Franchise scoring big in ancillary, licensing

“The Simpsons Movie,” which opens July 27, is expected to do well at the box office. But it almost doesn’t matter.

Even if it does just decent biz, one analyst suggests, there will be a whole new round of ancillary revenues to be raked in.

“It’s becoming increasingly the case that the box office, or in this case the TV show, is just the tail that wags the dog,” the analyst says. “As long as the picture doesn’t bomb in theaters, there are multiple, and multiplying, ways in which a franchise property can propel itself to ever greater profitability.”

One of those ways is licensing. Consider Fox’s recently announced initiative with sister company Star TV in India: It’s the first Hollywood major to take a stab at developing merchandising and licensing possibilities for its top brands in that burgeoning territory. Folks at Fox estimate that India now accounts for $60 million in licensing.

That’s pretty paltry, given that India has 1 billion inhabitants and that the entire entertainment licensing biz is worth about $20 billion annually. But don’t be surprised to see other Hollywood studios make similar moves for their own franchises both in that territory and in other under-exploited ones.

Conservative estimates say the “Simpsons” property has already brought in $2 billion to the studio, when factoring in primetime, syndication and licensing. And the animated show is also an ideal property to be re-versioned or re-imagined for newfangled uses like ringtones and Web-isodes, which eventually will mean even more moolah for Fox & friends. (Despite labor union claims that Fox practices fuzzy math on its moolah from series, Fox TV chairman Gary Newman said last week that “enormous amounts of profits” had been funneled to the relevant players behind the animated hit.)

It would be hard in any case to deny the TV series has been a juggernaut in broadcast licensing fees (and ratings) around the world. I’d reckon that the series, with 400 episodes and 19 years under its belt, is already the highest-grossing property 20th Century Fox has ever produced and distributed.

Not every TV icon translates successfully to the bigscreen, however: Variety figures a dozen TV properties were turned into pics over the last decade but that they grossed alltold only a modest $1.2 billion at the domestic wickets.

Fox obviously believes “The Simpsons” will be a heavy hitter in this league.

While the show has become part of American pop culture, it’s not limited to the U.S.

The most consistent daily crowd of onlookers at Cannes this year wasn’t lined up to stare at Angelina and Brad or to give the thumbs-up to Michael Moore. No. The regular folks traipsing up and down the Croisette queued up to snap photos of the plasticine models of “The Simpsons” characters that were set up in front of the Carlton Hotel to hype the movie.

You would have thought the French were too tethered to their own animated icons (think Tintin or Asterix) to be so taken with Homer and Bart. But that wasn’t the case.

Although almost anybody with a film project these days casually refers to it as “a potential franchise,” only a very few have actually become multibillion-dollar bonanzas for their backers.

Warner Bros. has its Harry Potters, Sony its Spider-Men, MGM its Bonds,and so on. Fox (as well as George Lucas, who retained the copyright) had a bonanza with the “Star Wars” series, but there are no new films on the horizon for that franchise.

Meanwhile, “The Simpsons” keeps chugging along.

Fox and its many licensing and merchandising partners were big players at the June 19-21 Licensing Expo in New York. The aim: to harness the “Simpsons” wave and ride it even further.

Aside from the obvious toys, T-shirts and what-not unveiled at the licensing show (including a pizza cutter in which Homer’s voice utters 12 phrases when used), there’s to be a “Simpsons”-inspired theme park ride, opening at Universal’s Park and Resort in Orlando in 2008.

Bart on Broadway? Who would be surprised?

It’s become increasingly difficult to zero in on exactly how much money a given property has brought in to its owners from these proliferating platforms and partnerships, let alone calculate the add-on value in image and prestige that a franchise bestows upon a company.

Is Bart Simpson worth to Fox what Mickey Mouse is to Disney? One could argue either case persuasively.

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