Cussler, 'Sahara' tussle aired in trial


A production company that made the action film "Sahara" reneged on a deal with best-selling author Clive Cussler to give him creative control of the movie based on his book, his attorney said Friday at the outset of a trial of dueling lawsuits that each seek millions of dollars in damages.

The agreement between Cussler and Crusader Entertainment, a company owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz, was breached when vital story lines were eliminated and Cussler's suggestions to improve the "Sahara" script were ignored, the author's attorney, Bert Fields, told jurors in opening statements.

"It was supposed to be Mr. Cussler who decided what would be cut out," Fields said. "They made this movie even if he didn't approve of all these changes."

The 2005 film, starring Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz, was envisioned as the springboard for a lucrative franchise such as the "Indiana Jones" or "James Bond" series, based on Cussler's character Dirk Pitt.

The movie grossed $68 million in the United States, but Fields said the production cost about $160 million.

Attorneys for Anschutz's company claim about $80 million in losses on "Sahara." They have portrayed Cussler as uncooperative and meddlesome in the filmmaking process and believe he misled moviemakers by saying his books had sold 100 million copies. They claim he sold less than half that number.

They also accused Cussler of disparaging the film before it was even made to various media outlets, reducing the film's potential fan base.

"It takes hundreds and hundreds of people to make a film to give it a chance to be successful," said Alan Rader, an attorney representing Crusader Entertainment. "But one person by himself can destroy a film's chance. That's what happened with 'Sahara."'

The defense told jurors that Cussler was granted rights of approval that were to be replaced with a less authoritative consultation role when a director was hired.

"He doesn't get final say," Rader said. "Every single complaint Mr. Cussler has made about changes to the screenplay happened after the director was hired."

The trial was expected to last nine weeks and could provide insight into how creative differences can undermine a major motion picture.

On one side is Cussler, 75, called the "Grandmaster of Adventure," who has written 32 books, 19 of which feature Pitt.

On the other is Anschutz, one of the richest men in the United States, who co-owns the Los Angeles Kings hockey team and owns Anschutz Entertainment Group, which operates Los Angeles' Staples Center. He also owns several Major League Soccer teams.

Both sides agree a deal was reached that gave Cussler certain consultation and approval rights for "Sahara."

Fields told jurors his client initially sought $40 million for the movie rights to some of his books, and a compromise was later reached that gave Cussler the ability to approve the screenplay for "Sahara" and consultation rights for a second movie that was not made.

Cussler's rights to the first film "stay intact without limit and just go on and on," Fields said.

Numerous screenwriters were brought in to polish the script. Some versions were approved by Cussler, but Fields estimates about 50 "fundamental" changes were made that strayed from the book and doomed the film.

"They tore the heart out of the story," Fields said. "The picture died, lost all of this money because they gutted it."