When patrons showed up in movie theaters last weekend and asked where they could buy the "Dick Tracy" T-shirts that would serve as their admission tickets to a special pre-opening midnight screening of the movie June 14, some theater operators didn't have a shirt to their name.
"Disney started running ads announcing the T-shirt promotion on Friday, but some theaters didn't even get their shirts until Tuesday," said an executive of a national theater chain. "They jumped the gun on this one, there's no question."
Disney executives would not comment on details of the T-shirt promotion, but sources in the exhibition industry say that because "Dick Tracy" was shown to film buyers later than usual, the studio could not close its bidding until May 23, two days before the T-shirt promotion began. Newspaper and magazine ads announced that the "limited edition" T-shirts "go on sale May 25 at participating theaters" but many of the estimated half-million shirts were still en route on Monday.
A Disney official said that about 1,500 theaters are participating in the T-shirt/midnight screening promotion, but he said the studio wasn't really expecting the campaign to kick in until this weekend. One exhibitor whose T-shirts did arrive on time said one of his chain's multiplexes sold only 9 shirts over Memorial Day Weekend. "Disney has stepped in a black hole on this one," he said.
Other exhibitors reported different results: Milt Moritz, vice president for advertising and public relations at Pacific Theaters, which owns 300 screens in California and will be showing "Dick Tracy" on 13 of those, reported that sales of T-shirts had been brisk since they began last Friday. "In some theaters we've sold as much as 30% already," Moritz said. "I'd be surprised if we don't sell it (the midnight screening) out."
Word of the T-shirt snafu may have had executives smiling at other studios, and combined with Disney's earlier decision to move the opening of "Dick Tracy" back a week from June 8 to June 15, it fueled hopes that the Warren Beatty-directed comic strip film won't be the 800-pound box office gorilla that many people expect it to be. But the exhibitors who won the bidding war for the film have seen the movie and are betting big money that it's going to be a hit.
"Exhibitors are going for it hook, line and sinker," said John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations, a company that provides trade information to theater owners. "We've all seen the picture and liked it, but we don't know yet if the public will go for it."
"Dick Tracy," which co-stars Beatty, Madonna and Al Pacino, was not shown to exhibitors until the middle of May and exhibition sources say even Disney executives were surprised at the bids made on the movie. One chain reportedly committed to showing "Dick Tracy" for 20 weeks--which would extend it into November.
Still, some industry observers are skeptical, pointing to Disney's midnight opening of "Dick Tracy" as a desperate act to give the movie the kind of cachet that sent "Batman" on to box office glory last summer. The Batman logo and T-shirt went on to become the Kitsch of the Year in 1989; the biggest question hanging over "Dick Tracy" is whether a generation of kids will take to the comic book detective the way they took the more enduring figure of Batman.
The Disney official, who asked not to be identified, said the studio is happy with the T-shirt promotion and denied that a new ad campaign--beginning Friday, theater chain listings will be topped by a one-inch ad promoting the T-shirt sales--is a result of weak Memorial Day sales.
According to the bid letter that went out to exhibitors, the studio asked that every theater whose normal admission price is $5 or more to charge at least $12 for the midnight screening shirt. The theaters will reimburse Disney $6 for each shirt sold, plus 50% of the difference between $6 and the sales price of the shirt--which would still mean that the theaters would keep a larger percentage of the box office gross for this particular screening than is customary.
The Disney spokesman said the promotion was conceived a month ago as "a unique way of launching the picture. It's a response to our feeling about the movie . . . (but) it's just one small element of the whole marketing plan."