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Mark Burnett sued by former partner

Times Staff Writer

For nearly a decade, reality-show impresario Mark Burnett’s chief deal maker and go-to guy was Conrad Riggs. They met in the late 1990s, when ambitious British-born entrepreneur Burnett was eager to break into show business after hawking T-shirts on Venice Beach and Riggs was a onetime low-level business executive for Walt Disney Co.

Each had something the other needed: Burnett was full of big ideas and creative energy, and Riggs had contacts at the networks and an understanding of the TV industry. In the early days, before their show “Survivor” became an enormous hit on CBS, the two men shared hotel rooms to save money. Burnett served as best man at Riggs’ wedding. They had adjacent offices, and in true Hollywood fashion, side-by-side parking spaces.

But few Hollywood marriages survive. And this one is no different.

On Monday, Riggs sued his former partner, claiming that Burnett reneged on his long-standing agreement to pay Riggs and his company, Cloudbreak Entertainment Inc., 10% of whatever profit that Burnett earned. According to the suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Burnett abruptly stopped paying Riggs in February 2007 and this year evicted him from their Sepulveda Boulevard offices.

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Riggs’ suit contends that Burnett owes him more than $70 million in damages.

“Their joint efforts have . . . generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues,” the lawsuit said. “While Burnett deserves much of the creative credit, Riggs played a crucial role in the financial success of the enterprise.”

Burnett’s office said late Monday that he was traveling and could not be reached for comment. Burnett’s attorney, Steven Marenberg, declined to comment.

The suit coincides with efforts by Burnett to sell his company, which is behind such shows as “Survivor,” “The Apprentice” and “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?” According to people familiar with the situation, Burnett has talked to a number of potential buyers, including IMG, a sports agency and entertainment firm. An IMG spokesman declined to comment.

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Riggs’ suit claims that he is entitled to 10% of the proceeds from a sale of Mark Burnett Productions, an agreement that it said was detailed in documents drafted two years ago, when Burnett was initially planning to sell his firm to another company. The suit said that in 2006, the asking price was more than $500 million.

That deal fell apart, according to the suit, leaving Burnett and his bankers in search of another buyer.

Around that time, in December 2006, Burnett’s lawyer sent Riggs a three-page contract to formalize the long-standing verbal agreement between Riggs and Burnett. According to the suit, Riggs was told that if he didn’t sign the document, Burnett “would terminate their business relationship.”

Riggs refused to sign, the suit said, because the terms were different from their “agreements and practices.” In January 2007, Burnett’s company stopped paying the salary of Riggs’ assistant, and payments to Riggs ceased the next month.

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Riggs continued to work with Burnett on projects even after Riggs was “removed” from their offices this year, the suit said.

“Over the last year and half, Conrad continued to work with Burnett under difficult circumstances,” said Riggs’ attorney Bart H. Williams. “We think that cutting Conrad out of the day-to-day operations and not paying him were both designed to put maximum pressure on him to give up his rights in the enterprise, and that’s something that Conrad simply won’t do.”

Burnett and Riggs met in December 1997 when Burnett was struggling to sell a documentary-style TV series called “Eco-Challenge,” which covered a wilderness adventure race. Burnett was having trouble getting television networks interested, and so Riggs gave him pointers, the suit said.

Over the years, Riggs negotiated agreements with television networks, corporate sponsors and merchandising partners and talent and book deals, according to the suit. Burnett even praised Riggs in print.

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In the acknowledgments to his 2005 book “Jump In,” Burnett wrote “a special thank-you to Conrad Riggs, who has played a huge role in all of this, and has always been in the driver’s seat of the innovative deal-making for Mark Burnett Productions.”

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meg.james@latimes.com


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