Clive Cussler's courtroom battle -- ''Sahara'' has the novelist tied up in legal drama

June 1992 Sahara, Clive Cussler’s 11th novel in the Dirk Pitt series, is published.

May 2001 Cussler and Crusader Entertainment sign a $20 million contract, hoping to build a franchise à la Indiana Jones.

2002 Four screenwriters, plus Cussler, try and fail to crack the script. Paramount can’t find a star. (Producers pursued Hugh Jackman and Tom Cruise.)

2003 Matthew McConaughey, Penélope Cruz, and director Breck Eisner come on board; Cussler publicly disparages the film as it starts shooting.

January 2004 Cussler sues for breach of contract, alleging that Crusader didn’t give him final approval on the screenplay.

April 2004 Crusader (where Karen and Howard Baldwin had been execs) countersues, arguing that Cussler meddled and hurt the film by bad-mouthing it.

April 2005 Sahara, a $195 million movie, premieres. Makes just $69 million at the domestic box office.

February 2007 Cussler v. Crusader goes to trial. In addition to Cussler and Karen Baldwin, others who might testify are McConaughey, Sherry Lansing, and — cross your fingers — Rainn Wilson.

Jury duty is painful enough as it is, but one day last month the poor souls at a courthouse in downtown Los Angeles were subjected to something that tilted toward the cruel and unusual. They were escorted to a bus, shuttled to a screening room at Paramount Pictures, and required to watch Matthew McConaughey and Penélope Cruz romp across North Africa in a two-year-old bomb called Sahara.

Before that day at the movies, the jurors for Cussler v. Crusader Entertainment must have been having a hoot. The case they’ve been sitting on — an up-close-and-personal dispute between the author of the 1992 novel Sahara and the movie producers who turned it into one of 2005’s biggest box office flops — has been keeping lots of folks in Hollywood entertained these days. Fortunes are lost and enemies gained every day in this town — especially in the high-stakes world of franchise building. But how often does the public get such an intimate peek at the insides of a $195 million train wreck? Every spat and squabble of the troubled production, from the author’s problems with the screenwriters (there were 10 all told) to accusations that he is a racist (vehemently denied) and even wild speculation about the star’s sexual preference (the answer is hetero), has been dragged into court. If somebody could put all this on the screen, it would be a heck of a lot more entertaining than the actual movie. ”This is a personal ‘you screwed me’ kind of lawsuit,” says Ross Johnson, a crisis consultant with the PR firm Sitrick and Co. ”[They’re] slugging it out over issues that are normally resolved way before the cameras even roll.” Another insider puts it more succinctly: ”This is a pissing match.”

Clive Cussler opened fire first, filing his lawsuit against the producers even before the film was finished. Cussler has written 29 action novels, including such titles as Inca Gold, Atlantis Found, and Valhalla Rising. The novel in question, Sahara, is part of his popular Dirk Pitt oeuvre — just how popular is being debated at the trial — in which the scoundrelly but lovable treasure hunter digs up an old Civil War ironclad mysteriously buried in the African desert. ”Adventure was his narcotic,” Cussler writes, early in the novel. ”He was in paradise when flying antique aircraft or diving on historic shipwrecks…. He was seldom found at his desk…preferring the excitement of probing the unknown depths of the sea.”

Every day at the trial, the strapping 76-year-old writer with the silver goatee sits at the plaintiff’s table listening to his lawyers argue that the Sahara movie was so atrocious it actually damaged their client’s reputation as a novelist. His attorneys claim that the $20 million deal Cussler made with Crusader (now called Bristol Bay Productions) to make this and one future Dirk Pitt picture guaranteed Cussler full creative control over the script — and that Crusader violated that agreement by freezing him out of the process.

Of course, Crusader’s lawyers dispute all that, and are countersuing with juicy claims of their own. The ”family-friendly” production house was cofounded seven years ago by Philip Anschutz, the billionaire behind Walden Media (makers of Narnia), and Howard and Karen Baldwin, the husband-and-wife producing team responsible for films like Ray and Mystery, Alaska. Anschutz hasn’t yet appeared at the trial; he works out of Denver, where, according to lore, there’s a Hunter S. Thompson quote about the movie business hanging on his office wall: ”[It’s] a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side.”

But Karen Baldwin has been testifying, and elaborating on her company’s allegations: that it was Cussler himself who broke the contract by disparaging the movie in public — telling reporters such things as ”they’ve sent me seven scripts and I’ve inserted each one in the trash” — and encouraging his fans to spread bad word of mouth about the movie (some going so far as to organize a petition to get Cussler himself to write the script).

More pointedly, though, the producers also accused the novelist of lying about how many fans he actually has. ”Sahara didn’t get the audience it should have for two reasons, both of which are Mr. Cussler’s responsibility,” says Crusader’s lawyer Alan Rader. ”First, before the film was made, he bad-mouthed it to his fans. And second, he didn’t have nearly as many fans as he claimed. He claimed he had sold 100 million books. Turns out that’s a lie.”

