Crusader claims Cussler tanked 'Sahara'

Opening statements were heard Friday in the trial pitting author Clive Cussler against producer Philip Anschutz over the failure of the 2005 film “Sahara.”

Attorney Alan Rader, who represents Anschutz’s Crusader Entertainment, told an L.A. Superior Court jury Cussler intentionally tanked the feature by rejecting scripts in bad faith, publicly disparaging the movie and fraudulently inducing Anschutz to enter into a $10 million-a-book deal by inflating the number of books he sold.

Cussler attorney Bert Fields described his client as a bestselling author who, having been burned once before by a filmed adaptation of his work, demanded and got extraordinary creative control over the script for the filming of his novel “Sahara.”

Both sides agreed the film lost approximately $60 million.

As outlined by Fields, Cussler, the author of 32 books, including 19 action-adventures featuring “Sahara” hero Dirk Pitt, had seen his novel “Raise the Titanic” destroyed by a 1980 filmed version over which he had no creative control. He vowed never again to sell film rights until producer Howard Baldwin teamed with Anschutz and urged him to sell the rights in anticipation of an “Indiana Jones”-style franchise.

After lengthy negotiations, Crusader agreed to pay Cussler $20 million for the rights to two books. As for script approval, Fields said, the two sides agreed that on the first film, Cussler would have unlimited approval, and on subsequent pics, his approval rights would end when production started.

Cussler approved an initial script written by Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer (“A Sound of Thunder”) and revised by David S. Ward (“Sleepless in Seattle”), but he allegedly hated a subsequent revision by James V. Hart (“Hook”) and undertook to revise the script himself. The early screenplays approved by Cussler, Rader said, had to be revised to attract stars.

Two years into development, Josh Friedman (“War of the Worlds”) was brought in for a revision; Fields acknowledged that Cussler’s reaction to the changes was that Friedman “should have his keyboard shoved up his anal canal.”

Crusader claims the Friedman draft was rejected by Cussler amid anti-Semitic slurs and that racial animosity played a role in his dismissal of the idea of having Dirk Pitt’s sidekick be played by a black actor.

On the issue of racial and religious slurs, Fields said Cussler flatly denied making them and they were the fabrication of his longtime publicist, whom he fired.

In the end, Donnelly and Oppenheimer were brought back in for a final revision, and the screenplay was turned over to Breck Eisner to direct. Once Eisner was aboard, he ignored Cussler and gutted his story, Fields said, changing it from a serious action-adventure into a slick jog through Africa.

Not happy with a consulting role once Eisner took over the movie, Cussler badmouthed the film, in breach of his contract, Rader contended.

Fields said Cussler did not disparage the film to his fans until he was essentially pushed off the movie. He sued in 2004 before the film was even released.

Rader told the jury it was just common sense that, under the contract, Cussler’s approval rights changed once a director was picked and disputes would be resolved in favor of the director.

As for the inflated book sales, Rader said it took until trial to get real numbers and the significance of those numbers is critical.

Fields addressed the claim that Crusader had overpaid for the film rights because books sales were inflated by saying that number now given by Crusader — under 50 million rather than 100 million — does not include remaindered and used books.

Crusader thought it was paying top dollar for a top-tier property, only to discover the fan base was a fraction of the projected size, Rader said.

Among the many breaches of contract enumerated by Rader: Cussler disclosed his huge payday to columnist Liz Smith, refused to read screenplays and listened to casting suggestions in bad faith.

Trial resumes today with testimony from Cussler’s agent, Peter Lampack.

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