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Don't give him rewrite

Clive Cussler had wide discretion over the script for his novel `Sahara.' Now, after many costly revisions, he's suing over what did hit the screen.

December 08, 2006|Glenn F. Bunting | Times Staff Writer

PHILIP Anschutz made his first big splash in Hollywood five years ago when he cut a deal considered outlandish even by movie industry standards.

The Denver industrialist not only agreed to pay $10 million per book for rights to the best-selling Dirk Pitt adventure novels, he gave author Clive Cussler extraordinary creative control over "Sahara," the movie starring Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz.

Cussler had final say over the director and lead actors (he boasted of turning down Tom Cruise for being too short) as well as wide discretion over the script (he disparaged writers as "hacks.")

By ceding so much authority to a novelist, Anschutz broke a fundamental rule in the film business: Keep the author out of the screenwriting process. Now Anschutz finds himself cast in a movie mogul's nightmare.

He has lost about $105 million to date on "Sahara," was forced to abandon plans for several Dirk Pitt sequels and is fighting one of Hollywood's most contentious lawsuits since humorist Art Buchwald battled Paramount Pictures over breach-of-contract charges. A jury trial is scheduled next month in Los Angeles.

Thousands of pages of legal documents -- including transcripts of sworn depositions, confidential memos and internal e-mails -- show exasperated studio executives, producers and directors scheming and back-stabbing over the $145-million production.

Cussler initially sued Anschutz's company, Crusader Entertainment, claiming producers reneged on a contract that awarded him "sole and absolute" approval rights.

"They deceived me right from the beginning," Cussler testified. "They kept lying to me ... and I just got fed up with it."

Anschutz declined to be interviewed. But in his countersuit, he alleged that Cussler sought to blackmail his film company by withholding consent over the script unless it agreed to use the novelist's own screenplay. The multibillionaire also has accused Cussler of inflating the number of Pitt books sold and slandering the movie before its April 2005 release.

"It is the height of arrogance for Cussler to take $10 million to make a movie and then torpedo the franchise," said Alan Rader, Anschutz's attorney.

Anschutz also alleges that Cussler made derogatory remarks about blacks and Jews while exercising his approvals.

Cussler has denied the accusations. His lawyer, Bertram Fields, said that Anschutz and his attorneys with the firm of O'Melveny & Myers are seeking to portray his client as a "crazed racist and anti-Semite" because they cannot win the case on the merits.

"They want to get these charges in front of a jury," Fields said, "so blacks and Jews will hate him."

CLIVE Cussler, 75, was born in Aurora, Ill., and raised in Southern California. A graduate of Alhambra High School, he spent two years at Pasadena City College before joining the Air Force during the Korean War.

He worked in advertising before taking a stab at fiction. "The Mediterranean Caper," published in 1973, was the first of 19 novels starring Cussler's alter ego, Dirk Pitt. The author and his swashbuckling hero both have deep, blue-green eyes and a passion for classic cars, shipwrecks and Don Julio tequila.

The third Pitt novel, "Raise the Titanic!", was made into a 1980 film starring Jason Robards. It lost so much money that producer Lew Grade quipped, "It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic."

At the time, Cussler vowed never to let Hollywood destroy another of his books.

Philip Anschutz, 66, has earned billions in oil and gas, railroads, telecommunications, real estate and entertainment. A conservative Christian, Anschutz controls Regal Entertainment Group, the nation's largest chain of theaters. His Anschutz Film Group makes no R-rated films and focuses on projects that carry moral messages.

Unlike many production firms, his film company encourages authors to become involved in the development process. After collaborating with the stepson of novelist C.S. Lewis, Anschutz last year rolled out his biggest hit, "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," a biblical allegory based on the Resurrection. The film has taken in more than $1 billion in revenues, and a sequel is due in 2008.

Anschutz was a fan of Cussler's novels and saw an opportunity for a hit franchise similar to the "Indiana Jones" series. Working with film executives Howard and Karen Baldwin, who already had reached a preliminary agreement with Cussler, Anschutz arranged to meet in his Denver office with the author in June 2000.

Anschutz obtained the movie rights by agreeing to give Cussler $10 million per book and substantial control over the initial picture. The deal meant that Cussler would score a huge payday if the Pitt novels developed into a franchise.

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