Move seeks to prevent co. from releasing pic, sever ties

Bestselling novelist Clive Cussler has sued Crusader Entertainment for allegedly changing the “Sahara” screenplay without Cussler’s consent in spite of Cussler’s script approval rights.

Complaint, filed in L.A. Superior Court on Thursday, seeks to prevent Crusader from releasing “Sahara” and to end or limit Cussler’s relationship with Crusader, which is controlled by Philip Anschutz; money damages are also sought. Cussler is represented by Bert Fields.

According to the suit, Cussler and Crusader entered into an option agreement in 2001 giving Crusader the right to purchase film rights to some Cussler novels with Cussler retaining an unqualified right of approval over the screenplays. The action alleges Cussler approved the “Sahara” screenplay, which was altered subsequently without Cussler’s consent.

“Sahara” stars Matthew McConaughey, Penelope Cruz and Steve Zahn with McConaughey playing secret agent, treasure hunter and explorer Dirk Pitt. Breck Eisner is directing; production began late last year.

Crusader announced in 2002 that it had greenlit an adaptation of “Sahara” as the first film to be based on the Pitt character from Cussler’s bestselling novels. The shingle signed a three-year first-look U.S. distrib deal with Paramount in 2001; Par agreed in 2002 to distribute “Sahara” Stateside and in the U.K., Italy, Spain, Australia and New Zealand.

Paramount has a tentative fourth-quarter release date for “Sahara.”

Nearly 100 million copies of Cussler’s books about Pitt are in print.

Cussler seeks a declaration that Crusader has no further rights under the agreement, including the right to purchase film rights for $10 million in a third Cussler novel.

Crusader chief operating officer Bill Immerman said the company couldn’t comment on the suit because it had not yet seen the complaint.

Paramount has a tentative fourth-quarter release date for “Sahara.”

(Dave McNary contributed to this report.)

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