Litigation reveals inflated numbers

Resting the “Sahara” case squarely on Clive Cussler’s inflated book sales, Crusader Entertainment attorney Marvin Putnam told a Los Angeles Superior Court jury Wednesday that the entire premise of the film project was based on the lie that Cussler’s Dirk Pitt book series had sold 100 million copies, not the 40 million that was revealed during the litigation.

Putnam’s closing argument comes at the conclusion of a three-month trial pitting author Cussler against Philip Anschutz and his Crusader Entertainment. Crusader bought the film rights to two Dirk Pitt adventures for $10 million apiece and in 2005 released “Sahara,” a box office failure that grossed under $100 million. Crusader also gave Cussler unprecedented approval rights over the script, director and cast. Before the film was released, Cussler sued, claiming Crusader had breached the contract by refusing to honor his script rights. Crusader countersued, claiming Cussler hurt the film through his unreasonable script demands and disparaging comments he made about the movie to his fans.

Alluding to days of testimony and closing remarks Monday by Cussler’s attorney Bert Fields, Putnam said that Cussler used the 100 million sales figure everywhere. Further, experts testified that it was not possible for Crusader to have independently determined book sales without relying on Cussler and his agent.

Some literary agents who are not involved in the case have expressed skepticism about Crusader’s difficulty in determining book sales as well as basing the deal on specific sales figures. At the time of the deal in 2001, studio execs said that they did not give such broad rights even to bestselling authors.

Addressing the money and approval issues, Putnam told the jury that Cussler got “the largest payday ever” and all those approvals because Crusader believed he’d sold 100 million, not 40 million copies of his books. The deal exceeded those given to such mega-authors as John Grisham and Tom Clancy, Putnam said, because their sales took off after films were made. Cussler’s Dirk Pitt books represented the last unexploited adventure franchise.

Putnam also disputed the characterization of “Sahara,” which starred Matthew McConaughey, as a disaster. “It was a big beautiful popcorn movie,” he declared. Everyone got paid, he said, except Crusader, and the film did almost $68.7 million at the box office in the U.S., but the expected fan base never materialized because the sales figures had been inflated and Cussler had told his fans to stay away from the picture. If Crusader execs had known that only 40 million books had been sold, they would have made a different deal with Cussler and made a different, lower-budget movie, Putnam asserted.

In the afternoon, Putnam went through the litany of Cussler’s breaches. “Right out of the gate, the terms of the deal show up in Variety.” Cussler denied leaking the deal, but it’s not convincing, said Putnam.

Putnam also addressed the absence of Anschutz at trial saying, “He had no reason to be here because he wasn’t sued.” Anschutz, the financial backer for Crusader, was not an officer or employee and not a party to the suit, but he was deposed three times.

“It’s an easy shot to make him sound like a cigar-chomping Daddy Warbucks in his luxury penthouse, but he didn’t do anything except say ‘I’ll give you the money because you sold 100 million books.'”

Putnam described a cantankerous Cussler who refused to approve any script but his own, despite Crusader’s inability to attach talent. Taking the side of producer Karen Baldwin, who was maligned in Fields’ close as incompetent, Putnam said she always honored Cussler’s contract right to approve the script. “That’s why she wrote memo after memo saying ‘We’re plain and simple fucked.'”

Putnam also disputed Fields’ reading of the contract as giving Cussler sole script approval rights on the first film, saying it was ridiculous because the film couldn’t get financing or be bonded that way. Putnam said approval rights switched to consulting rights once Cussler approved Breck Eisner as director. On its fraud claim, Crusader is seeking the $80 million to $85 million dollars it said it lost on “Sahara.” It claims it never would have made the film but for the inflated book sales. Crusader also is seeking $30 million for Cussler’s disparagement of and failure to promote the film.

The case went to the jury Wednesday and a brief punitive damages phase will follow the verdict if needed.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more