A&E Networks Accused in $33 Million Lawsuit of Pushing Out 'Killer Kids' Producer

2012-33 BIZ Lawsuit Illustration P IPAD

A fight over Christopher Nolan’s "Dark Knight Rises" commissions is the latest Hollywood lawsuit to reveal that looming bottom-line pressures trump even bad press.

Planète Bleue Télévision alleges in a $33 million lawsuit filed Friday that A&E Television Networks took advantage of the fact that its top executives weren't proficient in English to wrest control of Killer Kids, a documentary series that has been airing these last few years on The Biography Channel and LMN about juveniles who become murderers.

According to a complaint in New York federal court, PBTV had success with the program in Canada, France and elsewhere before AETN approached the plaintiff about more documentaries. PBTV was too busy to produce for the 2012 season, it says, so it proposed that either AETN could either buy worldwide rights or let PBTV produce the show down the line with a local U.S. producer handling the immediate season.

A&E wasn't prepared to commit to an outright buyout, continues the lawsuit, so the second option was pursued. But PBTV says it was important that it retain a right of first refusal for each episode.

"The purpose of the provision for U.S. producers was to allow production to go forward when PBTV was overloaded with work as was the case for the fall of 2012 television season, while reserving to PBTV the right to produce the remainder at its option, or allow AETN to use an alternate producer if PBTV rejected a first refusal offer for episodes in a given series," states the complaint.

The two sides began negotiations that would give PBTV the right to collect $200,000 per episode, four percent of royalties, plus escalators. AETN tapped 44 Blue Productions for the first U.S. episodes of Killer Kids.

However, PBTV president Roberto Luca only spoke French and Italian and vice president and chief negotiator Jean Leclerc only spoke French with limited English. So they relied upon lawyers and trust.

"AETN's in-house counsel and non-attorney executives orally and repeatedly assured PBTV’s negotiator, Jean Leclerc, that PBTV had secured its rights of first refusal to the six television series, a series being 10 to 26 episodes, and that those rights of first refusal were enshrined in the contract language drafted by AETN," states the lawsuit. "AETN’s misrepresentations as to then-present facts occurred with full knowledge that Leclerc was not proficient in the English language. ... That good faith reliance on misrepresentations leading to misunderstanding of the legal document plaintiff signed allowed defendant AETN to obtain the very result originally discussed, but rejected at the time, because the price was too high: De facto acquisition of worldwide rights to Killer Kids."

PBTV claims that the deal memo omitted the crucial clause, instead going with generalized language. Even before the longform written agreement was executed, adds the plaintiff, 44 Blue was engaged and AETN obtained a trademark for Killer Kids. The 44 Blue episodes allegedly failed to give artistic credits as required, and PBTV further claims the network breached payment terms.

It's punctuation, though, that plays the role in PBTV's discovery of allegedly what was happening.

PBTV began work on its own episodes, but once the masters were complete, "AETN demanded they be redone because of a missing punctuation mark. That punctuation mark was the period at the end of LLC in AETN’s corporate name, which AETN decided should have read 'LLC.' And not 'LLC' as previously approved."

Before going to "considerable expense" to add the period, PBTV says it contacted an AETN executive in the Caribbean to confirm changes needed to be made. It was necessary despite PBTV saying it later learned that 44 Blue's versions had the same error. And after PBTV made the requested change, AETN is said to have spotted another problem: "A&E Television Networks" wasn't pluralized in the credits.

"Leclerc began to form an opinion that AETN’s underlings had been asked to create as many roadblocks as possible," states the complaint. "To test that theory, he sent AETN a template of tail credits which he said PBTV intended to use, asking for approval. In fact the template was from an existing 44 Blue template, which had already been approved for a show which had already aired. That template was refused."

Represented by attorney Michael Doyle, PBTV asserts breach of contract, breach of the implied duty of good faith and fair dealing and demands specific performance and reformation of the contract due to mistake or fraud. The plaintiff also is suing the insurance broker AON for allegedly aiding and abetting and breaching fiduciary duty. Here's the full complaint.

AETN hasn't commented.