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Ullman Has a Cow Over 'Simpsons' : Lawsuit Alleges She Was Cut Out of Millions in Merchandising Profits

April 19, 1991|DENNIS McDOUGAL and DANIEL CERONE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Actress Tracey Ullman, whose one-woman Broadway show "The Big Love" closed a week ago in New York after only 41 performances, opened a new drama this week in Los Angeles Superior Court: a four-count breach-of-contract lawsuit alleging that 20th Century Fox Film Corp. cut her out of millions in merchandising royalties and other profits from Fox Broadcasting's hit series "The Simpsons."

In a 14-page suit charging Fox with failure to even give the actress an accounting of the weekly animated series' profits, Ullman maintained that she and her loan-out corporation, the Mabellino Corp., signed a 1987 agreement with Gracie Films, which produced four seasons of her "The Tracey Ullman Show" for Fox Broadcasting.

That contract provided that she would get 7.5% of the adjusted gross receipts from her series, including residuals and spinoff payments, according to the suit.

Retail sales of "The Simpsons" merchandise and products in 1990 was estimated at $750 million, according to the Licensing Letter, a trade newsletter in Brooklyn. "Simpsons" products placed third that year to "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" products, which earned an estimated $850 million to $900 million in sales, and New Kids on the Block, with an estimated $800 million.

Among the spinoff provisions included in the 18-page agreement Ullman made with Gracie Films--the TV production company controlled by producer James L. Brooks--was a contract rider that grants Ullman 5% to 10% of the net receipts of the merchandising and other profits from products or programs based on spinoff characters, including animated characters, even if those characters were originated by others.

At the time that she signed the original agreement with Gracie Films on July 1, 1986, Ullman's show did not even have a name.

But when it was broadcast by 134 Fox affiliate stations as "The Tracey Ullman Show" the following year, it not only consisted of the British comedian-actress's own singing, announcing and ensemble comedy skits but also marked the TV debut of artist Matt Groening's blue-collar animated family, the Simpsons.

According to the suit, the growing popularity of the minute-long vignettes between Ullman skits, featuring Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie Simpson, propelled "The Simpsons" into a weekly series. In less than a season, "The Simpsons" became Fox Broadcasting's single most successful series and created a hugely lucrative secondary licensing industry for Fox. The under-achieving Bart became an unexpected success in the clothing, gift and novelty industry, as products bearing his image--including T-shirts, sweatshirts, refrigerator magnets, key rings, air fresheners, buttons and posters--flooded the market.

Before "The Simpsons" debuted last year as a prime-time series, the oddball cast of characters was familiar to only 14% of Americans, according to a study by Marketing Evaluations Inc. By November of last year, that familiarity quotient had jumped to 85%.

"The Simpsons" has reportedly been picked up by Fox for 24 episodes next season with an option for two more episodes.

A licensing industry survey found that licensors receive an average royalty of 6.79% on sales of their products. Using the Licensing Letter's estimate of $750 million, Fox's earnings from the sale of Simpsons products in 1990 are estimated to be about $50.9 million.

Last year Fox's marketing department was receiving as many as 100 requests a day from potential product licensees, but eventually decided to limit the licensing of products to create a demand. In some respects, that strategy backfired when bootleg Bart T-shirts began cropping up around the country. One source estimated that there are currently about 75 "Simpsons" licensees.

Dennis Petroskey, corporate communications vice president of Fox Broadcasting Corp., told The Times on Thursday that corporate officials had not even been served with the lawsuit, but even after they received it, they would not discuss it.

"It's company policy not to comment on matters involving litigation," Petroskey said.

Gracie Films, which struck the original deal to co-produce and air "The Tracey Ullman Show" with 20th Century Fox, is not named as either a plaintiff nor a defendant in the lawsuit. Neither Brooks nor his representatives, who are currently involved in the development of a new comedy series for ABC-TV, could be reached for comment Thursday.

Ullman, who is still in New York following her short-lived stage run as stage mother Florence Aadland in "The Big Love," also could not be reached for comment.

Industry sources speculated, however, that Ullman did not name Gracie in the legal action and instructed her attorneys to maintain a low profile because she did not want to hurt her professional relationship with Brooks.

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