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Billionaire squares off with novelist

Times Staff Writer

A hotly contested Hollywood trial kicked off Friday with attorneys for bestselling author Clive Cussler and Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz offering starkly different accounts of who was responsible for the financial failure of the movie “Sahara.”

Lawyer Bertram Fields blamed Anschutz’s production company, Crusader Entertainment, for gutting Cussler’s novel by turning action hero Dirk Pitt into a “treasure-hunting rogue.”

The movie “has beautiful scenery [and] it’s got some funny stuff in it,” Fields told the jury during opening arguments. “But it is not the dramatic, gripping story that Cussler wrote.... There was no suspense. Nothing.”

Anschutz’s attorney Alan Rader accused Cussler of deliberately undermining the movie by refusing to honor the terms of the $10-million contract for the film rights to “Sahara.”

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“Mr. Cussler had an obligation not to do anything that interfered with Crusader’s ability” to make a successful movie, Rader said. “Mr. Cussler, unfortunately, was not interested in complying with that promise of acting in good faith.”

The jury of eight women and four men is scheduled to begin hearing testimony on Monday. The first witness will be Peter Lampack, Cussler’s longtime New York literary agent.

Both sides have spent three years and millions of dollars preparing for the trial.

Anschutz is seeking to recover the $10 million he paid for the rights to “Sahara” and a portion of the $105 million his company has lost on the project.

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Cussler is demanding the approximately $8 million he claims Anschutz owes him for the rights to a second Pitt book and tens of millions of dollars in damages related to the value of the Pitt franchise.

Much of Friday’s proceedings focused on how Cussler exercised his approval rights over the “Sahara” screenplay.

His attorney said that Cussler consented to “four or five” scripts and wrote three separate revisions himself. But none were deemed acceptable by Anschutz’s producers.

Instead, about 50 changes they made to the script “doomed” the film, Fields said.

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In his opening statement on behalf of Crusader, Rader said Cussler reneged on promises he made to Anschutz to promote the movie and deliver his loyal readers to the box office.

“We’re here because [Cussler] made it extremely difficult to make this film,” Rader said.

Rader said that Cussler rejected screenplays without bothering to read them and publicly disparaged “Sahara” in media interviews before the movie was made.

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glenn.bunting@latimes.com


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