Saturday, February 17, 2007

The wasteland

The screenwriting litigation du jour is a lawsuit between author Clive Cussler and producer Philip Anschutz's Crusader Entertainment over the movie adaptation of Cussler's novel Sahara. Cussler's allegations, essentially, are that the script sucked. More specifically, that his option agreement with Crusader for Sahara (and a second novel) gave him the unqualified right of approval over the screenplay adaptations of his works. And, further, that the approved screenplay could not be materially altered by Crusader without his consent. Great for Mr. Cussler, who felt burned by the disastrous film version of his Raise the Titanic in 1980. And, in theory, great for Crusader, which obtained the rights to a popular action-adventure character -- Dirk Pitt -- upon which a franchise on the order of Indiana Jones could potentially be developed.

That was the theory, anyway. In reality, the film (starring Matthew McConaughey as Pitt) tanked. It grossed only $68 million in the U.S., with a budget of more than $130 million. Anschutz countersued Cussler for the $105 million he purportedly lost on the production, contending that Cussler overinflated sales figures for the Sahara book to induce the original option by Crusader. As well as deliberately undermining the film with fans and in the media prior to its release. The trial started a few weeks ago and the dispute between Cussler and Anschutz has been playing out daily in a Los Angeles courtroom. Cussler's attorneys are attempting to portray Anschutz, who lives in Denver, as a Hollywood outsider looking to blame anyone buy himself for the movie's failure. Crusader brought out evidence during discovery of Cussler's alleged racism, anti-Semitism, and alcoholism. In other words, the usual stuff for a movie industry lawsuit.

I have neither read Cussler's original novel nor seen the film adaptation, so I can't say whether the script, in fact, sucked or not. That the movie failed despite having the "built-in" audience that studios supposedly crave these days seems like evidence that whatever made it on to the screen was not very good. Of note for members of the scribosphere is the fact that Josh Friedman's draft of the script appears to be the one that sent Cussler over the edge (Josh is not listed as one of the four credited writers on the screenplay), branding it "juvenile" and "silly": "Mr Cussler said he was unimpressed with the finished result. "I got as far as page 35. I couldn't go on," he said." It appears from Cussler's testimony that several more writers were brought in even after Josh. The screenwriting-by-committee approach rarely bodes well for great story results.

So the jury got to go on a field trip to the Paramount lot for a screening of Sahara which, as jury duty goes, is a pretty good deal (although they still did have to watch Sahara). As a writer, I do feel some sympathy for Mr. Cussler, who just wanted Hollywood to do right by the story in his book. But any working screenwriter would likely have told him before he optioned it to Crusader, you can't always get what you want. And even if he wins on the merits, the labrynthine maze of industry accounting methods means years of fighting to collect any judgment awarded. Just ask the late Art Buchwald. On the other side of the table, it seems a hard case for Anschutz to say that Cussler's right of approval was the stumbling block to coming up with a good script when it apparently went continual rewriting with his continued okays. Crusader's allegations of inflated sales figures strikes me as a funny case of the pot calling the kettle black -- whose accounting methods are more shady? Hollywood or the publishing industries -- and whether the number was 100 million sold or something less than that, the Dirk Pitt books and character were the value that Crusader sought and received with the option agreement. With the evidence as it stands at this point, I would be surprised if the jury returned a verdict in favor of either party.


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