Jeff Zucker, president and CEO of NBC Universal, and Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of The Weinstein Co. (TWC), offered colorful and conflicting testimony Thursday at a hearing in New York State Supreme Court — the first public skirmish in their dispute over the hit Bravo program Project Runway.
In April, NBC filed suit against TWC, which produces the show, for breach of contract for moving the series to Lifetime without giving NBC the chance to match the offer. Runway will appear on its new network starting with the sixth season, currently set to begin in November. The show’s fifth season launched last night on Bravo and continues through October.
Thursday’s daylong hearing before Judge Richard Lowe in Manhattan featured testimony from Zucker, Weinstein and others on two motions, including a preliminary injunction request from NBC that would prevent Weinstein from moving the show to Lifetime before the case is fully tried. The second motion, from Weinstein, asks for a dismissal.
Judge Lowe did not rule on either request today, and it was unclear when he would do so.
Most of the testimony focused on a tense meeting between Zucker, Weinstein and Marc Graboff, co-chairman, NBC Entertainment and NBCU Television Studio, that was held on Jan. 15, 2007 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, well after the relationship between Bravo and the producer had soured.
Zucker testified that during the meeting, he and Graboff secured from Weinstein a verbal promise of a right of first refusal to match any offer that Weinstein received to move the program to a competing network.
In exchange, Zucker testified, NBC approved the accelerated scheduling of seasons four and five of the show and agreed to move the series off Bravo — possibly to NBC or USA Network for season six and beyond.
Zucker also said NBC agreed to reduce the “hold back” period — to six months from one year — as a de-facto non-compete clause barring Weinstein from promoting or airing the program on a competing network.
Zucker testified that Runway was “one of the most central programs to the entire company,” as it helped raise the profile and popularity of Bravo to new heights.
Zucker also testified that Weinstein never offered NBC the chance to match the agreement with Lifetime, struck in February and which packaged Runway with a batch of Weinstein theatrical films and two other series, including a Runway spin-off focused on fashion models.
Zucker insisted that had NBC been given the chance, it would have matched the offer.
Harvey Weinstein vigorously disputed Zucker’s testimony however, declaring at one point, that, “I’d rather cut off my arm than give them a right of first refusal.” He summed up the Jan. 15 meeting as a “divorce proceeding.”
But Weinstein did acknowledge that he agreed to come to NBC first if he was approached by a competitor with a better offer for the show — a pledge he said he kept after Discovery Communications CEO David Zazlov asked about possibly acquiring the program for $50 million in March 2007.
“I believe Zazlov wanted the show in the worst way,” Weinstein said. “I went to NBC first.” But talks quickly fell through concerning a possible deal that would put Runway on an NBC network other than Bravo. “They kicked me out in 10 minutes,” Weinstein said.
The two sides spent much of the day focused on the Four Seasons meeting and whether Weinstein had made a binding verbal agreement offering NBC a right of first refusal. They also spent time discussing a follow-up memo that Graboff wrote summarizing the new terms that might have been agreed to at that meeting.
NBC attorney Orin Synder, with the law firm of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, referenced several internal e-mails among Weinstein executives and their representatives at the William Morris Agency. These communications, he argued, made it clear that Weinstein was aware of the new terms and did not dispute them.
However, David Boise, the lead attorney for Weinstein, countered with a July 2007 signed amendment to the program license agreement that referred to the reduced hold-back period and accelerated schedule for seasons four and five — but made no mention of a right of first refusal.
Much of NBC’s case rests on what Graboff testified was “custom and practice” in the entertainment industry of doing business based on terms that are sealed with handshakes and not signed agreements. He said the original deal to air Runway was never signed.
Weinstein testified that he wanted to cut ties with Bravo after season three, because the network “ruined the relationship,” by copying the Runway format with shows like Top Chef and Shear Genius, and refusing to pay increased license fees, forcing Weinstein to produce Runway at a $230,000 per episode deficit.