Thirteen years ago, when Sumner Redstone was busy building Viacom Inc. into a media powerhouse and needed a helping hand to run the family's theater chain, he turned to his daughter, Shari Redstone, who was home raising her three children.
When theater circuits began going belly up in the late 1990s, it was Shari who kept National Amusements Inc. on track. She expanded the company globally, taking National into Russia and Latin America. She helped pioneer the upscale cinema, bringing gourmet food, bar lounges and valet parking to theaters such as the Bridge in Los Angeles.
Her reward? Her father named Shari a vice chairwoman and director of Viacom and CBS Corp., the two companies he controls through National. A few years ago, he changed the family trust to suggest that Shari assume his titles as chairman of the three companies upon his death.
Although Sumner's son was older, it was his daughter who made him proud. "Your life is not complete until you have met Shari," he told a reporter in 2005.
But the father-daughter relationship is now in shambles. The two, who once enjoyed sparring on the tennis court and playing gin rummy together on airplane trips, have been estranged for months because of disagreements about succession, corporate governance and the future of the theater business. Father and daughter are no longer speaking.
Even negotiations between their lawyers are at an impasse.
Shari, 53, is considering legal action against her 84-year-old father, who now says his successor must be chosen by the Viacom and CBS boards. He would like to extricate her from the companies, perhaps by transferring ownership of the theater circuit to Shari in exchange for her stock in Viacom and CBS, people close to him say.
That would leave the companies without a Redstone at the top when the patriarch dies. Such an ending should come as no surprise to anyone who knows Sumner, who has long insisted that he would control them even from the grave. "I am Viacom" is a favorite refrain of his.
Shari and Sumner declined to be interviewed. But one person close to him, who asked for anonymity for fear of offending the mogul, said he could not cede power despite his ripe age: "This is about Sumner not giving up control. It doesn't matter if he's related to you or not."
At stake is control of one of the world's largest entertainment giants. Worth an estimated $50 billion, the empire includes the CBS network, radio and TV stations, Paramount Pictures, MTV, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, BET and Showtime. Sumner controls these assets through National, in which he holds an 80% stake. Shari owns the rest. Together their shares are worth a reported $8 billion.
A lawyer by training, Sumner has used the courts and his legal finesse as leverage against his adversaries. People who know him say he can be a tyrant and has a reputation for ousting top managers who threaten his power. Lawsuits against Sumner have been filed in recent years by his son, Brent Redstone, his brother, Edward Redstone, and his nephew Michael Redstone, who have alleged that he cheated them out of their stakes or their standings in the family business.
Brent's lawsuit was recently settled and Michael's was thrown out by a judge Friday because the statute of limitation had run out.
Now Shari is battling her father and could prove to be his biggest challenger yet. Like Brent, Shari is a lawyer. But she has a more intimate knowledge than her brother of her father's business practices because of her roles in running National Amusements and as a board member of CBS and Viacom.
"She's her father's daughter," said Tom Sherak, a veteran movie executive who knows both Redstones. "She's very direct and doesn't take crap from anybody."
That should make a Viacom board meeting Wednesday at the company's headquarters in New York's Times Square plenty tense. It will be the first time father and daughter will see each other in nearly two months and comes on the heels of Sumner's public dismissal of Shari in a recent letter to Forbes magazine in which he said she had made "little or no contribution" to the empire he had built.
For Shari, the knife cut deep.
Unlike her famously media-friendly father, Shari is exceptionally private and is pained by the public airing of her family's dirty laundry.
"This is extremely uncomfortable for Shari," her spokeswoman Nancy Sterling said. "She hoped never to find herself in this position."
Petite and vivacious, Shari has a striking resemblance to her father, with fair skin, light hair and a thick Boston accent. Friends say she is devoted to her three children, all now in their 20s. She's an ardent New England Patriots fan and a good cook. She is known for her cookies. Close pal Nikki Rocco, head of domestic distribution at Universal Pictures, said she made a mean stuffed cabbage.