Box office hit a victory for synergy

Before the weekend, “The Simpsons” was already one of the most profitable franchises in News Corp.’s arsenal, having generating an estimated $2 billion for the conglom since Homer and company first bowed their own weekly series in January 1990.

After this week’s stellar $74 million domestic opening of the long-awaited “The Simpsons Movie,” Fox is poised to add ginormously to that tally in the coming months as the movie’s socko perf gives new glow to the cartoon franchise. The success of the movie and the marketing blitz that accompanied it is poised to juice sales of “Simpsons” DVDs, licensing and merchandising programs as well as mobile content offerings. It will also likely give a boost to the ratings of the weekly TV series, which is going strong into its 19th season in the fall.

The success of “The Simpsons Movie” in the multiplexes reps a rare example of a studio being able to capitalize on the built-in synergy of launching a pic on the back of an established and, most important, active TV series.

But it was also the result of a carefully orchestrated campaign coordinated by News Corp. prexy Peter Chernin, who called top Fox and News Corp. execs together a year ago to begin plotting strategies for making “this the most important event that this company has had in a long, long time,” said Gary Newman, chairman of 20th Century Fox TV, which produces the TV skein.

After the initial brainstorming sesh, there were regular follow-up meetings that ensured no stone within News Corp. was unturned in helping to spread the word about the pic. The Fox network worked all of its natural tie-ins, from running a marathon of “Simpsons” segs to having Homer host an entire night of programming earlier this month to turning the “o” in the Fox promo bug into the pink doughnut ubiquitous in the movie’s key art.

Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chair Tom Rothman stressed that the credit goes, first and foremost, to the “great movie” made by “Simpsons” stewards James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Mike Scully and Richard Sakai, who labored for years to ensure it was worthy of the bigscreen.

“We never believed the naysayers, who said, ‘You can’t make this work, it’s taken too long.’ We didn’t countenance the naysayers — and there were plenty of them,” Rothman said.

Without a strong movie and upbeat reviews, no amount of marketing could have yielded this past weekend’s results, Newman said. But there is also something unique about “The Simpsons” and its place in pop culture that allowed it to migrate to the bigscreen in a way that was well received by fans, critics and pop culture pundits alike, Newman noted. And as execs at the Fox net have known for years, “The Simpsons” is a dream franchise that draws not only kids and families but also teens and the young-adult crowd.

“What’s remarkable about the way it performed is that this is neither a fresh series, nor is it a nostalgic look back (like) some TV-adaptation movies have been,” Newman said. “At this stage of its evolution, that we were able to generate this level of event status to the movie… it’s just a remarkable achievement and a testament to the strength of the franchise.”

A movie sequel is a murkier prospect, considering that it took years to bring this first feature film to the bigscreen.

But Fox execs will likely stay busy counting the coin brought in by DVD season box sets and other “Simpsons”-iana spurred by the renewed interest in the show’s unique brand of dysfunctional family comedy. The Fox network has deals for the series through the 2008-09 season and is about to begin negotiations with the key voice cast members for future seasons.

The biggest potential bonanza post-box office is in DVD sales. “The Simpsons” has been one of the biggest TV-to-DVD sellers since the DVD biz ignited. Season 10 is out Aug. 7, and it boasts a sneak peek at the “Simpsons Movie” DVD. Vid retailers are looking to capitalize on the heightened awareness from the movie launch campaign by giving extra prominence in stores to the season 10 box as well as earlier sets.

Fox Mobile has just this month launched its “Yellow Plan,” a subscription service offered to mobile and wireless devices including original content, ringtones, wallpaper, games and exclusive animated snippets. Studio also is being aggressive in its merchandising plans for the series on the theory that a rising tide will carry all boats, according to one Fox marketing exec.

On a more intangible level, the success of the movie will cement the toon family’s image worldwide in a way that can only enhance the property’s longevity, Newman said. The movie may not bring a raft of new viewers to the TV series, but it should remind people what it is they love about the show in the first place.

“We’re hopeful that with the movie being so well received by a young audience, it will help create a new level of intensity and passion for the series,” Newman said. That could pay dividends for other 20th Century Fox TV-produced animated fare that airs around “The Simpsons” on Fox’s Sunday sked, including “Family Guy” and “American Dad.”

Domestic results for the weekend show “The Simpsons Movie” marked the fifth-highest opening for a non-sequel movie in history after “Spider-Man,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Da Vinci Code.”

Also enjoying wide success overseas, “Simpsons” made $170 million at the worldwide box office through Sunday. That means the film, which Fox says cost less than $75 million to make, made more than twice its budget in its first three days. Studio stands to make a handy profit considering there are no pricey talent deals.

Fox insists it had no idea “Simpsons” would perform to the level it did. One reason could be that teenagers are notoriously difficult to track. By late last week, execs at the studio thought the film would come in at about $55 million.

“It’s one of the biggest surprises of my career,” Fox prexy of distribution Bruce Snyder said. “I never saw it coming. If anybody would have said $74 million, I would have said you’ve got to be kidding. But once it was there, people just flocked to see it.”

Because comedies have high multiples, Fox believes “Simpsons” will have strong legs.

Mining TV projects for the bigscreen is nothing new, but the success of the “Simpsons” pic could send studios back again to scour their available properties.

One competing studio exec said Fox had a distinct advantage in that “The Simpsons” continues to air on television and remains a well-known franchise. In most instances, the original TV show has long been off the air by the time a film arrives, meaning a studio has to relaunch and even rebrand the franchise. In 1998, Fox took its “X-Files” sci-fi series into theaters while the series was still airing in primetime, but “X-Files” was never the merchandising juggernaut that “Simpsons” continues to be.

“There is huge equity in this title,” a rival marketing honcho at a major studio said. “But Fox handled it really well. They built momentum in their marketing campaign, and they were clever. They upheld the integrity of the brand.”

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