‘Sahara’ Trial Opens

A trial featuring dueling lawsuits between "Sahara" author Clive Cussler and Crusader Entertainment, the Philip Anschutz-owned company that made the book into a film, got under way February 2nd in Los Angeles with attorneys for both sides blaming each other for the film’s flop.

After more than two weeks of testimony, jurors got an earful on the fine art of Hollywood backstabbing, but had not heard final arguments by press time. And if that weren’t enough, Anschutz’s Bristol Bay Productions filed suit in a Denver court February 13th charging Cussler’s literary agent, Peter Lampack, with fraud, conspiracy and negligent misrepresentation.

Bristol Bay is the current incarnation of Crusader Entertainment, and based in Los Angeles, where the original courtroom drama continues to play out.

In opening statements, Cussler attorney Bert Fields accused Crusader of breaching an agreement giving the writer a large measure of creative control over the script by ignoring his suggestions and eliminating vital storylines.

"It was supposed to be Mr. Cussler who decided what would be cut out," Fields said. "They made this movie even if he didn’t approve of all these changes."

In Crusader’s countersuit, it’s alleged that Cussler duped Anschutz into paying $10 million for film rights by inflating his collective book sales to more than 100 million copies – a claim that is a basis for the February 13th suit filing.

But during the current trial’s opening statements, Crusader’s lawyers claimed that Cussler’s rights of approval changed into a consultation role once a director was hired, according to BBC News.

"[Mr. Cussler] doesn’t get final say," the company’s lawyer Alan Rader said. "Every single complaint Mr. Cussler has made about changes to the screenplay happened after the director was hired."

The first witness in the trial was Lampack, who described his first meeting with Philip Anschutz, who chaired the session, according to the Los Angeles Times. The literary agent testified that Anschutz tried to low-ball Cussler by making an offer beneath the $30 million the best-selling author was seeking for the film rights to another popular adventure series.

When Lampack refused, Anschutz and another exec escorted Cussler to a nearby office building to show off the billionaire’s extensive Western art collection.

"It became apparent to me that Philip Anschutz and Howard Baldwin taking Cussler out of the room was simply a ploy," the paper quoted Lampack as testifying before being cut off by Fields.

In later testimony, "Sahara" executive producer Karen Baldwin said, "They lied to [Cussler] so they didn’t have to have an argument with him." She said top studio execs at Paramount Pictures deliberately misled Cussler by saying the studio "loved" his screenplay when it didn’t.

The trial seeks to settle a long-running dispute between Anschutz and Cussler over the project, which ultimately lost $105 million. Released in 2005, the film flop starred Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz.

Both sides are seeking millions of dollars in general and punitive damages.

Among the accusations that have been bandied about in the press are claims of sabotage, fraud, profligate spending and racism, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The witness list included a who’s who of Hollywood players including Anschutz; former Paramount Pictures Chairwoman Sherry Lansing; Breck Eisner, son of former Walt Disney Co. chairman Michael Eisner; McConaughey and Cussler.