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Court Shows Go to Court

Celebrity-jury programs in fight over ownership 2/23/2007 07:03:00 PM Eastern

David-and-Goliath confrontations between Hollywood novices and powerful studios rarely favor the little guy, who usually ends up exhausted by a years-long multimillion-dollar legal battle.

That familiar scenario appeared to be in store for Vincent Dymon last November, when the wealthy casino entrepreneur filed a suit in Los Angeles Superior Court against Warner Bros. and its Telepictures Productions unit, claiming they stole his idea for a daily, first-run court show featuring a celebrity jury.

But when Warner Bros. pulled its Celebrity Jury off the market at last month's National Association of Television Program Executives confab, Dymon's fortunes brightened. (Warner Bros. faced the threat of a temporary restraining order from Dymon and negative reaction to the pilot from stations unwilling to meet its asking price.)

Now it looks like Jury Duty, produced by Dymon's Radar Entertainment, will hit the air first, thanks to distributor Foster/Tailwind Entertainment, which reports gaining syndication clearances for the show in at least 60% of the U.S., including two of the top three markets.

Still, Dymon says he has been forced to lay out $1.2 million so far—hundreds of thousands more than anticipated—for Jury Duty, his first foray into television syndication. And the prospect of a nearly identical court show from a major studio compounds the difficulty of getting national clearances in an already tough market.

Warner Bros. has declined to comment on the suit or Dymon's allegations that the studio violated a 2004 oral agreement to hold his pilot for Jury Duty in confidence and, moreover, tried to poach the show's judge, Bruce Cutler, the New York lawyer famous for defending mob boss John Gotti.

The studio won't officially confirm Celebrity Jury, but station executives say they were unhappy with the judge who appeared in the pilot (labor leader and author Amy Dean) and the number of celebrity jurors (five panelists; Jury Duty has only three).

Telepictures is known to have signed Westchester County (N.Y.) District Attorney and on-air legal analyst Jeanine Pirro to serve as the Celebrity Jury judge if the show goes forward, perhaps next year.

But before securing Pirro, Dymon's suit contends, Telepictures development executives met with Cutler and his attorneys last June to persuade him to sign on as Celebrity Jury judge.

According to the filing, Telepictures representatives allegedly told Cutler that they had seen him featured as the judge in a pilot of another reality television program “floating around,” that Jury Duty would “never get distribution,” and that the studio “was not afraid” of that series or its producers.

The plaintiffs say they had presented Telepictures with a completed pilot in return for the studio's holding the Jury Duty idea in confidence and compensating them “in the event Warner Bros. used their idea in a future production or series.”

But the suit states that all of the key elements in the proposed Jury Duty strip later wound up in Celebrity Jury, including having the jury members ask questions of litigants, a depiction of deliberations and a well-known legal personality serving as judge.

Cutler refused the Telepictures offer and opted to remain with the Radar project, but at a substantially higher price.

Barring a settlement, depositions in the case are slated to begin in coming weeks. Dymon is willing to have a jury decide the case. (Of course, the jurors he has in mind don't include Celebrity's Charo, Corbin Bernsen and Christopher Knight.)

And Dymon is confident that the Cutler meeting provides him with enough evidence to win in a court of law.

Says Dymon, “It's like getting hit by lightning twice that, with two different concepts for the same show, they would go after the same judge.”

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