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Putting the $ in $pringfield: ‘Simpsons’ Merch a Cash Cow for 20th TV

Animated hit has minted over $4.6 billion from consumer products and other merchandise

It was only two years ago that 20th Century Fox started taking consumer products a little more seriously, tapping Jeffrey Godsick to expand the way the company exploits its films and TV shows through theme park rides, live events, T-shirts, toys and other merchandise.

That’s not to say the consumer products arm, overseen by 20th Century Fox TV chairmen and CEOs Gary Newman and Dana Walden, had done so badly in focusing largely on “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and other TV properties.

The hit animated show has easily been 20th’s biggest moneymaker, with the yellow characters minting a lot of green — more than $4.6 billion from the sale of consumer products alone during the series’ 25-year run. As Bart Simpson would say: Holy cash cow, man!

And 20th still feels there’s more coin to collect. This year, 20th has aggressively gone after a slew of new deals to make sure Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie remain popular with existing and new fans worldwide.

Universal Studios Orlando added a Springfield-themed area this summer around its existing “Simpsons” ride, with stores and eateries, while 20th also brokered a deal with Lego for “Simpsons” playsets, reunited Bart with Nestle’s Butterfinger in a new marketing campaign and brokered the show’s first shoe deal, with Converse, involving a series of Chuck Taylor All-Stars.

That’s after entering the world of high fashion for the first time last year, through a deal with designer Jeremy Scott and a collection at New York Fashion Week and the Joyrich street brand in Japan.

Not all deals have been successes. The U.S. Postal Service is said to have sold only 318 million of the 1 billion commemorative 20th anniversary “Simpsons” stamps it printed in 2009, costing the org $1.2 million in losses. And even before Lego comes out with its first “Simpsons” products, the toymaker is getting flak from some consumers worried that the show isn’t appropriate for young children.

The Fox division hopes to fan interest in “Simpsons” merchandise as ratings for the show decline, and it sees opportunities like a themed area in theme parks as one way to do that.

“Fans will literally be able to live and breathe Springfield as they visit the statue of Jebediah, enjoy a Krusty Burger, and have a seat at Moe’s Tavern,” Godsick says of Orlando.

And hopefully buy pints of Duff Beer on tap or sold in bottles (brewed exclusively for Universal), Buzz Cola or a Sideshow Bob Foot Long (Fox receives a percentage of the sales).

The goal is to repeat years like 2008, when consumers worldwide spent more than $750 million on “Simpsons”-related merchandise, with half coming from the U.S., according to 20th. Last year, 20th’s consumer products division generated nearly $2.4 billion, primarily from “The Simpsons,” according to the Intl. Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Assn.

But “The Simpsons” isn’t the only property Godsick is focused on growing.

Newman and Walden also have tasked him with turning “Avatar,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Ice Age,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” “Aliens,” “Modern Family,” “Family Guy” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” into bigger businesses for the company across all consumer products categories, including traditional merchandise, interactive gaming, publishing and TV promos.

Godsick has done just that through touring shows like “Ice Age Live! A Mammoth Adventure” and “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs — The 4-D Experience” and innovative marketing deals like packaging the fourth season of “Modern Family” with Phil Dunphy pillowcases.

But “The Simpsons” is always going to be the biggest player in 20th’s consumer products portfolio. Sometimes that requires looking back at the past, as was done with the Butterfinger “Nobody Better Lay a Finger” campaign.

Often, 20th has waited until after the opening of a film to exploit its merchandising opportunities, as happened with the first “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” when the studio had little to sell around the successful film.

But unique deals, like a pairing of “The Simpsons Movie” and 7-Eleven — in which the retail chain turned 11 of its stores into Kwik-E-Marts (at a cost of $10 million) — gave 20th ideas of how to exploit its characters. The company says more than 500 brands have licensed the characters over the years.

And some promos have wound up being quirky standouts: When GPS manufacturer TomTom offered a Homer Simpson voice for its devices in 2009, the option was downloaded 128,500 times in the U.S., making it the most downloaded GPS voice in the world, according to the company. The studio’s 2011 reboot of “Planet of the Apes” also helped turn an aging brand into a source of new licensing opportunities.

“A property needs something to thrust itself back into pop culture,” Godsick said when named consumer products prexy. “Now that the property has an awareness among a really wide array of people (thanks to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), it has broad exposure on a worldwide basis.”

Twentieth essentially followed the lead of Disney and Paramount in reorganizing its consumer products divisions with new chiefs, recognizing the units as increasingly important sources of revenue, especially as studios produce more merchandise-friendly films and TV shows with broad appeal.

“We are in the midst of an expansion in the points of consumer consumption, which amplifies the demand for creativity,” Godsick said. “I do think that there’s more of an opportunity for products to be developed and released in support of the launch of a television show or the launch of a movie.”

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