The Walking Dead trial over potentially millions in unpaid profits has seen executive producers and heavyweight Hollywood lawyers take the stand the past week, but today the storm over who is owed what by whom went straight into the eye of the hurricane.
Long referenced in the nearly three-year-old suit filed by EPs Robert Kirkman, Gale Anne Hurd, David Alpert and others alleging that a skimming of big bucks through low license fees, self-dealing and more creative accounting, former AMC top dogs Marci Wiseman and Charlie Collier were finally under direct scrutiny.
Basically, bookending the bulk of the day in downtown Los Angeles, the duo was damn set on playing defense as a Praetorian Guard of attorneys for their ex-employers looked on and, at points, took the podium.
“It is fair to say that I might tell them that they will be well, but otherwise, that doesn’t sound like me … contingent compensations conversations with anyone, that’s beyond my scope,” Collier told AMC lawyer Orin Snyder this afternoon of remarks that he allegedly had with Hurd and Alpert on how much money the EPs would make off the initial blockbuster success of the long-running zombie apocalypse AMC series.
“I have people to do that, they wouldn’t come to me,” the well-coiffed current CEO of Fox Entertainment added about chats he would have had with big name talent like Hurd or Alpert about backend profits – conversations both spoke of in their respective testimonies last week.
AMC have long insisted in this case and others claiming profit participation problems that they made fair deals with key creatives on the highly successful TWD franchise and that this is a legal matter of after the fact enrichment.
Punctuated by one “No” and “I don’t recall” after another during his short stint on the stand, Collier denied it was likely that he had told Hurd that “we would be treated the same as if it was made by Lionsgate or Sony who made Mad Men and Breaking Bad,” as the EP testified on February 14. In his previous deposition, Collier had said he had no recollection of such a conversation in what is now a they said/he said.
“I don’t recall a specific conversation,” the former AMC president and General Manager noted under re-direct from the plaintiffs’ legal team. “It is likely we would talk about how well it was doing, it did great,” Collier concluded of TWD, which in its first several seasons was the highest-rated drama on all of television, sometimes even surpassing the NFL.
Filed in August 2017 and building in many ways off the $300 million ongoing action by ex-TWD showrunner Frank Darabont and CAA from late 2013, the lawsuit from Hurd, Kirkman, Alpert and other EPs claims that AMC used sleight-of-hand financial moves to brazenly rip them off via contested Modified Adjusted Gross Receipts calculations and more.
Incredulously, with huge success of the soon-to-be-returning TWD over 10 seasons, an aftershow, a looming second spinoff and upcoming feature films, AMC says that the bottom line has collapsed on the series. In and out of court the company claims that the show actually is losing money the past few years – which is why no one has received any profit-participation checks of late as these lawsuits grind on.
Before her former colleague Collier took the stand after lunch, Wiseman was up this morning off the opening bell, so to speak. Now, the co-president of Blumhouse TV, Wiseman was hired in March 2010 as head of business affairs for AMC Network, AMC TV Studios and AMC Film Holdings, the year after the Kirkman contact at the heart of the two-week mini-trial was executed.
Wiseman’s remark on one occasion that “self-dealing has a lot of nuanced meaning to it,” is in many ways a fair summary of the tone of her testimony under questioning from the plaintiff’s main lawyer Ron Nessim.
“I’m relying on the words of the signed contract,” Wiseman also riposted to Nessim in the courtroom of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Daniel Buckley on Tuesday. “In answer to your question, am I relying on an opinion or whether the words of the contract are guiding my interpretation, the words of the contract are guiding my interpretation,” the collected exec continued. “The Walking Dead was initially produced by and the rights were retained by the AMC Networks …and those rights were with the channel,” she added, noting from provided documents that there was no expectation that AMC would pay a license fee to itself, a perspective she says she disagreed with.
“I know I signed the declaration and I’m happy to look at it but I don’t remember all the details,” Wiseman at another point told Nessim as he sought to dive into the fine-ish print of the 2009 Kirkman contract. “If you’re talking about within the body of an agreement, my recollection is that it is often not articulated in the body of agreement,” Wiseman told the court of putting poignant transactional and good faith language in a contract of Hurd’s. “It is sometimes articulated in the body of agreement, but it is often not. And it is often articulated in other documents.”
In that context, Wiseman’s objection filled time on the stand this morning was primarily focused on the transaction and non-transactional status of rights, the role and status of aftershow Talking Dead and MAGR definitions.
In that labyrinth, the industry vet more than once stated “I’m not following the line of questioning” as Nessim weaved through the complexities of the TWD deal with AMC, who produced the series based on Kirkman’s comics in a rare in-house move. “In your paraphrasing, I think you neglected to mention a important parenthetical,” Wiseman retorted when asked to compare the 2009 signed agreement and a 2010 draft agreement that Nessim said were “substantially similar.”
Noting some “negative” comments that Kirkman’s lawyer made about her on conference calls years ago and with “I don’t recall” on specifics of conversations with representatives of the plaintiffs and a “I don’t believe it to be an untrue statement,” Wiseman clearly had a strategy to keep her answers extremely short under the spotlight of the plaintiffs’ main lawyer and his efforts to peel back a presumed cheat of his clients via a mixture of corporate greed and incompetence.
Which, as Nessim sought over the AM hours to have Wiseman “compare this to that,” in the words of Judge Buckley and delve into apparent contradictions in her testimony and previous declaration, means the once pivotal AMC executive was a witness who made a point of being held down to very little – at least by the plaintiffs’ side. “I’ve looked at 100 exhibits in little over two hours and I am confused as to what you are asking,” Wiseman punted to Nessim as the clock struck noon and her testimony neared its conclusion.
Under friendly re-direct from AMC outside counsel Scott Edelman, Wiseman, who left her Business Affairs gig in 2014, offered a series of clarifications from her testimony of this morning. “I don’t think my testimony is inconsistent, I think it centers on the word “exhibit,’” the TV exec elaborated in one particularly telling exchange with the Gibson Dunn & Crutcher lawyer. Under further questioning from Nessim and thanks to Judge Buckley sustaining an objection from the defense, Wiseman avoided having to answer questions about how much the costs of TWD would be if the show were produced by an outside entity.
Similar to most of last week of the so-called mini-trial, TWD EP and plaintiff Hurd was in the courtroom today. While Kirkman was absent for part of the first hour today after being a constant presence in the opening week of the case, Alpert and family members of TWD EP Charles Eglee, who is now the showrunner of Starz’s American Gods were in the DTLA building from the start of court this morning.
Having run overtime and bumped up against two holidays over the past week and a bit, this first phase of the EPs’ case will now be pushed until March 9 for its conclusion.
Coming off a dark day in the court on the President’s Day holiday, Tuesday was mainly full of defense testimony from lawyer Roger Arar on the Kirkman contracts. After Wiseman and Collier, today headed towards its conclusion with testimony from AMC SVP Finance Stefan Reinhardt. The exec unveiled the various corporate entities that licensing deals usually go through – but did not with in-house produced TWD.
Of course, with the main event of the Darabont case going to trial in NYC in June, what happens in L.A. will not be staying in L.A., for better or worse depending what side you are on.