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Tribune, Warren Beatty battle over rights to Dick Tracy

By Carol Eisenberg

March 23, 2009 at 7:26am

The financial fate of the sprawling Tribune media empire may hinge on the company’s rights to a 78-year-old comic book character.

Or so attorneys for the Tribune Co. suggested Thursday when they asked a Delaware bankruptcy judge to declare the company - and not actor Warren Beatty - owner of the rights to comic strip detective Dick Tracy.

Tribune Media Services has been battling Beatty for years over the rights to the cartoon icon, which Beatty played in a 1990 hit movie of the same name.

Warren Beatty
Warren Beatty

The 71-year-old actor brought suit against the Tribune Company last November in response to its assertion that he had reneged on an agreement to follow up the 1990 movie Dick Tracy with a television special within a specified time frame, and that the rights had reverted back to Tribune. The strip, which debuted Oct. 4, 1931, was originally distributed by the Chicago Tribune Syndicate.

Beatty had licensed the rights for the movie in which he and Madonna starred, and which earned more than $160 million at the box office.

In his lawsuit, Beauty contends that he complied with the requirement that he begin new Dick Tracy programming within two years of a Nov. 17, 2006 letter from Tribune Media Services, a subsidiary of the company. He insists he began work on a TV special on Nov. 8 2008, and gave Tribune written notice of that.

But in a filing Thursday related to its Chapter 11 bankruptcy, Tribune said it had no proof that the TV special had in fact been in process.

It noted that Beatty’s suit came after Tribune Media Services returned a $15,000 check from the actor in the absence of “tangible and legitimate proof” that Beatty had “commenced principal photography on a bona fide project” that would enable him to hold onto the rights.

Attorneys for the company argued that the rights to the comic strip represent tens of millions of dollars in potential income to its creditors.

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