Sundance 2014: ‘Dinosaur 13’ doc acquired by Lionsgate, CNN Films

Todd Miller, director of "Dinosaur 13."
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

PARK CITY, Utah -- “Dinosaur 13,” a documentary about the discovery of the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton named Sue and the ensuing legal fight over control of the bones, has been acquired by Lionsgate and CNN Films.

The deal, completed Friday morning, is the first documentary sale made since the Sundance Film Festival kicked off Thursday afternoon. According to sources with knowledge of the matter, “Dinosaur 13” sold for about $1 million, a robust price for a festival documentary.

The project had also attracted interest from IFC, HBO, Netflix and Magnolia Pictures, sources said.


The movie, screening in the festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition section, centers on paleontologist Pete Larson, who along with his team discovered the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex on record while on a 1990 dig in the badlands of South Dakota.

FULL COVERAGE: Sundance 2014

But an intense and ultimately circuitous legal fight over control of the massive skeleton kicked off shortly after the discovery. The bones were seized by the federal government, on grounds that Larson and his Black Hills Institute didn’t have the right to possess them. South Dakotans protested the seizure, and scenes of lusty public demonstrations are included in the documentary.

The byzantine matter ensnared the FBI, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and a landowner, Maurice Williams, on whose property the bones were discovered.

Larson and his colleagues were eventually indicted on charges connected to the discovery and sale of fossils, but the legal case was unrelated to the Sue discovery. He was sent to prison for 18 months.

“Dinosaur 13,” which was directed and produced by Todd Miller, debuted on Thursday night at the 1,270-seat Eccles Theatre, and received a warm response from the audience.

Things got testy toward the end of a Q&A session Miller conducted following the screening. He was joined onstage by several of the figures who feature prominently in the film, including Larson, his attorney Patrick Duffy, National Park Service geologist Vincent Santucci, and attorney Bruce Ellison, who represented a colleague of Larson’s.


Duffy told the audience he hoped the film could be used to seek a pardon for Larson, drawing a rauccous round of applause.

MORE: Complete list of Sundance film festival selections

Santucci, who acknowledged he was in the awkward position of representing the federal government, told the audience he didn’t view the indictment and prosecution of Larson as “personal.” He said the case was really about the illegal collection of fossils.

“The part that we were working on ... we felt that we were working in the best interest of the American people,” Santucci said.

Ellison responded that the government’s conviction of Larson on two felony counts and two misdemeanor counts related to fossil collection and sales could only be viewed as personal.

The Sue skeleton, which fetched $7.6 million at auction in 1997, is now on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.


Lionsgate said in a statement that it would release the film theatrically this year. After a run in theaters, it will be shown on CNN.

Miller was represented in the sale by Submarine Entertainment.


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