Anschutz side rests in 'Sahara' legal battle

Times Staff Writer

The legal showdown between media mogul Philip Anschutz and novelist Clive Cussler over the film flop "Sahara" took a dramatic turn in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom Wednesday when Anschutz's lead attorney unexpectedly rested his case.

The maneuver by lawyer Marvin Putnam after 13 weeks of testimony in the breach-of-contract trial paves the way for closing arguments early next week; a jury will then decide who is to blame for the financial failure of the 2005 movie, which has lost $105 million to date.

It also means that "Sahara" star Matthew McConaughey, former Paramount Pictures Chairwoman Sherry Lansing and Anschutz, the secretive Denver billionaire, will not take the witness stand as expected.

Anschutz is seeking to recover about $80 million in "Sahara" losses plus interest. His production company alleges that Cussler fraudulently inflated sales figures for his Dirk Pitt adventure series to land a $10-million-per-book movie deal, and that he refused to promote the film, hurting attendance.

Cussler is demanding about $38 million in damages based on claims that Anschutz's producers failed to honor contractual rights that gave him "sole and absolute" approval over the "Sahara" screenplay.

Wednesday's announcement took place after Putnam wrapped up five days of intense cross-examination of Cussler, 77, who appeared overwhelmed as he struggled to explain why he repeatedly claimed to have sold "more than 100 million books" despite admitting that he knew the number was unreliable.

"It's just a figure," Cussler testified. "I could say 100. I could say 90.... It meant nothing."

An extensive audit conducted by a Los Angeles accounting firm found that the series of Dirk Pitt books sold at most 42 million copies through June 2000, when Anschutz and Cussler negotiated the film rights.

In an interview, Putnam said he concluded during Wednesday's lunch break that Cussler's testimony had proved Anschutz's claims.

"This case doesn't have to go a minute longer," Putnam said. "I don't think there is a soul in that courtroom that believes what Cussler was saying."

Attorney Bertram Fields, who represents Cussler, stood up in the courtroom immediately after Putnam's pronouncement and told Superior Court Judge John P. Shook: "That is terrific news.... This is a big surprise."

In an interview, Fields said: "They have tried to smear Clive with all kinds of side issues that don't go to the main point -- the breach of contract.... Of course, we have the $64-billion question, 'Where is Philip Anschutz?' "

The jury of nine women and three men has heard testimony from 17 witnesses since the trial began Jan. 29. They included Peter Lampack, Cussler's literary agent; Howard and Karen Baldwin, Anschutz's former partners; and "Sahara" director Breck Eisner, son of former Walt Disney Co. Chairman Michael Eisner.

Last week, Shook told attorneys in a closed-door meeting that he was contemplating declaring a mistrial after an April 15 front-page story in The Times. The article, which examined the expenditures in the $160-million final budget for "Sahara," was based on confidential documents entered into evidence.

"The concern that I have is that the jury is going to be deciding this case on something other than the evidence that was presented during the trial," Shook said, according to a transcript. "I think maybe I should mistry the case. Let me think about it. I hate to do it. Both sides have spent so much money."

Anschutz and Cussler have spent millions of dollars in legal fees and other expenses since the litigation began in early 2004.

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