Mark Burnett faces off with former associate

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Spotting a talent agent isn't always as easy as looking for the dark suit at a hot August movie premiere. Just ask Mark Burnett.  Last week, the reality kingpin sat in a California Labor Commission hearing trying to prove that Conrad Riggs, his former attorney and business associate, had for years operated as an unlicensed agent who illegally negotiated megadeals for such iconic shows as "Survivor" and "The Apprentice."

The outcome of the proceeding, which could render moot a $70 million lawsuit Riggs filed last summer seeking a cut of revenue from Burnett's company, provides a high-stakes twist on typical Talent Agency Act cases. Actors and recording artists often try to avoid paying managers by accusing them of performing the work of agents, who are exclusively empowered to "procure" employment. The commissioner can void contracts if a single violation is found, a harsh remedy meant to scare managers away from trampling on agent turf.

But Burnett is hardly your average piece of talent, and Riggs maintains that he and Burnett were sophisticated business partners in one of the most successful independent TV production companies ever.

When "Shark Tank" premieres on Sunday on ABC, Burnett will have a series on all four broadcast nets, plus a slew of cable shows. So it's easy to forget that in the late '90s, "kicked off" was a TV term that only applied to football games. Shortly after the former paratrooper was introduced to Riggs, a one-time Disney exec with some industry contacts, they made an oral agreement: Riggs would set up some meetings and help Burnett hammer out the financial side of his business -- including negotiating with networks -- and they would split revenue from the deals 90-10.

Sounds like an agent, right? But the relationship is a bit more complex. During the next decade, Riggs says he and his company, Cloudbreak Entertainment, became de facto partners with Mark Burnett Prods., playing a hands-on role in turning the company into a powerhouse. It was Riggs, he argues, who encouraged Burnett to perform his original "Survivor" pitch as if he were telling a story around a campfire so network execs could get a sense of how the show would play. And it was Riggs whose negotiation skills helped make Burnett's entity worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Conrad Riggs was Mark Burnett's partner and an essential part of the success of Mark Burnett Prods.," Riggs' attorney Bart Williams says.

But during the seven-day hearing that ended July 30, Burnett's camp countered that Riggs was merely a hired hand on the company's deals, which earned Riggs more than $25 million in commissions until 2007, when Burnett started using other negotiators. "Riggs was never Burnett's 'partner' or a co-owner of any of Burnett's businesses," says Burnett attorney Harry Mittleman, who cross-examined Riggs for four and a half days. "He was Burnett's lawyer and manager, and we will show that Riggs breached his ethical and professional duties."

The jobs of Hollywood agents, managers and lawyers never have been clearly defined. Burnett has always gone without a traditional agency for his unscripted projects, and he says Riggs played that role, never appearing on the payroll as an employee or officer of the company -- much less a partner. And the timing of the lawsuit last summer, amid Burnett's negotiations (since tabled) with several suitors to possibly sell a chunk of his company for as much as $500 million, suggests that Riggs simply wanted to stake his claim to a piece of a sale.

But Riggs' attorney says Burnett is trying to downplay his client's role in the company. His negotiations for Burnett don't run afoul of the law because, in part, he was merely doing his job as an integral part of the enterprise. "Mark Burnett Prods. employs talent to make shows; among those people were Mark Burnett and Conrad Riggs," Williams says. "To make a finding that Riggs was operating as an agent would have a sweeping impact on Hollywood and allow business partners to try to void their deals."

Edna Garcia Earley, the lawyer who heard evidence in the hearing, will forward her findings to the commissioner, who might take months to issue a ruling. If Riggs violated the TAA, the commission could void his deal with Burnett in its entirety. That would kick him off the island, boot him from the boardroom, render him dumber than a fifth-grader -- whatever Burnett metaphor you want to use. But regardless of the outcome, the lesson is: An agent might be an agent, even if he doesn't look or act the part.
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