Filmmaker Damien Chazelle portrays the early days of Hollywood in the 1920s as a riotous orgy in his recent film “Babylon.” Kinoscope Studios, a stand-in for Paramount, which also distributed the film, was depicted as a dream factory that attracted the worst kinds of people and left all but a select few of them homeless, high, or dead. Nearly a century after those fictionalised events, Paramount’s billionaire owner became embroiled in a series of sex and money scandals that, in many ways, put the early days of Hollywood to shame. Do you remember the first time a business book made you feel embarrassed? James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams’ “Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy” for The New York Times may prove to be a test of the prurience of an unsuspecting audience.
The documentary “Unscripted” purports to be an insider’s look at the extraordinary boardroom machinations that ultimately resulted in Shari Redstone, the estranged daughter of ageing media mogul Sumner Redstone, seizing control of CBS and Viacom from the executives, girlfriends, and others who had surrounded him in his final years. Like Stewart’s own “DisneyWar,” a 2005 bestseller about the Disney board upheaval that ultimately led to the downfall of chief executive Michael Eisner, it’s a chronicle of corporate intrigue or succession drama.
Like the seminal “DisneyWar,” “Unscripted” provides remarkable detail and fresh insight into a C-suite fight (two in this case) that was extensively covered in the media, including, I should say, by me. Unscripted, in contrast to “Disney War,” reads for long stretches like a sleazy pulp novel. The 90-year-old billionaire with active “sexual appetites,” the manipulative mistresses, the threesomes, the parked-car encounters, the Sedona love nest, the executive who allegedly forced himself on multiple victims, the stolen laptop, the shady private investigators, and the rest of the cast are all right out of MTV or another Redstone cable channel. As “Unscripted” combines tight financial reporting with soap-operatic twists, it makes the pumped-up historical fiction of “Babylon” seem downright chaste.
For the year 2016, Sumner Redstone was a major player in the international media scene. He had spent decades making deals that transformed National Amusements from a small movie theatre chain into Viacom and CBS, two media behemoths that owned Paramount, dozens of profitable television networks, the Simon & Schuster book publisher, a burgeoning streaming service, and all the trappings — and entitlements — of immense showbiz wealth.
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Unfortunately, by this time, Redstone’s “legacy media” empire was in decline as well. He was physically weak, unable to speak clearly, and mentally diminished, spending most of his time monitoring the stock prices of CBS and Viacom while ensconced in his Beverly Park compound next door to Sylvester Stallone. His trusted aides, such as Philippe Dauman (Redstone’s former lawyer) at Viacom and Les Moonves (a renowned television executive) at CBS, ran his companies like they were their own, largely ignoring the streaming future that Netflix was increasingly dominating. Furthermore, they were compensated more handsomely than almost anyone else in corporate America.
According to the book, Redstone hired Bravo’s “Millionaire Matchmaker,” Patti Stanger, to find him a suitable girlfriend despite being an acid-tongued, sex-obsessed, and generally awful person (he once called President Barack Obama the n-word at a Beverly Hills restaurant and attempted to steal a date from his young grandson at an MTV event). A woman named Sydney Holland was chosen, and she and another Redstone girlfriend and rival, Manuela Herzer, moved in quickly, took over his life, eliminated or marginalised threats to their influence, and eventually extracted around $150 million from him. Stewart and Abrams imply that if Shari and her lawyers hadn’t intervened, the girlfriends likely would have controlled both companies.
That was merely the first step. Before long, Shari was pitted against Dauman, Redstone’s favourite son. The last third of the book focuses on Moonves’ alleged sexual abuse and professional implosion, while she was trying to merge CBS and Viacom to better compete with Netflix throughout.
Stewart and Abrams use their own reporting for the New York Times in addition to a trove of previously undisclosed legal investigation files to reveal a wealth of information. At one point, Shari had plans to cash out her stake in the family business for $1 billion. Arnold Kopelson, a movie producer and member of the CBS board, responded to allegations that Moonves sexually assaulted women by saying, “We all did that.” Moonves has denied the allegations. Stewart and Abrams later report that a CBS executive tried to downplay allegations that Moonves had masturbated in front of his diabetes doctor by saying, “Moonves was a[n] [oral sex] guy, not a [masturbation] guy.” Moonves himself denied these allegations.
Stewart and Abrams, both Pulitzer Prize winners (Abrams as part of the Times’ #MeToo team), take us inside CBS as its board tries to protect its chief executive, much like Ken Auletta’s recent Harvey Weinstein biography, “Hollywood Ending,” did from the perspective of those at the Weinstein Company. Anyone familiar with the media industry or the Redstone saga will enjoy this reporting, as well as the book’s other, more comedic twists. The authors aren’t just observers; they are also privy to Moonves’s phone calls and drunken late-night texts as he agonises over whether CBS should sue Viacom, a move he believes is necessary to protect his power and his shareholders but, as he clearly knows, would probably unleash Shari and her allies to expose his transgressions.
Unscripted claims to shed light on this central mystery of the #MeToo era. Could it be that Shari dumped an oppo file on Ronan Farrow, whose reporting in the New Yorker led to Moonves’ ouster, because she was so angry at him for suing to block the CBS-Viacom merger, an act she saw as a betrayal by a friend who had made several hundred million dollars running her family company? Stewart and Abrams argue that the answer is no. They claim that Moonves’s downfall was due to the decisions of several women to go public — without, we are told, even a nudge from Shari — even though Shari and her lawyer/board ally Rob Klieger repeatedly pressed the board for more than an embarrassingly perfunctory investigation of the rumours surrounding Moonves.
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Redstone’s life and rise to power are detailed in “The King of Content,” a biography published in 2018 by Keach Hagey. However, in order to keep “Unscripted” focused and shorter than “DisneyWar,” Hagey omits much of this material. As a result, the ordinary reader may have trouble grasping just how influential Redstone was and how remarkable these events truly were. Information about Redstone’s actual output is also scarce. The boardroom cover art looks like it was lifted from an HBO one-sheet, but the point is the same as in “Succession,” with which it draws obvious parallels, and that is the manoeuvring of media elites.
Readers with even a passing familiarity with the entertainment industry will recognise that the digital revolution coincided with the fall of the Redstone empire and the beginning of the end for Hollywood. As Netflix, Amazon, and YouTube made the traditional TV oligopoly obsolete, Sumner Redstone sat idly in his hilltop castle, managing MTV, Comedy Central, and the other Redstone linear brands for margins rather than the future. (The Washington Post is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.) Thus, the situation is reminiscent of the story of the rats on the Titanic: an entire industry and its elderly avatar, Redstone, are going down with the ship due to a century of excess and poor leadership. The events depicted in “Unscripted” take place inside the castle, but the film suffers from a lack of business and cultural context. In the end, Shari was able to keep the vultures at bay, and when Sumner passed away in 2020 at the age of 97, Shari sobbed and sang “My Way” at his funeral. However, the antics of these elderly media men feel like Old Hollywood’s final gasp as they fight over the profits from decades of film and television production.
Puck is a digital media company that focuses on the nation’s political and business capitals, and Matthew Belloni is a founding partner. He has worked as both a lawyer for the entertainment industry and as the editorial director of the Hollywood Reporter.