Movies that were supposed to launch franchises (but didn’t): Dick Tracy
In 1989, Tim Burton’s Batman was a phenomenon. So it seemed like a given that the summer of 1990 would belong to Warren Beatty’s comic-strip adventure, Dick Tracy. The movie boasted big stars like Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Madonna and of course Beatty himself. Also like Batman, Dick Tracy had an eye-popping visual style. Throw in original songs written by Stephen Sondheim and a promotional tour by the Material Girl and Dick Tracy seemed like a can’t miss blockbuster. Disney revved up the merchandise machine and prepared to count the money as it rolled in. But despite a massive marketing push, Dick Tracy didn’t become the phenomenon it seemed destined to be.
Beatty had been circling Dick Tracy since the mid-seventies. He had a concept of what he thought the movie should be, but he didn’t have the rights. At one point, John Landis was attached to direct a Dick Tracy movie. Landis approached Clint Eastwood to play the hard-boiled detective. But following legal troubles resulting from the tragic accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie, Landis left the project and Walter Hill came on board. Hill recruited Beatty for the lead, but they ended up parting ways over creative differences. Hill wanted to make a gritty crime movie whereas Beatty wanted to pay homage to comic strips of the 1930’s.
In the mid-eighties, Beatty was able to option both the rights to Dick Tracy and the existing script by Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. The project was at Paramount at the time, but when Jeffrey Katzenberg moved from Paramount to Disney, he took Dick Tracy with him. Beatty intended to produce and star in the movie, but he said he originally wanted Martin Scorsese to direct. Later he decided to direct the movie himself because he thought it was “easier than going through what I’d have to go through to get somebody else to do it.”
Right away, Disney had concerns about Beatty’s reputation for over-spending. They greenlit the movie with Beatty as the director on the condition that he stick to a $25 million dollar budget. Their concerns were not unfounded. As tends to happen with the perfectionist director, the budget began ballooning immediately. It was estimated that Dick Tracy cost nearly twice its budget. On top of that, Disney spent another $50-million-plus on marketing in hopes that Dick Tracy could be their next big franchise.
Beatty brought along some of his Hollywood friends. He cast Al Pacino as the main villain and convinced Dustin Hoffman to make a cameo. Both actors were buried under mountains of make-up. Beatty was dating Madonna at the time and she suggested playing the movie’s femme fatale. The role of Beatty’s sweetheart, Tess Truheart, originally went to Sean Young. But after a few days of filming, Beatty had Young replaced by Glenne Headly. According to Beatty, Young didn’t seem wholesome and maternal enough for the role. But Young alleges she was fired because she rebuffed Beatty’s romantic overtures.
To allay concerns that a Warren Beatty movie wouldn’t appeal to kids, Disney attached a Roger Rabbit cartoon to every print. They also made the same kind of promotional deals that had made the first Batman movie an inescapable event. There were toys, T-shirts, Happy Meals, wrist watches, lunch boxes and trading cards. The previous summer, Warner Brothers had slapped the Batman logo on everything and watched the merchandise fly off the shelves. But mountains of Dick Tracy merchandise ended up in clearance bins a month after the movie opened.
Which is not to suggest that Dick Tracy was a failure. When it was released, it was well-regarded by critics. It opened in first place at the box office and grossed over $100 million dollars. But that wasn’t the level of success Disney had in mind. Batman had grossed over $250 million and Disney was expecting something closer to that number.
But don’t take my word for it. In 1991, studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg wrote a now-infamous memo about the state of the movie industry at the time. In a bit of irony, Katzenberg warned against the “blockbuster mentality” and promised that Disney would no longer fall prey to it. The memo made waves when it leaked to the press and contained frank criticism of several stars including Beatty. (Katzenberg’s memo was actually the inspiration for the one Tom Cruise writes in the film Jerry Maguire). On the subject of Dick Tracy, Katzenberg wrote the following:
Here at Disney, our biggest effort to compete in blockbuster terms, Dick Tracy, is a case in point as to how the box office mentality is affecting the moviegoing experience. Dick Tracy was in the works for nearly ten years. But by the time it was ready for release, we were upon the summer of 1990 and we knew that its success would be for the most part judged by its opening weekend box office performance. So, we did everything that we could in order to get the film the audience and recognition we felt it deserved…
The result was a film that did very well, a film we were rightly proud of, a film that was critically acclaimed… and a film that is still being savagely disparaged as “having failed to achieve Batman-like success at the box office….”
By every rational measure, it was a success. It topped $100 million in domestic box office, sold millions of dollars of merchandise and was by all accounts a cultural event. Nevertheless, having tried and succeeded, we should now look long and hard at the blockbuster business… and get out of it.
As profitable as it was, Dick Tracy made demands on our time, talent and treasury that, upon reflection, may not have been worth it. The number of hours it required, the amount of anxiety it generated and the amount of dollars that needed to be expended were disproportionate to the amount of success achieved…
This is why, when Warren Beatty comes to us to pitch his next movie — a big period action film, costing $40 million, with huge talent participation, directed by the man who is arguably the most brilliant filmmaker today at making movies that are successful commercially and artistically, owned and controlled by Beatty and Levinson — we must hear what they have to say, allow ourselves to get very excited over what will likely be a spectacular film event, then slap ourselves a few times, throw cold water on our faces and soberly conclude that it’s not a project we should choose to get involved in…
Dick Tracy was a great experience. It was a solid hit and an outstanding accomplishment that was remarkable for making Variety’s list of ten biggest grosser and The New York Times’ list of ten best films. But, as much as Dick Tracy was about successful filmmaking, it was also about losing control of our own destiny. And that’s too high a price to pay for any movie.
It’s funny because the philosophy that Katzenberg is advocating is diametrically opposed to the studio’s current business strategy.
As you can imagine, no one was talking Dick Tracy sequels after Katzenberg’s memo went public. But Beatty still clung to the idea of continuing the series. He has been involved in several lawsuits in an effort to hold on to the TV and movie rights to the character. In 2008, Beatty actually reprised his role in a Dick Tracy TV Special which aired on Turner Movie Classics.
Beatty appeared as Tracy and was interviewed about the movie by film critic Leonard Maltin. In a bit of meta weirdness, Beatty as Tracy is critical of Beatty’s performance as Dick Tracy. He also gives Maltin some advice on aging gracefully via fruit consumption:
In 2011, after winning a summary judgement in his favor, Beatty insisted he was still planning a sequel:
I’m gonna make another one [but] I think it’s dumb talking about movies before you make them. I just don’t do it. It gives you the perfect excuse to avoid making them.
So you can look forward to the 78-year-old star playing a comic book hero any summer now, I’m sure.