A Gotham luncheon for Tom Freston turned into a lovefest as Peter Chernin, Stephen Colbert and Judy McGrath toasted and roasted the ousted Viacom honcho — from his spiked hair and youthful Afghan adventures to his fat severance package.
Freston, one of the most beloved showbiz execs in recent memory, treated the high-wattage crowd at the event, hosted by the Center for Communications, to an exploration of his MySpace page — including a video blog of him eating a sandwich. Another of him lip-synching “Bad Day” brought down the house.
“That’s what I’ve been doing,” he said. “Now I better go, or I’ll never get a seat in Starbucks. It gets so crowded.”
But to many in Hollywood, Freston’s firing wasn’t funny in the least.
Paramount topper Brad Grey, speaking at a separate event in Beverly Hills on Tuesday night, said he had been stunned by news of Freston’s ouster. “I felt very badly about it,” he added, “and I was a little confused about it.”
The party “will follow Tom wherever he goes. Tom is the party, and the rest of us will follow as long as he keeps us on the guest list,” said Freston’s friend Bono in a video tribute.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in this room today who thinks that Viacom treated Tom fairly,” Chernin said at Wednesday’s lunch. “There is no doubt in my mind that Tom’s continued success will continue to haunt Viacom for years to come.
“But enough about Tom Cruise,” he added, “I’m here to talk about Tom Freston. And he is an asshole.
“How can you roast someone who’s already toast?” Chernin asked, musing on how it would feel “to be screwed by a guy so old that he had to take a little blue pill to do it.”
Freston’s successor at Viacom, Philippe Dauman, was in the audience, as was Freston’s former rival and CBS Corp. chief Leslie Moonves, along with Rupert Murdoch and Edgar Bronfman Jr.
“MTV now stands for Moonves Takes Viacom,” said Chernin.
Freston’s firing came two weeks after Paramount severed Cruise’s deal. That news arrived unexpectedly from Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone in a Wall Street Journal interview where he also slammed Cruise personally.
Grey, who was speaking to a gathering of media and technology execs, said Par had considered two options when Cruise’s producing pact came up for renewal.
The first was to “reduce the capital we were putting in so dramatically that it wouldn’t have made sense for Tom to keep it,” Grey said. Such a readjustment “would’ve changed the ceiling for all top talent deals.”
The second option was not to reach an agreement. When it became clear, in late August, that the two parties would choose door No. 2, Redstone spilled the beans.
“Was it as elegant as I would’ve wanted it to be? No. Was it more personal? Yes,” Grey said. “Sumner Redstone is Sumner Redstone. He’s a maverick.
“Tom Cruise is my friend — my showbiz friend — and he is an extraordinary actor, and he will be wildly successful in the future,” Grey said. “However, the economics have to make sense. You have to get value for the capital you’re spending.”
Grey plans to stick around for the long term — at least as long as Redstone lets him keep his parking spot on the lot. “I believe in what Paramount can be, and I have the intention of seeing it through,” he said.
Redstone has said Freston was fired because the exec wasn’t aggressive enough in going after MySpace.com, the social networking site News Corp. bought more than a year ago for $550 million. That’s disputed by many within Viacom.
“I’ve been using these last few weeks of unplanned vacation I’ve had to develop my own, personal digital strategy,” Freston riffed. “The first thing I did when I got canned was to go out and buy a computer. I’d been meaning to do it, but thought, I work in global media, who needs a computer?
“I’ve been, what do these kids do? Swimming the Internet. Check this out. MySpace.com — one word not two. I’m telling you, one day” this is going to be worth a bundle.
Up it came on the bigscreen, “Lazyboi” Freston’s page name.
Look, he said, an instant message from buddy Tom Cruise:
TC: “Man, did I kick your ass yesterday in MEGA-ATOMIC IMPALER.”
TF: “Next time I want to be Garthon and u can be Vladimer.”