Tracymania

It's that guy in the yellow overcoat again. Have the feeling you've seen him somewhere before? Like, maybe, everywhere you turn? And now here he is on the cover of NEWSWEEK. Small world, isn't it? And now here you are, actually reading another story about William Bendix in "Brick Lacy."

(Hold it. Our fact checker informs us an error has been made. It's actually Warren Beatty in "Dick Tracy.")

But you knew that already. That is, unless you've been living in an igloo somewhere near the North Pole, with no access to a satellite dish, a newspaper or a shop that sells $300 Dick Tracy silk pajamas. According to a tracking survey done last week for the movie industry, an astonishing 100 percent of the moviegoing public was aware of the existence of this movie before it opened. You knew because Disney spent at least $10 million promoting the $30 million movie before its opening last week. You knew because Warren Beatty, who never gives interviews, has been giving everybody interviews (usually the same interview) and the media want a piece of the pie. Perhaps you saw Beatty as far back as Oscar night, giving a bizarre non interview to an even more bizarre Barbara Walters, who seemed to only want to talk about what a lousy interview it was. Perhaps you saw him on "20/20" or the David Letterman show or on the cover of Rolling Stone or in your local newspaper.

Or perhaps you knew about the movie because your kid is wearing a Dick Tracy T shirt or a "two-way" wristwatch (it's unlikely your neighbor has bought the Tracy shower curtain yet, but who knows?). Or perhaps you knew because you've had a burger at McDonald's and played the Dick Tracy Crimestopper Game hoping for part of the $40 million in cash and prizes. Or maybe it's because you're a Madonna fan, and you know she's playing Breathless Mahoney in the movie, and her new album is called "I'm Breathless," and her current concert tour happens to feature a number in which she dances with a chorus line of guys in yellow coats and fedoras.

Call it "synergy" or call it hype or call it overkill, this is what it takes to open a big budget Hollywood movie in the cutthroat summer of 1990, where the stakes are not just enormous sums of money--Schwarzenegger's "Total Recall" is said to have cost as much as $60 million--but that most precious Hollywood currency, ego.

It didn't used to be this way. There once was a time when not every summer movie had to be an Event, when movies opened in a couple of hundred theaters instead of a couple of thousand, when the youth market was not the only market studios served during warm weather and when there were actually films released in which the main role was played by a woman.

Blame it on the shark.

It was the success of "Jaws" in 1975 that unleashed summer-movie madness upon the land. The first movie to earn more than $100 million in rentals, Spielberg's thriller sent Hollywood into blockbuster overdrive, and nothing's been quite the same since. From "Star Wars" to "Batman," summertime has become a club reserved for the high rollers. And when the big boys ante up, they'll do everything possible to see that their bets are covered.

Beatty, who's been a movie star ever since "Splendor in the Grass" almost 30 years ago and has seen the business evolve at firsthand, compares the marketing of a summer movie to a political campaign. And he should know, having been intimately involved in the presidential campaigns of George McGovern and Gary Hart. The tracking surveys, which predict how a movie will fare at the box office, are just like political polls. The analogy holds down to the dirty rumors spread by one studio against another: the phone calls to let the media know that this or that movie is "in trouble"; that it really cost $70 million, not $25 million as reported; that a star has turned into a monster on the set. And opening day has become election day, because if a summer movie doesn't rack up a killer first weekend it will be instantly perceived as a loser.

"Going into 2,000 or 2,500 theaters, you might as well be in politics," Beatty complains. "What do the majority of the people think on Nov. 4? Lenin said the people vote with their feet. Well, that's what's happening. They either go, or they don't go. It's all politics. It's all about demographics." Disney studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg agrees it's gotten very rough and tumble. "There's this insane competition--this insane level of gossip and paranoia."

If Beatty and Katzenberg had their way, the story you are reading would not even mention merchandising or business or Hollywood. It would be about art and the glory of "Dick Tracy." And it would have come out last week, before the movie opened, all part of a masterfully orchestrated multimedia campaign that culminated in a gala Disney World premiere in Florida. "Dick Tracy" is an artful movie (review on page 48) made with care and talent and audacity, and one can understand why any film make? would prefer to have the work, and not the workings, discussed. But moviegoers now follow grosses as well as gossip: it's part of the event. How well "Another 48 MRS." did its opening weekend may be the only interesting thing about it (you won't find people huddled in coffeehouses discussing its themes). Most summer movies are designed, like roller-coaster rides, to discourage thought. The marketing is the message, which it never was back in 1967, when Beatty's "Bonnie and Clyde" set off impassioned debates about violence and art.

"I find the media's obsession with demographics upsetting," says Beatty. "I find all this anticultural." He is upset when a reporter asks if he, at 53, is a marketing liability with younger audiences. "Is this a cultural story or a business story?" asks Beatty. But when culture is business, how can the two be separated?

