Picture this wildly improbable scenario: Brilliant businessman who abhors publicity and favors conservative causes slowly buys up much of the known world -- oil fields, Western art, real estate, railroads, sports teams, sports stadiums, a publicly ridiculed Baby Bell -- then ventures into the entertainment industry with the stated goal of making G-rated films and makes a splash at this month's Cannes Film Festival with the announcement of his latest acquisition: Clive Cussler's action-adventure books starring the dashing, definitely not G-rated, trademarked Dirk Pitt®.
Already, Hollywood is debating who should play the underwater adventurer, a crack shot and car collector, a legend with the ladies.
But the real story is the Invisible Man who shies away from photographers but wants to put Pitt up on the screen: Philip Anschutz, Denver's very own billionaire.
Cussler, who lived outside of Denver for years and still has a home in Telluride, had vowed that he would never sell another book to Hollywood after the abysmal job the movie industry did with Raise the Titanic, his first Dirk Pitt® novel published back in 1973. The star of that movie was the late Richard Jordan, hardly the sort of dashing fellow that would set Cannes starlets tittering, and the film sunk almost without a trace at the box office. And Cussler's books did just fine on their own, with over 100 million copies of the Dirk Pitt® novels in print.
Several of them wound up in the hands of Anschutz, a very persuasive fellow -- just look what he did to US West and the Denver skyline with Qwest's blue-light special. He convinced Cussler to sell Dirk Pitt® to one of his many companies, the Beverly Hills-based Crusader Entertainment that Anschutz formed last May with Howard Baldwin, part owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins and a man with his own notable movie credits. There's the direct-to-video soft-porn Night Eyes, for example, and Jean-Claude Van Damme's Sudden Death, which featured the novel combo of hockey (go Avs!) and terrorism.
According to Crusader's Web site, the company's goal "is to create adventure films that offer compelling, positive messages to our audience. We believe that gratuitous sex and profanity will obscure the positive message we wish to impart and compromise the entertainment and commercial value of our projects. Since we are committed to reaching viewers of all ages, we will make only films that are G-rated or, in some instances, PG or PG-13."
But while the massive amounts of violence in the Dirk Pitt® books -- boatloads of people get blown up or drown; individuals are exquisitely tortured, then killed by exotic animals and harpoon guns -- might not raise an eyebrow in Los Angeles, how about that hottie, Pat Schroeder-like congresswoman in the tight leather pants, one of the hero's frequent squeezes?
Fortunately, Cussler's already dealt with making his epics more palatable to the PG public: The unbelievable industry that is Dirk Pitt® includes not only hardcover, and trade paperback, and mass paperback, and recorded versions of his books, but also children's adaptations that are extremely family-friendly.
"We have forged a unique relationship with Clive, and are committed to maintaining the strength and integrity of his original vision and the amazing adventures of the characters he's created," Baldwin said at Cannes in announcing the Cussler project, which includes a three-year, first-look deal with Paramount Pictures.
First up in the Dirk Pitt® cinematic series: 1992's Sahara, in which "amidst the blazing, shifting sands of the Sahara, Dirk Pitt® will make a desperate stand -- in a battle the world cannot afford to lose." And that's just the book jacket.
Here's what's inside:
"Eva held a hand over her eyes to shade the sun and squinted. A man with a dive mask and swim fins was snorkeling alone in deep water beyond the breakers. He appeared to be spearfishing. She watched as he dove out of sight, remaining underwater for so long she thought he was surely drowning. But then he resurfaced and continued his hunt. After several minutes, he swam toward shore, expertly catching a breaking wave and body surfing into the shallows where he stood up...
"Despite a deep tan, his craggy face didn't bear Arabic features. His thick ebony hair was plastered down by the saltwater and the sun sparkled the drops of water clinging to the matted hair on his chest. He was tall, hard-bodied, and broad-shouldered, and walked with a loose grace that was impossible for most men. She guessed him to be close to forty. As he passed Eva, the man coolly licked his eyes over her. He was close enough so that she could see they were an opaline green, set wide with a clear glimpse of the white around the iris. He stared at her with such direct candor that it seemed to reach into Eva's mind and mesmerize her. Part of her was afraid he might pause and say something, the other part wishing he would, but his white teeth showed in a devastating smile as he nodded and walked past her to the highway."
Hmm. It was either Phil Anschutz or Dirk Pitt®.
But Anschutz isn't limiting his moviemaking to Cussler's work. Crusader is already shooting two films in Chicago: Joshua, based on Joseph Girzone's book that has Jesus making a Second Coming in the Deep South, and Children on Their Birthdays, from Truman Capote's short story. Pierce Brosnan is set to star in A Sound of Thunder, a movie adapted from Ray Bradbury's short story that's now in pre-production. And Crusader's also bought the rights to Ray Charles's memoirs, which will turn into Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Story. Anschutz will have to scrub that one hard to bring it down to PG.
This spring, Anschutz set up a second film company, the New York-based Walden Media, which will reportedly tackle educational products that deal with historical subjects or classic books. For Walden, Anschutz teamed up with Cary Granat, former president of Dimension Films, where he was responsible for such historic classics as Spy Kids, the Scream series and the very high-minded Scary Movie.
And Anschutz doesn't have to worry about pleasing Hollywood in order to get these movies shown -- although he's a very popular man in L.A., where he built the Staples Center, is the second-largest owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, owns pieces of the Clippers and the Kings, and also has the Galaxy, one of four soccer teams (including the Colorado Rapids) that he runs around the country. Recent deals could give Anschutz control of a fifth of the country's movie theaters, over 6,000 screens. In March he completed the acquisition of the Englewood-based United Artists theater chain; he has his eye on Regal Cinema, the nation's largest movie-theater chain, based in Knoxville, Tennessee; and this month, he and Oaktree Capital Management LLC will buy 51 percent of Edwards Theaters Circuit Inc., which, like United Artists, was facing bankruptcy.
"One of the greatest challenges in the entertainment industry today is to utilize the same prudent business practices employed by successful companies in other fields of the economy," pronounces Crusader's Web site. "Creativity should not be accompanied by extravagance. Successful companies achieve true creativity by functioning efficiently and effectively. We are confident that we can make successful films while keeping our focus on the bottom line."
Not that bottom line: After all, these will be family-friendly films.
"'That's me,' Pitt said jovially, 'the salvation of lost animals and little old ladies who need to cross streets.'"
The ludicrous exchange -- from Clive Cussler and Dirk Pitt® Revealed, a book by Cussler about Dirk Pitt® and himself -- continues.
"'You wouldn't be Dirk Pitt if you didn't betray a hint of compassion now and then.'
"Pitt looked at the older man steadily. 'Why is it that when we meet I'm never supposed to remember who you are?'
"'Because I plan it that way...I make an occasional appearance to set you back on course before quietly exiting stage right.'
"'I'm not sure I appreciate all you put me through. I have more scars, physical and mental, than I care to count.'
"'Adventure takes its toll on heroes and villains,' said the gray-haired man philosophically.
"'That's easy for you to say. I hope I fare better in the next adventure.'
"'One only knows where the plot will take us.'
"'Will there be a next time? I hear talk of you retiring.'
"'The thought has crossed my mind. I'm finding it more difficult to be creative as the years pass.'
"'A lot of people are counting on us,' Pitt said sincerely.
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"The gray-haired man's face had a sad look to it. It was almost as if he hated to leave. 'Good-bye, Dirk Pitt. Until we meet again.'
"'Good-bye, Clive Cussler. Stay healthy, and never age.'"
Dirk Pitt® goes out to save the world.
But Phil Anschutz already owns it.