In the recent movie “Babylon,” filmmaker Damien Chazelle depicts the origin of Hollywood in the 1920s as a debauched orgy. In it, Kinoscope Studios — a stand-in for Paramount, which also released the film — was a dream factory that often attracted the worst kind of people and that left all but a few of them destitute, drug-addled or dead. Nearly 100 years after those fictionalized events, the billionaire owner of Paramount found himself embroiled in a series of real-life sex-and-money scandals that, in many ways, put the formative days of Hollywood to shame. Has a business book ever made you blush? “Unscripted: The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy,” by New York Times journalists James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams, may ultimately test the prurience of an unsuspecting readership.
Ostensibly, “Unscripted” is the fly-on-the-wall account of the extraordinary boardroom machinations that led Shari Redstone, the often-estranged daughter of geriatric mogul Sumner Redstone, to wrest control of both CBS and Viacom from the executives, girlfriends and others who’d circled him in his final years. In that way, it’s not unlike countless chronicles of corporate intrigue or succession drama, including Stewart’s own “DisneyWar,” the 2005 bestseller about the Disney board upheaval that led to chief executive Michael Eisner’s fall from grace.
“DisneyWar” was a seminal work, and “Unscripted” similarly brings remarkable detail and fresh insight to a C-suite fight (two, in this case) that was covered extensively in the media — including, I should say, by me. But unlike “Disney War,” “Unscripted” reads for long stretches like a filthy pulp novel. There’s the 90-something billionaire with still-active “sexual appetites”; the scheming mistresses; threesomes; parked-car encounters; a Sedona love nest; a chief executive who allegedly forced himself on multiple victims; a stolen laptop; shady private investigators; and a cast of characters straight off MTV or another Redstone cable channel. Mixing tight financial reporting with soap-operatic twists and turns, “Unscripted” makes the amped-up historical fiction of “Babylon” feel downright chaste by comparison.
In 2016, Sumner Redstone was one of the most important figures in global media. Through decades of dealmaking, he’d turned National Amusements, his father’s small movie theater chain, into the parent company of Viacom and CBS, twin media powers that housed Paramount, dozens of lucrative television networks, the Simon & Schuster book publisher, a burgeoning streaming service and all the trappings — and entitlements — of immense showbiz wealth.
But at this point, both Redstone and his empire of “legacy media” were in serious decline. Ensconced high in his Beverly Park compound next door to Sylvester Stallone, he was physically weak, unable to speak clearly and mentally diminished, spending much of his time monitoring the stock prices of CBS and Viacom. His handpicked lieutenants — Redstone’s former lawyer Philippe Dauman at Viacom and Les Moonves, the celebrated television executive, at CBS — ran roughshod over his companies, largely ignoring the streaming future that Netflix was increasingly dominating. And they were paid more for their efforts than almost anyone in corporate America.
Redstone, acid-tongued, obsessed with sex and, in general, a pretty 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, the book asserts), had engaged Bravo’s “Millionaire Matchmaker,” Patti Stanger, to deliver him a suitable girlfriend. The choice, a woman named Sydney Holland, quickly moved into the compound and, along with another Redstone girlfriend and sometime rival, Manuela Herzer, began to take over his life, eliminate or marginalize threats to their influence, and, eventually, extract about $150 million of his money. Stewart and Abrams suggest that the girlfriends could have very well controlled both companies if Shari and her lawyers hadn’t mobilized.
And that was only the beginning. Shari soon found herself facing off against Dauman, Redstone’s favored son. All the while, she was attempting to merge CBS and Viacom to better compete with Netflix, a move that put her in the crosshairs of Moonves, whose own alleged sexual abuse and professional implosion fuel the last third of the book.
Using tons of never-revealed legal investigation files and their own reporting for the New York Times, Stewart and Abrams drop detail after detail: Shari at one point was readying papers to be bought out of the family company for $1 billion. When faced with allegations that Moonves sexually assaulted women (allegations that he has denied), movie producer and CBS board member Arnold Kopelson responded, “We all did that.” Later, Stewart and Abrams report that a CBS executive, attempting to explain away claims that Moonves had pleasured himself in front of his diabetes doctor (which Moonves also denied), declared with an apparent straight face that “Moonves was a[n] ‘[oral sex] guy,’ not a ‘masturbation guy.’”
Much as Ken Auletta’s recent Harvey Weinstein biography, “Hollywood Ending,” chronicled Weinstein’s downfall from the viewpoint of those at the Weinstein Company, Stewart and Abrams — both Pulitzer winners, Abrams as part of the Times’ #MeToo team — take us inside CBS as its board attempts to shield its chief executive. Media insiders and those who followed the Redstone saga will eat this reporting — and some of the other, more comical twists that populate the book — up. The authors aren’t just flies on the wall; they’re in Moonves’s phone calls and drunk, late-night text messages, as he anguishes over whether CBS should sue Viacom, a move he believes is necessary to protect his power and his shareholders but, he clearly knows, would probably unleash Shari and her allies to expose his transgressions.
On that front, “Unscripted” purports to solve one of the great mysteries of the #MeToo era. Did Shari, furious after Moonves sued to block the CBS-Viacom merger, an act she considered a betrayal by a friend who had made several hundred million dollars running her family company, dump an oppo file on Ronan Farrow, whose reporting in the New Yorker ultimately led to Moonves’s exit from the company? The answer, Stewart and Abrams posit, is no. They write that although Shari and her lawyer/board ally Rob Klieger repeatedly pressed the board for more than an embarrassingly perfunctory investigation of the rumors surrounding Moonves, his downfall ultimately came from the decisions by several women to go public — without, we are told, even a nudge from Shari.
Focused and much shorter than “DisneyWar,” “Unscripted” dispenses with much of Redstone’s personal story and rise to power, which are chronicled in a 2018 biography, “The King of Content,” by Keach Hagey. It thus may be hard for general readers to fully appreciate how powerful Redstone was and how extraordinary all these goings-on were. Also missing is much of anything about the actual output of the Redstone empire. As on “Succession,” which is the obvious parallel here, right down to the boardroom cover art that appears lifted from an HBO one-sheet, the maneuvers of the media elites are the point.
But a reader even moderately familiar with the entertainment business would know that all of this was going down as the Redstone empire, and Hollywood in general, was being upended by the digital revolution. Netflix, Amazon and YouTube were rendering obsolete the traditional TV oligopoly while MTV, Comedy Central and the other Redstone linear brands were being managed for margins, not the future, as their leader sat distracted in his castle in the hills. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) So it all plays a bit like rats on the Titanic: an industry and Redstone, its elderly avatar, sinking after a century of debauchery and mismanagement. “Unscripted” delivers the goods on what happened inside that castle but suffers without more of the business and cultural context. Shari ultimately succeeded in fending off the vultures, and Sumner died in 2020 at age 97, with Shari tearful and singing “My Way” at his burial. But the antics of these ancient media men — squabbling over the spoils of decades of movie theater and television riches — feel like the last hurrah of Old Hollywood.
Matthew Belloni is a founding partner of Puck, a digital media company covering the power centers of America. He is also the former editorial director of the Hollywood Reporter and an entertainment lawyer.
The Epic Battle for a Media Empire and the Redstone Family Legacy
By James B. Stewart and Rachel Abrams
Penguin. 386 pp. $32
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