Actually, what Cussler’s publishers have been boasting about — at least in blurbs on the back of his books — is that he has 100 million copies in print. And that’s one of the more eye-popping revelations to come out of this trial — that the book business is every bit as fuzzy with its math as the film industry. Nobody publicly reveals how many of those 100 million volumes sent to booksellers have actually been purchased, let alone read. And nobody at Crusader bothered to do any tabulating on their own before signing the deal. ”Cussler and his agent said they had 100 million books sold, s-o-l-d,” says Rader. ”[Crusader] believed the people they were dealing with.”

”The book industry is almost working the way it did when Charles Dickens was alive,” says industry expert Albert Greco. In other words, the state of number crunching isn’t particularly advanced. ”If you don’t do your due diligence, this is what you end up with — a lawsuit. I mean, if you’re going to buy a house in East Hampton, you want to make sure that you have the title to the property, that it’s been inspected and it’s not falling apart.”

Still, faulty addition is the least of Cussler’s sins, according to those testifying for Crusader. Throughout the trial, which started Feb. 2, jurors have been hearing hair-raising tales about working with the Air Force mechanic-turned-literary luminary. Cussler has been characterized as a control freak whose excessive meddling didn’t help lure big stars (Baldwin’s e-mails described conversations with Tom Cruise and Hugh Jackman) and chased away prospective directors like Rob Bowman (Reign of Fire) and Mimi Leder (The Peacemaker). There have been claims that Cussler dithered during casting, even questioning McConaughey’s sexual orientation. (On the 2005 Sahara DVD the actor describes Cussler fussing over his hair and eye color.) As a studio insider who previously flirted with adapting the franchise recalls, ”When we got into a negotiation, his demands were so assaultive that we just said ‘Forget it.’ He’s consistently been a pain in the ass, I’ll say it that way.”

And then there have been the allegations of bigotry, charges that Cussler made hiring decisions based on what Rader claims was ”flat-out prejudice,” and attempted to insert racially offensive scenes. In an e-mail introduced as evidence at the trial, one of the 10 screenwriters, James V. Hart, wrote to producer Karen Baldwin: ”Raising [the Confederate flag]…and killing people of color just won’t work. I hope Clive understands that the movie audience today will not accept it.”

Thus far, Cussler has given about two days’ worth of testimony, which barely addressed these charges. But in 2005 he issued a declaration, responding to the most unsettling accusations. ”I understand that Crusader now claims…that I exercised my approval right based on racism, anti-Semitism and gender bias,” he wrote in the statement. ”Not only is that claim unequivocally false, but the record of what I actually approved and disapproved makes that claim impossible.” Cussler’s lawyer Bert Fields calls Crusader’s assertions ”total hogwash — a smear campaign to play the race card in hopes to prejudice the jury. He didn’t say the things they say he said.” And Cussler’s agent of nearly 40 years, Peter Lampack, insists, ”There isn’t a bad bone in his entire body. He’s a teddy bear.” The only reason Cussler obsessed so much over the script, Lampack says, was ”out of his desire to try to move the project forward. He didn’t ask for any money or credit. It was a good-faith gesture.”

At one point in preproduction, Cussler apparently had so much good faith he followed his fans’ advice and took a stab at a page-one rewrite of the script himself. Karen Baldwin referred to the author’s draft as ”groanable” and ”crap” in an e-mail to colleagues that was introduced at the trial. By now, a director had finally been hired, Breck Eisner (a.k.a. the son of ex-Disney honcho Michael Eisner), thanks to a recommendation by Steven Spielberg, who had worked with him on his TV miniseries Taken. But in June of 2002, with still no workable screenplay and preproduction grinding to a crawl, Baldwin was ”breaking out in hives,” she e-mailed colleagues. In another, she went on, ”We are plain and simple f—ed if we can’t get Clive to take a backseat.”

Cussler, of course, never did take that backseat. He filed his lawsuit in January 2004, soon after the picture had finally started shooting in Morocco and other exotic locales. The trial that suit has wrought is expected to play out for several more weeks, if not months, with some high-profile witnesses still waiting in the wings, like former Paramount chief Sherry Lansing (who gave the movie its initial green light) and possibly even some of Sahara‘s stars (keep your fingers crossed for Rainn Wilson, who played one of Dirk’s geeky sidekicks before going on to play one of Michael Scott’s in The Office).

What the 12 jurors will ultimately make of it all is anyone’s guess, but one outcome of the trial is already assured: Clive Cussler isn’t likely to sell any more novels to Hollywood. After all, this wasn’t his first bad experience in this town, maybe not even his worst. He had sold a book once before, a Dirk Pitt adventure called Raise the Titanic!, which ended up being made into one of the biggest box office flops of 1980. That film lost so much money, its producer later said, ”It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic.”

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