Springfield gorges on multiplex meal

Unique project spawns box office guessing game

There have been all kinds of adaptations of TV shows to the bigscreen, but there’s never been anything like “The Simpsons Movie.”

For starters, the series has achieved a stunning level of penetration into the cultural consciousness. If someone can’t tell you who Homer Simpson is, that person’s likely been living in a cave for the past two decades. The show’s run is the longest in TV history for a sitcom or animated program and represents an enormously profitable property for the producers and Fox.

That goes a long way to explaining why, when most summer tentpoles are fairly explicit as to what’s coming months before it arrives, “The Simpsons Movie” has been singularly vague. Talk about your cautious optimism.

Among the few hints so far: There’s some kind of environmental problem in the Simpsons’ hometown of Springfield, and Bart Simpson skateboards naked.

But certainly, if Fox execs and the movie’s producers are to be believed, the pic won’t be anything like four TV episodes cobbled together. With the release date not until July 27, though, those involved aren’t saying much about what it is — they are insisting that it’s not a rehash.

“It’s not just going to be vignettes,” insists Fox Intl. co-prez Paul Hanneman.

“It’ll be an epic story with more ambitious animation but just as many sight gags and punches to the face as the TV show,” said creator Matt Groening, prior to appearing on a panel at the Museum of Radio & Television to herald the show’s 400th episode.

The promo push for the film has gotten under way, with Simpsons couches (with Homer, Marge and Lisa sitting and Bart standing on his head) beginning to appear in multiplex lobbies, soon to be followed by 7-Elevens being converted into the show’s Kwik-E-Marts. Obviously, Fox — which tends to be among the best performers in terms of getting its summer slate to succeed — isn’t going to pass up the chance to let America know about the pic’s existence, if not its plot.

And Fox has timed the release so that “Simpsons” comes into the market smoothly in the wake of truly big films like the third versions of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Spider-Man” and “Shrek,” along with the fifth version of “Harry Potter” and “Transformers.”

There is also huge potential on the foreign front, where Fox saw massive success last year from another animated film. “Ice Age: The Meltdown” took in about 70% of its worldwide box office from overseas markets, earning more than $450 million.

“The show has huge international recognition and is globally recognized, particularly in Europe, Latin America and Australia,” says Hanneman, who adds that the foreign promotional push will be intense as July 27 approaches.

Fox has been aiming at the whole world for several months, obviously figuring that the show’s basic humor — the bratty kid, the bumbling dad — is accessible enough to be understood everywhere. The official Web site for the film offers 64 different-language versions of promo — all highlighting Homer Simpson’s doughnut addiction.

If history is any indication, the movie’s chance of success at the box office itself is still in question. The sitcom-to-movie genre isn’t exactly filled with hits, with only one film — 1991’s “The Addams Family” — having surpassed the $100 million mark in domestic gross. “The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear” (from “Police Squad!”) and “The Dukes of Hazzard” are the only other sitcom-based films to top $80 million.

But only a rare film has been made while the show it’s based on is still on the air and by its same production team. And none – not “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut,” not “The X Files,” brought to bear the widespread popularity of “The Simpsons.” (Ancillary income figures to put Fox in the black no matter what.)

Still, some will ask whether the right moment for “The Simpsons Movie” has come and gone, whether anyone besides core fans will want to see something that’s readily available on TV every day in more than 70 countries.

Daniel Alter, a 24-year-old producer (“Hitman”), believes there’s no question.

“It would have been great to have it released during its heyday in the first few years of the show, but to have it done now is very cool, because it’s become a cultural staple,” he says.

“It’s a great way of invigorating the franchise, because everyone in the world associates Fox with the Simpsons in the same way that Mickey Mouse is associated with Disney. It’s comfort food for my generation.”

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