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KCET partner Eyetronics downsized, behind on rent, sources say

The company introduced last year as a financially powerful production partner for KCET-TV has been reduced to a tiny operation that has been late on some of its bills, according to several people familiar with the company. In addition, the company relied on mass-market DVDs, and not just its own archive, for some segments of a nostalgia program it makes for the public television station, according to these people.

Four people who have worked for Eyetronics Media & Studios said in interviews that they and others had gone without pay for as long as six weeks during the last year. The company, run by an effusive Frenchman, Dominique Bigle, owes several months’ back rent on its Encino offices, according to a representative for the landlord.

Staffing became so thin that an Eyetronics worker created names — a make-believe “sound mixer” and “music supervisor” on one episode — to make the crew for the KCET show “Classic Cool Theater” look more robust, said the sources, most of whom asked not to be named, lest they inflame already tense relations with Bigle.

The onetime Disney executive previously blamed a variety of complications for the slow progress of four of the five series KCET announced it would make with him. The station wanted the programs to buttress its lineup after it bolted last year from the PBS system.

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Despite Bigle and KCET’s assurances that the delays were not unusual in the entertainment business, people familiar with Eyetronics depicted the company as having little of the production punch suggested last year when the station announced that its new partner intended to pump up to $50 million into “original productions, acquisitions and distribution” of programs.

Bigle’s attorney denied some of the claims, saying on Tuesday that “past and current employees have been fully compensated and the company is unaware of any ongoing disputes or claims” about unpaid workers. The lawyer also said that any rent owed on the company’s Encino offices stems from the landlord’s failure to properly maintain the building and provide security.

KCET board Chairman Channing D. Johnson said in an interview that “the financial status of Eyetronics is not relevant to KCET, period. As long as Dominique Bigle delivers the content he has indicated that he will, then we are fine.” Because of the concerns uncovered by The Times about Eyetronics, however, Johnson said the station would “raise the issue and ask him if this is going to impact delivery” of programs. He said he would not assume that the accounts of financial shortcomings were true. Johnson added that, in any event, KCET has plenty of other local content in the pipeline and is not overly reliant on Bigle.

KCET — for decades the public television flagship in Los Angeles — left the PBS network on Jan. 1, 2011, following a dispute over what it said were excessive dues. The station has filled its schedule with British dramas, overseas news programs and some new local shows like “Open Call,” for which local arts institutions produce their own programs, and “Your Turn to Care,” about the travails of caring for aging parents.

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KCET Chief Executive Al Jerome announced last August that a new partnership with Eyetronics would help the station “deliver more exceptional shows and original documentaries.” He declined to respond to the new claims made to The Times.

Eyetronics previously had been a low-profile player in Hollywood, where its main work has been filming actors and objects with a special camera to create what amount to digital doubles. Those images can later be animated by movie and game producers. But Bigle — the son of an executive who helped spread the Disney brand to Europe and himself once a Disney Channel executive in France — talked of expanding beyond the “3D scanning” business into creating original programs.

In the eight months since the partnership with KCET, however, production has fallen behind schedule. Only one series, “Classic Cool Theater,” has aired on KCET and one other, “Retrostory,” was in production, Bigle said last month. KCET initially said five shows would be in production by the end of 2011.

The station announced last summer that “Classic Cool Theater” and another nostalgia show would “incorporate assets from Eyetronics’ expansive digital library of films, rare footage, newsreels, cartoons” and other content. Bigle later spoke of the “prized treasures” in the company’s digital library.

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But three people familiar with the operations, including the firm’s former chief of visual effects sales, said some portions of “Classic Cool” episodes, far from being rare or unique, have simply been “ripped” from DVDs the company bought from sources like Amazon.

“They would just rip it and reprocess it,” said Sam Schoemann, the former Eyetronics vice president for visual effects sales, who said he was forced out in April after he demanded to be paid. Eyetronics spent so little on the program that Bigle’s son, Harry, took a swing at narration, before salesman Schoemann — with no previous experience — completed the voice-overs, Schoemann and two other sources said.

Credits on a recent “Classic Cool Theater” — anchored by Fred Astaire’s “Royal Wedding” and vintage clips — include “Music Supervisor John Funke” and “Sound Mixer Artie Moeller.” Those names were made up and added to the credits by an Eyetronics employee to make the production look more substantial than it was, said Schoemann and two others.

It’s unknown how much Eyetronics spent to produce “Classic Cool Theater.” But the production company charges KCET $2,600 for each of the shows, which run on Saturday nights, and had been paid $33,800 as of April 11, according to one invoice prepared for the station.

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Eyetronics once employed more than 20 people and had 14 on staff when Bigle took over the operation from its Belgium-based owners about three years ago, those familiar with the company said. But they said some employees left when they were not paid. Besides Bigle and his daughter Sarah, the staff now includes two other full-time employees and two or three part-timers, the sources said.

Schoemann said the company at one time owed him two paychecks, for two weeks each, though he was paid in full when he was let go. Another former employee, who asked not to be named, said Bigle fell six weeks behind before paying the salary. Two others confirmed that they personally had been paid late and knew of others who had stopped working for Eyetronics, including freelancers, when they didn’t get their money.

One former employee said that Bigle last year assured several of his workers that payments from KCET would help cover expenses.

Those familiar with the company said they were baffled how Bigle would be able to put $50 million into production when he could barely pay them. “There is no there there, absolutely,” said one.

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Bruce Abrams of Sunrise Management said Eyetronics has not paid for the space it rents in a bank building on Ventura Boulevard since January. He said the media company regularly complained that its rent was too high. In the last week, the company gave notice that it planned to move, Abrams said.

Attorney Ferena Novin, representing Eyetronics, declined to confirm that the company withheld rent. But she said that if it had it would have been related to conditions at the building that made it impossible for Eyetronics to do business there. She said via email that it was Eyetronics that had suffered “substantial damages.”

Abrams denied such failures by the landlord, calling them “excuses” for non-payment.

Bigle said in a previous interview with The Times that financing television production was complicated. He would put up the initial finances for the programs, he said, and would rely on co-production, partnerships and overseas resale of the shows — including one that is supposed to feature ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau — to recoup his investment.

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Board chair Johnson said he has seen nothing to indicate that Bigle might not be able to deliver Cousteau’s “Ocean Alive” or the other shows, including one on foreign affairs and another on California luminaries.

When they formed the partnership with Bigle last summer, KCET officials said the deal would result in the most significant infusion of revenue since a 2004 agreement with oil giant BP provided $50 million for two programs for preschool caregivers. A KCET press release was headlined: “KCET and Dominique Bigle of Eyetronics Media and Studios Announce Unique Production/Distribution Partnership.”

But Johnson last week accused The Times of overstating the significance of the deal with Bigle, saying the station would make local programs with or without the Frenchman.

The station said it produced more than 50 of its own programs in 2011. Some were in-house productions and others in collaboration with partners, said the station’s spokeswoman.

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“I don’t understand this whole emphasis on Bigle and KCET. He is not a crucial part of the KCET business plan. He is one content provider,” said Johnson. “He is the icing on the cake, not crucial to the cake.”

james.rainey@latimes.com

Twitter: latimesrainey


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