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Bart and gang rise to the occasion

Times Staff Writer

Don’t have a cow, man! “The Simpsons Movie” is bringing in plenty of “d’oh!”

Twentieth Century Fox’s big-screen adaptation of the long-running animated TV sitcom grossed an estimated $71.9 million in its first weekend in the U.S. and Canada. The surprisingly strong haul showed the versatility and durability of a pop-culture franchise that has poked fun at Middle America for two decades.

The opening blew past industry expectations of $45 million. The movie, from a creative team including writer-producers Matt Groening and James L. Brooks, also opened strong abroad, hauling in $168 million worldwide from 73 countries including the U.S.

“I had been saying this is America’s No. 1 comedy family, but forget the ‘America’ part -- this is the Earth’s No. 1 comedy family,” Chris Aronson, senior vice president for distribution at Fox, said Sunday.

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Positive reviews and the studio’s extensive marketing blitz -- including this summer’s novel cross-promotion that turned a dozen 7-Eleven stores into Kwik-E-Marts, the chain featured on the sitcom -- helped attract a wide audience.

The crowd was evenly split among males and females and fans younger and older than 25, and survey audiences rated it an “A-minus” on average.

The “Simpsons” series began airing in 1989 on News Corp.'s Fox network. With 600 licensing partnerships around the world covering T-shirts, theme park rides and more, the cartoon family is a $6-billion business, according to Fox.

Despite the show’s status as a cultural icon, some box-office analysts had been skeptical about the $75-million movie production’s commercial prospects, noting that ratings for the TV series have flagged in recent years.

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But the PG-13-rated film got a lift from quirky promotions including an animated appearance by the fictional family’s hapless dad, Homer Simpson, last week on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” and a contest among the nation’s real-life towns called Springfield to host the movie premiere. The TV show is set in a town called Springfield in an unspecified state.

“The Simpsons Movie” -- in which the dysfunctional family bands together to prevent an environmental disaster -- notched the third-highest opening ever for an animated film, and the best launch ever for a TV adaptation. Box-office records are not adjusted for inflation, however.

TV shows are often adapted for the big screen long after they originally aired, which gives movies like “The Flintstones,” “Charlie’s Angels” and the “Mission: Impossible” film series built-in nostalgic appeal.

Adaptations of TV shows that are still running have met with mixed results. In the animated genre, successful adaptations include “The Rugrats Movie,” “South Park -- Bigger, Longer and Uncut” and “The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie.”

“The Simpsons Movie” faced a unique set of challenges.

With the series still on Fox’s prime-time schedule after 400 episodes and reruns in syndication, there was no guarantee fans would shell out for movie tickets to see an hour-and-a-half story involving the same characters.

And Fox had kept the film under wraps for months, so very few early reviews had leaked out.

Aronson acknowledged that many fans of the TV show -- himself included -- had stopped watching as they got older.

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But the tongue-in-cheek marketing push piqued interest among families, he said, and the positive reviews helped dispel skepticism among moviegoers who had been on the fence about going to see the movie.

Four out of five reviews were positive, according to the websites MetaCritic.com and RottenTomatoes.com.

Many “Simpsons” fans also expressed relief that the film version didn’t stink.

“Let me just say I had my doubts,” wrote one user from Puerto Rico on the movie fan site IMDb.com. “The last couple of seasons of ‘The Simpsons’ have been lackluster at best and I genuinely thought that their chance to make a great ‘Simpsons’ film passed roughly 10 years ago. Boy was I wrong!”

Ticket sales for “The Simpsons Movie” helped lift Hollywood’s overall results.

Industrywide, grosses in the U.S. and Canada were 40% higher than in the same weekend in 2006, according to research firm Media by Numbers. Year to date, revenue is up 5.4% and attendance is up 1.7%.

Hollywood results could get another lift this weekend from a TV adaptation -- although this time it would be a lower-profile hero. Friday’s five major new releases include Walt Disney Co.'s version of “Underdog,” based on the 1960s cartoon series about a canine superhero.

josh.friedman@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Way to go, Bart

“The Simpsons Movie” blew away expectations, thanks to aggressive marketing and strong reviews.

In their second weekends, “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” and “Hairspray” held up fairly well, dropping less than 45%.

“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” is the latest strong performer in a remarkably consistent franchise. Warner Bros. predicts that its Potter series, in its fifth movie, will soon surpass the 22 James Bond films on a global box-office basis.

Among the other openers, the romantic comedy “No Reservations” came in at the upper end of expectations. The Lindsay Lohan thriller “I Know Who Killed Me” booked $3.4 million, faring about as expected, while the comedy “Who’s Your Caddy?” also met projections.

Preliminary results (in millions) in the U.S. and Canada, based on studio projections:

*--* MOVIE 3-DAY TOTAL (STUDIO) GROSS (MILLS.) (MILLS.) WEEKS

1 The Simpsons Movie (20th Century Fox) $71.9 $71.9 1

2 I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry 19.1 71.6 2 (Universal)

3 Harry Potter and the Order of the 17.1 241.8 3 Phoenix (Warner Bros.)

4 Hairspray (New Line) 15.6 59.3 2

5 No Reservations (Warner Bros.) 11.8 11.8 1

6 Transformers (Paramount) 11.5 284.6 4

7 Ratatouille (Disney) 7.2 179.7 5

8 Live Free or Die Hard (20th Century Fox) 5.4 125.1 5

9 I Know Who Killed Me (Sony) 3.4 3.4 1

10 Who’s Your Caddy? (Weinstein/MGM) 2.9 2.9 1

*--*

Industry totals

*--* 3-day gross Change Year-to-date gross Change (in millions) from 2006 (in billions) from 2006 $183.0 +40.1% $5.81 +5.4%

*--*

Note: A movie may be shown on more than one screen at each venue.

Source: Media by Numbers


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