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T-Wreck: Why Fox's 'Walking With Dinosaurs' Went Extinct

Walking With Dinosaurs Extinction - H 2014

Last-minute voice work from John Leguizamo and Justin Long couldn't save the $80 million kiddie pic, which drew a dismal $33.7 million in North America.

In 1999, the BBC's documentary-style mini­series Walking With Dinosaurs became a cultural phenomenon thanks in part to its state-of-the-art CGI creatures. Narrated by Kenneth Branagh, Dinosaurs won two BAFTAs and three Emmys (Discovery Channel aired it in the U.S.), spawning a companion book and an arena show that toured the globe.

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So 15 years later, why has the 3D feature Walking With Dinosaurs quickly become extinct at the global box office? The movie, released Dec. 20 in the U.S., had earned only $97.9 million worldwide by Jan. 12, disappointing considering its $80 million budget and a sizable marketing spend. In North America, the kid-friendly tale about an underdog dinosaur becoming an unlikely hero had grossed $33.7 million, and in the U.K., where it should have done gangbusters, it earned only $7.3 million.

Dinosaurs is one of the largest independent family films ever mounted. India's Big Reliance Entertainment and Stuart Ford's foreign sales outfit IM Global financed the film for producers BBC Earth, a division of BBC Worldwide, and Evergreen Films. In September 2010, 20th Century Fox picked up distribution rights to most of the world, hoping for a new family franchise.

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But the decision to add celebrity voices for the dinosaurs at the eleventh hour couldn't save the project. Many critics have derided the juvenile tone of the voice dialogue by John Leguizamo, Justin Long, Tiya Sircar and Skyler Stone, also noting that the animals' lips don't move. Staying true to the miniseries, directors Neil Nightingale and Barry Cook intended to use only a narrator. But when Fox executives saw a rough cut of Dinosaurs, they grew alarmed, deciding that if the film was to work for families, kids would need more of a connection to the characters. "We wanted to give the dinosaurs a personality," says one top Fox executive.

Ford says the decision to add voices didn't irk the filmmakers. "It was Fox's preference," he says. "The studio felt like this was the combination that played to the widest audience." Ford and Fox Filmed Entertainment's Jim Gianopulos provide another reason Dinosaurs got crushed: No one anticipated that Disney's Frozen, released at Thanksgiving, would remain dominant.

Dinosaurs is likely to top out at $125 million worldwide, meaning a potential loss in the tens of millions for the financiers, though they contend they will break even because of sponsorships, merchandising, tax breaks and foreign presales in territories where Fox didn't pick up the film. And Fox's exposure is minimized by the fact that it didn't put up any of the budget and is entitled to a distribution fee.