Disney Urges Court of Appeal to Overturn $319 Million 'Millionaire' Verdict

Who Wants to be a Millionaire Episodic Still - P 2012
Disney/ABC Television

Who Wants to be a Millionaire Episodic Still - P 2012

A huge Walt Disney Co. legal team showed up in a federal appeals court in Pasadena, Calif., on Wednesday seeking to overturn a $319 million judgment over profits from the ABC megahit Who Wants to Be A Millionaire.

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Disney's general counsel Alan Braverman was among a throng of attorneys for the conglomerate's ABC and Buena Vista Television that joined lawyers for Millionaire producer Celador International for an hour and ten minute oral argument in front of a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Disney contends that the massive 2010 jury verdict — one of the largest in Hollywood history —  stemmed from an improper reading of a 1999 contract with U.K.-based Celador that gave ABC and Buena Vista the North American rights to the program.

According to a source who was present in court, 80 percent of the time was spent on the complex terms of the Millionaire contract. Disney lawyers argued that the jury improperly awarded Celador a share of revenue generated by the ABC network when Celador was entitled only to a 50 percent share of Buena Vista Television's revenue, subject to key deductions. The Burbank-based entertainment conglomerate contends it should at least be entitled to a new trial on the issue of contract interpretation.

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Celador, on the other hand, argued that the jury correctly found that Disney engaged in a series of self-dealing transactions to keep ad revenue for ABC without sister company Buena Vista earning a profit that it would have had to share with Celador. In addition, it argued that if the appeals court reverses the jury verdict, it must also overturn U.S. District Court judge Virginia Phillips' determination that ABC and Buena Vista can't be sued for fraud.

Disney's lead lawyer at the hearing was appellate specialist Seth Waxman, joined by trial lawyer Marty Katz. Celador's lead attorney was Robin Meadow, who was joined by trial counsel Roman Silberfeld and Bernice Conn.

Hosted by Regis Philbin and arriving at the dawn of the reality television era, Millionaire was a huge hit on ABC from 1999-2002, airing as often as four or five nights a week before being canceled in 2002. (A syndicated version still airs in many markets.)

Email: Matthew.Belloni@thr.com

Twitter: @THRMattBelloni