a long-overdue reorganization, the studio recently named a bright young producer, Scott Aversano, as head of both MTV and Nickelodeon Movies. However, Aversano still reports to Berman, which means that instead of having its own production budget outlay, the studio’s key youth-culture outpost will remain under the ultimate authority of middle-aged executives.

Contrast this situation to a more opportunistic studio like 20th Century Fox. Fox Searchlight teamed with MTV Films putting out “Napoleon Dynamite,” a hit 2004 teen comedy. After seeing MTV’s youth-culture marketing heft, Fox launched its own youth-culture division, Fox Atomic, which has far more autonomy than MTV and is already positioned to become a leading supplier of comedy and horror films, thanks to Fox’s shrewd acquisition of MySpace and other Internet marketing launching pads.

That is the kind of bold, entrepreneurial thinking sorely missing at Paramount. As the Cruise imbroglio clearly shows, the studio remains firmly in the grasp of a man so out of touch with the modern world that when citing the support he’d had for his remarks, Redstone told reporters he’d had a congratulatory call from Vanity Fair celebrity chronicler Dominick Dunne, who told him he behaved like Samuel Goldwyn.

Being compared to Goldwyn has a nice ring to it, but the truth is that Redstone really has far more in common with Steinbrenner, who was so single-minded about success that he once fired a Yankees manager after the poor guy had won more than 100 games. That’s why I suspect that no matter how many good pictures get made at Paramount, as long as Redstone is around, studio executives won’t last any longer than Yankees managers during Steinbrenner’s heyday. Both men live in a world where winning isn’t everything -- it’s the only thing.

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The Big Picture Extra is a special installment of The Big Picture, which runs Tuesdays in Calendar. Questions or criticism can be e-mailed to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.


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