‘Sahara’ legal battle nears end

Cussler's attorney closes book on case

When Philip Anschutz’s Crusader Entertainment made a deal for the film rights to Clive Cussler’s “Sahara,” it thought it was taking the first step toward creating an Indiana Jones-style action franchise featuring Cussler’s signature hero, Dirk Pitt.

Six years later, “Sahara,” which lost nearly $100 million, ended up in court. Cussler claimed his carefully negotiated script approval rights had been breached; Crusader claimed Cussler had tanked the project by refusing to cooperate with the filmmakers and badmouthing the movie to his fans when his demands weren’t fully met.

After nearly three months of testimony to an L.A. Superior Court, Cussler’s attorney, Bert Fields, started sorting it all out for the jury on Monday. In closing arguments, Fields described a bestselling author who had been burned years before by a disastrous film adaptation of his novel “Raise the Titanic.”

“It was very embarrassing,” said Fields, and for years, Cussler didn’t want to sell film rights. But along came producers Howard and Karen Baldwin, said Fields, who pitched him.

Anschutz ultimately came aboard to finance the pictures, and they worked out a deal for $30 million for three books. Fields pointed to memos by Karen Baldwin calling the price a bargain, but most Hollywood executives have viewed the pricetag as unprecedented.

Key to the deal was Cussler’s approval rights. Eventually, a compromise was struck, under which Cussler would have exhaustive approvals on the first picture and more limited approval on subsequent films. Literary agents have described Cussler’s approval rights as extraordinary and far beyond what a studio would grant to an author. Even big-name authors are usually limited to protections over the portrayal of the main characters and the film rating.

Under the contract for “Sahara,” explained Fields, Cussler had approval rights over the screenwriters and screenplay and approval over revisions to the screenplay. Once a director, also approved by Cussler, was aboard, there were limited exceptions to Cussler’s approval rights, said Fields, to accommodate the exigencies of filmmaking.

Crusader’s witnesses have hotly disputed Field’s reading of the contract, claiming that even on “Sahara,” Cussler shifted from approval to consulting rights once the director was hired. The jury has heard days of testimony by Cussler that he was relegated to a consultant by director Breck Eisner at that point; he felt the agreement had been breached and had no duty to help get the film made.

In the afternoon, Fields reviewed the platoons of writers brought on to the project, including Cussler himself. The result, said Fields, was a screenplay that differed in tone, character attributes and plot from the book. Fields also attacked Crusader’s numerous claims. He pointed out that Cussler was not wedded to his own screenplay; he had already approved David Ward’s. In response to claims that Cussler was unreasonable in holding approval, Fields pointed out that the contract provided for absolute approval. As for Crusader’s claim that script changes were needed to attract talent, Fields called it “hogwash” and attributed the difficulty to Karen Baldwin’s incompetence.

As for Crusader’s claim that Cussler defrauded it with inflated book sales, Fields called it a smoke screen and said the issue is whether Crusader based the deal on the number of books sold. At trial, Anschutz testified by deposition that he had a private meeting in Denver where Cussler told him he sold 100 million books. Describing the incident as a bizarre story that never happened, Fields hammered Anschutz for not showing up for trial.

In terms of damages, Cussler is seeking a whopping $40 million: $8 million owed on the second book; $18 million in the lost value of the film rights in the other Dirk Pitt books; $10 million in lost profit participation; $3.5 million in reduced book advances. Fields will conclude his closing arguments today.

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