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KCET partner Eyetronics downsized, behind on rent, sources say

KCET and Dominique Bigle's Eyetronics announced a deal that would pump $50 million into production. But Eyetronics seems to have little of the promised punch.

May 09, 2012|By James Rainey, Los Angeles Times
  • Dominique Bigle is president and CEO of Eyetronics Media & Studios.
Dominique Bigle is president and CEO of Eyetronics Media & Studios. (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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