Is it news if a man stands up to applaud at the end of a movie? It shouldn't be, not when virtually all the other audience members have already leaped to their feet. Yet Tom Freston's leg-stretch after last month's Sundance Film Festival screening of Hustle & Flow was hot dish to an avid press corps. You would have thought he was Brad and Jen, together again.
He got the headlines as much for who he was as for who he is. Freston, the new co-president of media giant Viacom, had been chairman and CEO of MTV Networks, whose MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central channels make it the lifeline to the youth market. One of Freston's missions from Viacom boss Sumner Redstone is to freshen the image and, more important, goose the profits of Paramount Pictures, the most geriatric of the Hollywood studios. So when the company's new Mr. Big showed up at the iconic indie-film festival, media types saw it as a signal of revolutionary change.
Then Freston's people paid a hefty $9 million, plus an extra $7 million for a two-picture production deal, for MTV Films to purchase the rights to Hustle & Flow, the inspiring tale of a Memphis street dude with rap-star dreams (think Rocky, except that he's a pimp). Industry savants saw that buy as a clue to the new direction. Freston was the face of triumphant youth culture--the kid whose stuffy parents have handed him not just the keys to the car but their credit cards and the deed to their home.
The object of this attention smiles at all the inferences--not least because, at 59, Freston is old enough to be the granddad of his target ticket buyer. He was in Park City, Utah, he says, at the invitation of Robert Redford, whose Sundance Channel is owned by Viacom. When at a film festival, see a film. Hence his presence at Hustle & Flow. "I couldn't believe the articles--'God, he stood up when the movie was finished!' There were 1,000 people standing up in the room. I was one of the last guys to stand," Freston says. "And I played no part in the negotiations other than to know that they were going on. It's not my job to be green-lighting movies. I really had to laugh."
But Redstone and Viacom's stockholders won't be laughing if Freston and Brad Grey--the former agent (for Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, among others) and packager (The Sopranos) who was recently chosen to run Paramount--don't rejuvenate the moribund movie division. Sherry Lansing, Grey's predecessor, had a nice run of Oscar-winning blockbusters: Forrest Gump, Braveheart and a sea story called Titanic. But the past few years have been strewn with pricey duds, mostly aimed at adults. In a business where about 40% of the audience is under 25, you don't make movies for your friends; you make them for your friends' kids and your gardener's kids. Freston clearly has that market in his middle-aged bones. He also has something that his predecessor, Mel Karmazin, couldn't claim: a close relationship with demanding boss Redstone.