New Twist for 'Sahara': Court Overturns Judgment Against Author Cussler

A bad movie made from a best-selling book is, in the film world, almost as natural a phenomenon as breathing. But for Clive Cussler, author of the Dirk Pitt adventure thrillers, one bad movie spurred years of nasty, ugly and costly courtroom fights with Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz -- and just when it appeared that the matter was over and done with, a new twist has added yet another chapter in their long-running battle.

The enmity between millionaire author and billionaire producer stemmed from the poor performance of the 2005 movie Sahara, starring Matthew McConaughey as Pitt. Cussler sued first in 2004 for $40 million, saying that Anschutz breached their contract by denying Cussler creative control over the script. Anschutz, who runs the production company Bristol Bay Entertainment (formerly Crusader) and also heads up management company AEG, filed a countersuit, blaming the movie's poor box-office performance (it lost roughly $80 million) on Cussler's bad-mouthing the script in the press and inflating the total book sales for the series (in other words, touting copies "in print" instead of books actually sold, a common tactic in the publishing industry.)

After a months-long trial in which accusations flew wildly, a Los Angeles civil court jury ruled in Anschutz's favor in 2007. Not only was Cussler liable for $5 million in damages, but he owed $13.9 million in legal fees to Anschutz's company. It took more than two years -- during which time he became a whole lot more prolific -- but last July, Cussler finally paid off the judgment balance, with an extra $500,000 and interest for accrued costs. That might have been the end of it, but on Wednesday, a California appeals court essentially turned back the clock, saying that Cussler wasn't actually liable for either the damages or the hefty legal fees.

So who actually won this round? Depends on which side you ask. The Cussler camp, understandably, is crowing that it never should have had to pay up, but the appeals court did not explicitly say that Bristol Bay Entertainment should return the money to Cussler. And Anschutz lead counsel Melvin Putnam, in a statement to The Los Angeles Times, plays the victory card: "As the jury correctly found, Crusader did not harm Clive Cussler in any way and owes him nothing. Now, although he was first to sue, Cussler comes away with empty hands."

Putnam's comments stem from the court's denial of Cussler's bid to recoup $8.5 million, the unpaid balance for a second Dirk Pitt movie. Look for that movie in theaters near you when pigs sprout wings and leave the mud pens for the skies, but keep the popcorn at the ready for the next installment in this epic legal imbroglio that refuses to die.

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