Jurors hear tales of studio maneuvering

Trials and ArbitrationEntertainmentMoviesCrime, Law and JusticeNorth AfricaChristian Bale

In Hollywood it pays to have connections, even if you are the son of former Disney Chairman Michael Eisner.

Stories of back-lot feuding, deceitful negotiations and high-strung egos are all part of a drama unfolding in the wood-paneled Los Angeles County Superior Court room of Judge John P. Shook. Names such as Breck Eisner, Tom Cruise, Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Penelope Cruz, Heath Ledger and Jack Black spill from the witness stand.

Testimony resumes today in the trial pitting media mogul Philip Anschutz against bestselling author Clive Cussler. Both sides have spent millions of dollars waging a bitter legal battle.

At issue: Who is responsible for the failure of "Sahara," the 2005 action-adventure film that lost about $105 million? It starred McConaughey and Cruz.

The breach-of-contract case, which began with jury selection in late January, is expected to last at least a month more. Currently on the stand is Karen Baldwin, an executive producer of "Sahara" who has testified for several days.

It was she who recounted that, several years ago, Breck Eisner desperately wanted to direct "Sahara," even though the USC film school graduate had little experience.

Executives at Paramount Pictures, the movie's distributor, balked at putting an untested director in charge of a production budget that grew to $160 million.

But when director Rob Bowman unexpectedly left "Sahara" before filming began, Eisner again raised his hand after directing "Taken," a 2002 television miniseries created by Steven Spielberg.

"I believe Spielberg actually placed a call to Paramount to say, 'You know, Breck Eisner would be great, blah, blah, blah," Baldwin recalled.

Breck Eisner, who got the job, is on a list of witnesses scheduled to testify later in the trial.

Baldwin, a former executive with Anschutz's Crusader Entertainment, dished on the stand about how the stars were chosen and how Cussler created a furor by constantly fiddling with the script.

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On June 17, 2002, Baldwin sent a two-page letter of reassurance to Cussler, who was frustrated over the development of the "Sahara" screenplay based on his Dirk Pitt series.

"I've had you on my mind all day today," Baldwin wrote. "You sounded so down when we spoke.... Please do not get discouraged. Now is the wrong time for that to happen. We are very close to getting this movie going."

In truth, Baldwin testified, the producers were nowhere close to a workable script.

"We were as far away from getting the movie done at this point as we'd been in a good, long time," she said.

Asked why she wrote the missive, Baldwin said, "I was trying to give him a pep talk.... I mean, we'd come too far, you know. We had to regroup. We had to suck it up, and we had to start again."

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Many top-tier actors were considered for the lead role of the swashbuckling Dirk Pitt, among them Tom Cruise, Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Owen Wilson, Heath Ledger and Christian Slater. Baldwin testified that in a telephone conversation with Cruise, the actor "indicated that he was a fan" of Cussler's books and "excited" about the project.

But Cruise passed on the script, and Baldwin's team turned its attention to Jackman. Paramount executives were "adamant that we move off" Jackman, Baldwin wrote in an e-mail produced in court.

"Hugh Jackman was doing a Broadway play," Baldwin testified. "So it wasn't that they didn't like Hugh, but they didn't want to wait for him."

Crusader Entertainment wanted Christian Bale but ran into opposition from then-Paramount chief Sherry Lansing.

"Sherry said she can't believe we like Christian.... " Baldwin wrote in an e-mail. "I told her, 'I am not trying to be difficult. I honestly do like him a lot.' She said we will ruin the franchise."

Lansing favored McConaughey for the leading role. But Bowman, who had directed both Bale and McConaughey in "Reign of Fire," objected.

"Rob liked Christian ... and he didn't like McConaughey," Baldwin said.

After performing a screen test to satisfy Paramount, Bale was offered the role but turned it down.

Producers turned to McConaughey, who had been pursuing the part for years.

Wrote Baldwin: "As you all know, Matthew would crawl on his hands and knees to do this part."

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Crusader pursued Jack Black to play the role of Pitt's sidekick, Al Giordino.

Black said "it was really cool and he really liked it," Baldwin testified. "But if he had to choose between schlepping around the desert for three months or sitting on his sofa eating popcorn and watching TV, he was going to be sitting on his sofa."

Crusader then settled on Steve Zahn to play Giordino.

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Cussler insisted on rewriting the screenplay -- a violation of rules enforced by the Writers Guild of America.

"He is now hellbent on doing the next revision himself," Baldwin wrote in a June 26, 2002, e-mail. "He said there already are enough writers on the project, and he is not expecting full writing credits and even would not make a fuss if the script won an Academy Award, and he was not able to go up and receive it, as he is not a member of the guild. This is a monster, and we have a problem."

Baldwin testified that Paramount executives had previously warned her to stop allowing Cussler to revise the script, even though the author had sweeping approval rights over the screenplay.

"They were like, this better never happen again," Baldwin said. "And I said, 'It won't.' And now it was happening again.... Clive just was not going to take no for an answer on being the screenwriter. And Paramount would have had a heart attack."

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It is not unusual in Hollywood for an executive to portray a movie as faring much better in financial terms than it actually did.

Baldwin testified that she believed "Sahara" was on track to make a profit. "It was No. 1 at the box office when it came out," she said. "I have heard that over time the film is going to make its money."

Cussler's attorney, Bertram Fields, informed Baldwin that financial reports showed that the movie lost more than $100 million.

"That would be one of the most massive losses in the history of the film business, wouldn't it?" Fields asked.

"No, not at all," Baldwin replied.

"Tell me a picture that lost more than $100 million."

"Heaven's Gate."

"Lost more than $100 million, is that your testimony?"

"I don't know."

"Well, why did you just say it?"

" ... I don't know. I just know it didn't do well." ("Heaven's Gate," a 1980 release, lost an estimated $44 million.)

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Fields produced a pair of e-mails in which Baldwin attacked Eisner's abilities as a director.

She wrote in December 2003 that Eisner "doesn't have a good sense of story." In March 2004, she said, "Breck wouldn't know a good script if it bit him in the ass."

In an effort to clarify her comments, Baldwin testified, "Well, I think you've taken two days out of a four-month period.... So clearly, on that day and on another day, I was upset and that's what I thought. But did I think that for all the days of those four months? I don't know."

Baldwin said she changed her mind about Eisner after seeing the picture.

"I think the proof is in the pudding," she said. "I thought he did a great job."

Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.

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