Peter Bart: Paramount Global’s Skydance Rejection Puts Heavy Pressure On Shari Redstone To Sort Shaky Future

Sumner Redstone earned renown as both dealmaker and deal breaker (he once said he’d fired Tom Cruise). His daughter, Shari, seems to have inherited only part of his skill set.

Flash back 50 years: The Beverly Hills dinner party was lavish. The mood among the Hollywood power players was upbeat. Gossip about a stream of impending hits from the Paramount studio prompted praise and optimism.

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Until Barry Diller abruptly chimed in. “Paramount’s management team will implode within weeks,” said the acerbic Diller. “It’ll be the classic Hollywood case of turning success into failure.”

From a perspective of 50 years, Diller’s prediction of turmoil proved accurate for that moment – and for the present as well. As a film studio, Paramount again levitates in limbo land. And Hollywood wonders whether any creative entity can survive its many episodes of turmoil.

Until this week Paramount’s new corporate suitors had ranged from David Ellison, 41, who envisioned a slate of studio hits – that plan apparently now canceled — to the combat-tough Edgar Bronfman Jr., 70, who 30 years ago won control of Universal Pictures in a tight battle.

Both men had had to overcome the skepticism of billionaire fathers. Ellison, chief of Skydance Media, could trace his legacy to technology — Larry Ellison runs Oracle. The Bronfman dynasty understood how to distill alcohol, but not entertainment. They were content owning Seagram until heirs began dabbling in Hollywood.

Edgar Jr. once walked me across the Universal lot and promised he would turn its famous tower from black to white to reflect his optimism.

Instead, he soon placed Universal under the control of a confused French conglomerate called Vivendi, his focus promptly shifting to Warner Music.

Meanwhile, the Paramount studio could now also aspire to a paint job as it endures its bidding wars. Formidable entities like Sony remain in play, backed by funds like Apollo (Sony) and Bain Capital (behind Bronfman).

RedBird, having backed Ellison, now watches from the sidelines.

Sony, impatient with Paramount talks, has now acquired the the 35-cinema Alamo Drafthouse chain where it can serve up booze as well as films.

The Paramount bidding, if it’s reignited, might considerably embellish the fortune of Shari Redstone, who controls the unwieldy structure created by her deceased father. His National Amusements built Paramount Global, which also owned CBS among other entities.

Viewed long term, however, Paramount has been an undependable friend to filmmakers seeking stable funding, not paint jobs. Long before Sumner, gifted young filmmakers provided the key to the remarkable recovery of the Paramount studio through the 1960s and ’70s — one that studio executives have since yearned to emulate.

By the year 1975, Paramount’s slate (in production or pre) included Chinatown, Godfather Part II, The Conversation, Nashville, Day of the Locust, The Parallax View, Murder on the Orient Express, The Gambler, The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon among others. Some were hits, some flops, but all were ambitious in terms of talent and budget.

The success was historic and evanescent. The heralded hits, accompanied by a blizzard of publicity, exacerbated the tensions between Paramount’s president, Frank Yablans, and Bob Evans, chief of production, who bitterly fought over both strategy and the division of film profits.

Evans’ ambition to be both producer and studio chief intruded on decision making, prompting the selection of Diller, formerly chief of Fox, to succeed both Paramount executives.

(On a personal level, as vice president for production, I remained aloof from the executive battles; my role was to cobble together movies, flashing green lights at propitious moments, soon moving on to calmer surroundings.)

Diller, of course, ran Paramount deftly and decisively before finding richer pastures as chairman of IAC and Expedia.

Fifty years later, the studio awaits its next champion. Diller isn’t making any predictions — other than to warn that time is running short.

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