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Sumner takes a grand stand

Redstone backs sibling rivalry

Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone has dispelled any notions that he would be less hands-on in the oversight of his divided empire.

The 82-year-old mogul also thinks that his split Viacom should compete against each other and cites the nexus of vidgames and showbiz as “the end game” for an evolving entertainment industry.

Redstone made the remarks Tuesday evening during a freewheeling conversation with Daily Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart at the Museum of Television & Radio in Beverly Hills.

Viacom CEO Tom Freston had intimated in a Wall Street Journal interview this week that Redstone would be “not as actively involved in the day-to-day business” of Freston’s company and the split-off CBS Corp., but Redstone stressed he feels “very much involved in the day-to-day operations.”

Addressing a wide range of topics, Redstone blamed the decline in movie attendance on a shift in consumer patterns as opposed to the quality of recent movies. Having begun his showbiz career in exhibition, he also said he could never foresee a point when theatrical and DVD or pay releases of movies would occur simultaneously — a prospect recently floated by Disney that drew a stiff rebuke from exhibitors.

“Any exhibitor who played a picture under those circumstances would be committing suicide,” Redstone said.

Directing some soft barbs at competitors, Redstone conceded that Viacom has been “underinvested and underrepresented on the Web, but we’re determined to change that” — adding that News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch’s buying spree of online assets came at too high a price.

“This is not a criticism, but he is an over-payer,” Redstone said.

In the wake of Viacom’s surprise bid to secure DreamWorks out from under General Electric-owned NBC Universal, Redstone also suggested the GE honchos are “very smart guys. Maybe not as smart as the Viacom people.” Regarding the price, Redstone added that “having (DreamWorks principal Steven) Spielberg on our lot alone” is worth the $600 million-$700 million the deal will cost Viacom after selling the DreamWorks library.

Redstone reiterated the rationale behind breaking up Viacom and CBS as a means of unlocking value. Saying that he expected the trend to spread, he did note that “not every company has the assets to divide, as we did.” As for the prospect of the companies branching into areas that will put them at odds — such as CBS chief exec Leslie Moonves getting into film production — he said, “They have the absolute right to compete, and they will.”

A major challenge facing Hollywood, Redstone said, is discovering how to make movies at a modest cost and have them succeed. He pointed to out-of-control star salaries and backend participation as a significant factor in expanding movie budgets. But in terms of reining in the practice, he said, “The industry lost that opportunity a long time ago.”

Although technology’s influence has made the future murky, Redstone expressed confidence in the industry’s ability to adapt as the business changes. He did predict that game companies will eventually become acquisition targets thanks to “the convergence of the game business and the studio business.”

On a lighter note, Redstone quipped that he hadn’t seen Universal’s “King Kong,” saying, “I saw it once, and that was sort of enough for me.”

Asked by a member of the audience what he first thinks about after waking up, Redstone said his first thought is, “I’m glad I woke up.”

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