Disney's promotional juggernaut is practically a work of art itself--though the big blitz has turned some people off. The studio's first challenge was to remold Chester Gould's square jawed, straight-shooting hero into a viable icon for the '90s. Gould's Depression-era detective, born in the Detroit funnies in 1931, reached the peak of his popularity in the '50s. But unlike Superman and Batman, his powers waned with successive generations: now only about 250 newspapers syndicate the strip, down from a high of 680. (Dick Locher has drawn the comic since 1983.) Since Tracy was unknown to the prime moviegoing audience, the task was to resurrect him as an entirely new creation, reborn with the profile of Warren Beatty.

Childhood impressions Beatty has had Tracy at the back of his mind at least since 1975. At that time the rights were owned by producer Michael Laughlin, who gave up his option on the strip when no studio would commit to a movie. Director Floyd Mutrux and producer Art Linson optioned the property in '77, and Paramount, where Disney chairman Michael Eisner and Katzenberg were then working, expressed interest in making it. Over the years a number of big-name directors were attached to the project: Martin Scorsese, John Landis, Richard Benjamin. Clint Eastwood was eager to play Tracy, though Beatty had the right of first refusal to play the role. He almost starred with Walter ("48 HRS.") Hill directing, but Hill wanted to go a realistic, gritty route, while Beatty envisioned a stylized, comic-strip movie that would re-create his childhood first impressions of the strip. Beatty finally bought the rights himself in 1985 and based the movie on a script by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr. that Linson and Mutrux had commissioned. (Beatty and Bo Goldman significantly rewrote the dialogue but lost a Writers Guild arbitration and don't receive screen credit.) Finally deciding to direct it himself, Beatty got the backing from Disney in '88, on condition that he keep within a $25 million budget.

At this stage in his career Beatty's legend is as secure as his drawing power is arguable. As an actor/producer and sometime director, his track record is extraordinary: "Bonnie and Clyde," "Shampoo," "Heaven Can Wait" (his last big hit, in 1978) and "Reds." But his last movie was "Ishtar," the most picked-upon flop of 1987. Keeping such a low profile in the last decade, he's about as familiar to the New Kids on the Block generation as Clyde Beatty. Cynics wagged that his courtship of Madonna was a calculated bid to capture a new audience-a demographic romance. Something about Beatty--his famous success with women, his politics, his previous refusal to cozy up to the press--brings out the beast in folks. Barely disguised personal attacks have already surfaced in some of the reviews of "Dick Tracy" (People magazine says he looks "jowly and wan," when he looks leaner than he has in years). "Warren brings this out in people," says Dustin Hoffman, his "Ishtar" costar who turns in a choice cameo in "Tracy." "I can't think of anybody in the industry who is hit this way. I don't want to compare Warren to Oscar Wilde, but they sure ruined Oscar. The same mentality is being applied to Warren. For him, it's his womanizing. It's irrelevant. Warren's work will stand a long time after the crap that's being smeared about him." Disney isn't acting as if he's a liability--they've plastered his mug around the world.

Luring the tots Still, he's not a hook for tots. To lure that market, Disney shrewdly added a new Roger Rabbit cartoon to the "Dick Tracy" bill and made two special kiddie commercials centered on Kid--the orphan boy who tags along on Tracy's adventures.

If Tracy and Beatty were legends that needed dusting off, Madonna presented the opposite problem: her notoriety was not necessarily perceived as an asset, and her recent track record in movies ("Shanghai Surprise," "Who's That Girl?") was deadly. In most of the TV ads for the movie, her presence is downplayed: only four of Disney's 28 spots feature her prominently, and those are shown at times when women over 25 won't be watching.

It was Madonna's idea to play the part of Breathless Mahoney. "I called up Warren and told him I really wanted it," she said. "I saw the A list and I was on the Z list. I felt like a jerk. " The decision to plug the movie in her "Blond Ambition" tour was her idea, too. "Disney didn't come to me and ask me to help market the movie. Let's just say I'm killing 12 birds with one stone. It's a two-way street. I'm not going to overlook the fact that it's a great opportunity for me, too. Most people don't associate me with movies. But I know I have a much bigger following than Warren does and a lot of my audience isn't even aware of who he is." About their relationship, Beatty will, of course, say nothing. Madonna offers just one tease: "Dick Tracy is my life. You can take that any way you want to take it."

There's a lot riding on the padded yellow shoulders of a hero dreamed up almost 60 years ago. The corporate ego of Disney, not to mention a bundle of its money. The movie career of Madonna, which is her ultimate goal. The bankability of Beatty, whose long-cherished plan to make a movie about Howard Hughes would be mightily helped by a hit. And let us not forget the manufacturer of those Tracy silk pajamas. His palms are getting sweaty, too, as he waits to see which way the dice roll. But the producer/director/star maintains to the end that none of this really matters. "As you get older, you make movies for yourself and hope someone else will want to see them. I love this movie. I really do. But when I direct a movie I have no idea at the end of the road if anybody else is going to like it." Voters, on your feet. In this Hollywood summer, every day is election day.

Cost $30 million to make--and at least $10 million more so far to promote.

Star salaries Beatty reportedly gets $9 million up front, against 10 percent of the profits. Madonna worked for scale ($1,440 a week).

Marketing gimmicks A McDonald's tie-in; a blitz of kitsch, some of it pricey.

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