At a time when comic book movie sequels get a go-ahead before the first film is even in theaters and new adaptations often push the limits of what audiences can expect from a movie about characters in tights, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when they were considered a risky venture. Such is the case with Warren Beatty’s 1990 adaptation of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, a comic strip that premiered back in 1931 and ran syndicated in daily newspapers across the country.
After the massive success that was Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman film, Disney had high hopes that their long-in-development take on Dick Tracy would bring in similar returns. While Burton’s film was dark and quirky, Beatty, who produced, directed, and starred in Dick Tracy, played it straight, with square-jawed heroes and villains plastered in prosthetics and primary colors.
While it failed to become the cultural milestone that Batman did, the film performed well enough at the box office that a sequel seemed inevitable. There was even some fairly extensive legal drama over the years, though nothing seems to give any real indication that Beatty, who turns 79 on Wednesday, will be donning the yellow fedora again anytime soon.
Beatty’s idea for a Dick Tracy movie goes back to 1975, around the time that Tribune Media Services had initially sold the film rights, which were being bounced around between various movie studios. It eventually found its way to director Walter Hill in the early 1980s, who cast Beatty as the title character. While Hill was aiming for a gritty crime drama, Beatty, a fan of the source material, wanted “real people presented as if they were animated figures in a cartoon come to life.”
Once Hill had left the project, Beatty ended up acquiring the rights in 1985, giving himself the role of producer. He had even talked to Martin Scorsese about directing it, but with a clear vision in mind, Beatty opted to direct the movie himself. Disney gave the film an official greenlight in 1988 with a $25 million budget, which almost doubled by the time production wrapped, all before factoring in the massive marketing campaign behind it, bringing Disney’s total costs to around $100 million.
Even with a $24 million opening weekend, and closing out the year as the 12th highest grossing movie worldwide, Disney was disappointed by the fact that they hadn’t reached the level of market saturation that they’d watched Batman deliver the year prior. Still, with the film being far from a failure, it seemed inevitable that there would be a follow-up movie within a few years.
That is, until an internal memo from Jeffrey Katzenberg, the then-Disney studio head, was leaked to the public in 1991, which criticized out of control costs in both film production and advertising. An unnamed producer spoke to the New York Times that year, saying that Katzenberg wanted “Hollywood and Wall Street to know that Disney learned a lesson from Dick Tracy and won’t make the same mistake again.”
As cut and dried as that may sound, Beatty, has fought tooth-and-nail to keep the rights to Dick Tracy, despite the studio’s obvious lack of interest. In order to retain the rights he’d acquired in 1985, Beatty had to produce a Dick Tracy film “within a specific amount of time,” according to the language in the contract. If this wasn’t done, the rights would then revert back to Tribune Media Services. (If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same reason we got a rebooted Spider-Man film in 2012.)
In 2002, having felt a significant amount of time had passed, Tribune Media allegedly enacted the contract’s two-year notification process before resuming control of the character. Then, in 2006, Beatty claimed that Tribune Media didn’t properly follow the terms of the agreement, and sued to reacquire the rights to the character — along with $30 million in damages. As Beatty’s attorney explained in 2008, he still had “all sorts of creative thoughts about what he might do with this character.”
As unsure as the word “might” may sound there, Beatty had provided written notice of an upcoming Dick Tracy TV special, which was enough for a judge to rule in his favor, and Tribune Media lost the rights in 2009. The by-product of all this was the aptly titled Dick Tracy TV Special, a bizarre, 30-minute mix of existing film clips intercut with Beatty being interviewed in-character by film critic Leonard Maltin. Even though it only aired a handful of times on TCM in 2010, it was enough for Beatty to keep the rights to Dick Tracy indefinitely.
In 2011, Beatty was asked about the possibility of a sequel at the Hero Complex Film Festival in L.A., which he replied to very enthusiastically, but offered absolutely no details. He did, however, liken filmmaking to vomiting, and told the L.A. Times that he thought it was “dumb to talk about movies before you make them. I just don’t do it. It gives you a perfect excuse to avoid making them. The more you talk about it, the longer it’s hidden.”
During a Q&A with the audience after a screening of Dick Tracy, the sequel was brought up yet again, specifically regarding when he planned to start production. Beatty offered up the following reply.
You’d have to define ‘start.’ I take so long to get around to making a movie that I don’t know when it starts. And I’m a very strong believer in the fact that when you’re really doing good work is when you don’t know you’re working and something just occurs to you. And you say ‘Oh, of course.’ My problem is I don’t know when I finish because I want to get it to what I think is right.
Considering that five years has passed since it was last brought up in public, and the most recent legal ruling prevents any new Dick Tracy projects from being made without Beatty’s involvement (even holding back a relaunch of the character in his original comic strip form) all that’s left is a property in a permanent state of pop culture limbo.