HOLLYWOOD -- American presidents can serve only two terms. In baseball, even a great slugger is lucky to get a seven-year contract. But at Viacom, Sumner Redstone is apparently king for life. In recent days, the media have been roiling with a new round of eye-rolling tales about the cantankerous Viacom chairman's fights and feuds, from an ugly dispute with his daughter Shari over her succession, to reports that Dream- Works founders David Geffen and Steven Spielberg are still seething over perceived snubs since being acquired by Paramount, a Viacom subsidiary, in late 2005.
What we're really seeing is a cautionary tale about a sultan who, as he grew old, came to believe himself infallible and has become increasingly fearful of handing over the keys to the kingdom.
At 84, Redstone still has no real successor, having chopped off the head of every prince who found himself in line for the Viacom throne. Frank Biondi, an early viceroy who had come from HBO to oversee Viacom, was summarily dispatched in 1996. The hard-charging Mel Karmazin, who arrived as part of Redstone's acquisition of CBS, quit in 2004 after spending four years in nonstop feuding with his boss. Even Tom Freston, a longtime loyalist and the visionary behind Viacom's MTV cash-cow, got the boot last September, blamed (unfairly, by most accounts) for News Corp. stealing MySpace out from under Viacom's nose. Now Shari Redstone, once considered an heir apparent, is out in the cold.
But Redstone's overblown ego and tin ear with talent has led to an even bigger headache.
The Viacom chief, who wouldn't talk for this article, has been embroiled in an ugly dispute with Geffen and Spielberg, the principals of the studio Paramount bought for $1.5 billion. Spielberg has made no secret of his unhappiness, telling The New York Times this year that he "took exception" to Paramount's referring to every DreamWorks picture as if it were a Paramount production.
Geffen, who is out of the country and unavailable for comment, was also furious with Paramount chief Brad Grey, who appeared all too eager to take credit for almost every DreamWorks release.
Still, while Grey and Geffen have brokered a peace, Geffen remains incensed with Redstone. As Business Week columnist Ron Grover wrote last week in a juicy column widely suspected to have been sourced by Geffen and other DreamWorks principals, the DreamWorks team could walk away from Paramount as early as fall 2008, taking its name with them. (The studio's library and any projects in development would stay behind.) If Geffen decides to leave, it triggers an opening for Spielberg to leave, which in return triggers a key-man clause allowing DreamWorks production chief Stacey Snider to leave as well.
The DreamWorks camp contends that Spielberg and Geffen, as producers, have non-exclusive contracts with Paramount, allowing them to produce movies elsewhere at any time. Losing the top Dream- Works talent would be a huge blow to Paramount. Dream- Works is coming off a string of hits, notably Blades of Glory, Shrek the Third and Transformers, while Paramount's home-grown films have underperformed. In today's equity-money mad Hollywood, DreamWorks easily could line up financing for a new entity. Sources say that Geffen already has a wish list of three studios he believes would do the best job of marketing and distribution for DreamWorks, namely Warner Bros., Universal and 20th Century Fox.
Geffen is known to be a big admirer of Rupert Murdoch, who, though just as much of an empire-builder as Redstone, is his polar opposite in terms of ego, temperament and willingness to delegate power. Redstone's antics are all too reminiscent of Michael Eisner's last years at Disney, when Eisner gave intemperate interviews, stoked the fires of various feuds and refused to designate a successor, saying dismissively at a Disney board meeting that "Bob [Iger] can't run this company."
Murdoch also has a thick skin. In recent weeks, columnists have slagged Murdoch, predicting his Wall Street Journal takeover would destroy the paper's integrity. Murdoch has largely suffered in silence. When Mission: Impossible 3 misfired last summer, it was Redstone who erupted, bad-mouthing Tom Cruise and kicking him off the lot.
The conclusion is almost inescapable: Redstone's imperial behavior is a drag on Viacom's future. When I spoke to him last year after the Cruise affair, he had the air of an elderly grandfather, straining to keep up with the conversation. He now resembles one of those old sultans of Hollywood -- men like Darryl F. Zanuck, Jack Warner and David O. Selznick -- hanging onto the trappings of power long after they had lost the cunning and creative zest that had made them titans of the industry.
In a showdown between Redstone and Geffen, the betting is on Geffen, who is rarely outmaneuvered. As Eisner and Michael Ovitz, among others, can attest, Geffen is an indefatigable foe.
What the Redstone camp should be doing is paving the way for a new ruler. CEOs, like dictators, don't often age well. Whenever I hear tales of tumult in the Viacom kingdom, I am reminded of Ryszard Kapuscinski's book The Emperor, a masterful account of the last days of the reign of Haile Selassie. In it, he describes a ruler not so different from Redstone.
"The King of Kings preferred bad ministers," he writes. "He preferred them because he liked to appear in a favorable light by contrast. How could he show himself favorably if he were surrounded by good ministers? What disorder would have broken out in the Empire if instead of one sun, fifty would be shining? No, my dear friend, you cannot expose the people to such disastrous freedom. There can only be one sun."
In Sumner Redstone's domain, he is the only sun.
Patrick Goldstein writes for the Los Angeles Times.