Billionaire claims that novelist duped him in selling film rights

Times Staff Writers

Attorneys for Philip Anschutz allege that author Clive Cussler duped the Denver industrialist into paying $10 million for film rights to the adventure novel “Sahara” by flagrantly inflating his book sales to more than 100 million copies.

“Cussler and his agent had gotten away with these numbers for years,” said Alan Rader, Anschutz’s lawyer. “It was a lie and it doomed the movie.”

The claim is “ridiculous,” Cussler said Thursday outside a courtroom at Los Angeles County Superior Court. “They wanted the book. They solicited us.”

The allegations surfaced at the start of a civil trial that seeks to settle a dispute over who is responsible for Anschutz’s company losing $105 million on “Sahara,” the 2005 movie starring Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz.


The trial, which includes claims of sabotage, fraud, profligate spending and racism, is expected to provide a rare behind-the-scenes look at the world of moviemaking. Lawyers selected a jury Thursday and are scheduled to make opening arguments today.

Among those on the witness list are Anschutz, the secretive 67-year-old multibillionaire; former Paramount Pictures Chairwoman Sherry Lansing; director Breck Eisner, the son of the former Walt Disney Co. chairman; McConaughey, who also served as executive producer; and Cussler, the 75-year-old author.

Cussler initially sued Anschutz’s Crusader Entertainment in 2004, charging that producers reneged on a contract that gave the author extraordinary approval rights over the screenplay. Anschutz countersued, alleging that Cussler deliberately torpedoed the film through his repeated attempts to write his own scripts, all of which were rejected by the producers. Both sides are seeking millions of dollars in damages.

In court papers, Anschutz’s attorneys claim that Cussler “perpetrated a massive fraud” to secure an “unprecedented” contractual agreement in 2000.

“The essence of Cussler’s fraud was simple: He lied about how many books he had sold to induce Crusader to enter the agreement,” the papers state.

In addition to their effect on the trial, the allegations may raise broader questions about the authenticity of publishing-industry sales figures.

Although they declined to comment on the specifics of the Cussler case, New York publishing experts said Thursday that the industry had a long history of inflating book sales and hyping an author’s success. But these practices have declined, they added, with the emergence of Nielsen BookScan in 2001.

The New York company, which tracks book sales, compiles its information from Barnes & Noble, Borders and other chain bookstores across the nation; stores including Costco, Target, Kmart and Starbucks; and a sampling of independent retailers. The data do not include sales of books before 2001.


“Hyping sales figures is not productive for the book industry and in the end it hurts everyone,” said James Atlas, a writer and founder of Atlas Books. “It’s harder to get away with this kind of thing now. The information Nielsen BookScan provides may be unwelcome to some, but it’s necessary.”

Cussler’s first book, “The Mediterranean Caper,” was published in 1973. He wrote 19 of his 32 titles before 2001.

Even with the Nielsen data, there are disparities between what the company reports and what publishers say they have sold. An article in the current Publishers Weekly, for example, noted that though HarperCollins said it had sold 20,000 copies of Vikram Seth’s latest novel, “Two Lives,” Nielsen BookScan reported 6,000 copies sold.

Cussler said reported sales of his books were generated by his publisher. “They don’t come from me,” he said. “I don’t have the foggiest idea.”


Cussler’s New York literary agent, Peter Lampack, could not be reached for comment. Representatives of two of Cussler’s publishers -- Simon & Schuster and Putnam -- declined to comment on the litigation.

The website of Simon & Schuster Inc. says Cussler “is acclaimed worldwide as the Grandmaster of Adventure, a title richly deserved given that there are nearly 100 million copies of his best-selling Dirk Pitt novels in print.”

Putnam Adult, Cussler’s current publisher, has reported on its website that the author sold “more than 125 million books,” including 19 consecutive titles on the New York Times fiction bestsellers list.

In a sworn declaration submitted Nov. 29, Cussler stated that “over one hundred million copies [of his Pitt novels] have been sold.”


Those figures place Cussler in the same stratosphere as authors Michael Crichton, James Patterson and Anne Rice.

But according to Anschutz’s lawyers, a review of more than 14,000 pages of royalty reports and accounting records found that the number of Cussler novels sold was closer to 35 million.

The records were produced under court order by Cussler’s agent.

The audit, performed by Los Angeles litigation consulting firm Freeman & Mills Inc., was arranged by Anschutz’s lawyers. The review took more than 350 hours and cost about $75,000, court records show.


Cussler’s attorney, Bertram Fields, called the claim “hogwash.” He said in an interview that though the precise number was “not computable,” he would demonstrate during the trial that Cussler has sold more than 100 million books in his lifetime.

The estimate cited by Anschutz’s attorneys does not rely on sales records of all of Cussler’s books, Fields said.

“They are pulling these numbers out of thin air,” Fields said. “They made up this claim because they have no answers to Mr. Cussler’s lawsuit.”

Anschutz said in a deposition that he was a fan of Cussler’s Pitt novels and saw an opportunity to create a hit franchise similar to the “Indiana Jones” series. He said the author assured him of a built-in audience of more than 100 million potential moviegoers.


Cussler has denied giving Anschutz any assurances.

Fields said if he had, the potential moviegoers would far exceed 100 million. “You are talking about 32 books in 40 languages in several versions -- trade, softcover, hardcover, mass market paperback, book clubs, books on tape -- in 100 countries.”



Bunting reported from Los Angeles and Getlin from New York. Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.