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Yellow Fever

10 Sep, 2010 By: John Latchem

There’s just no stopping “The Simpsons.”

Having been on the air since 1989, “The Simpsons” is already the longest-running prime-time entertainment program in history. In honor of that legacy, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has made “The Simpsons” one of its tentpole TV DVD releases each year.

“Our seasonal launches of ‘The Simpsons’ on DVD have been truly a collaborative partnership with a high degree of creativity involved with each release,” said Mary Daily, EVP of marketing, North America, for 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. “We pride ourselves on delivering one of the most elaborate TV on DVD releases of the year, consistently overflowing with unique features geared to the hardcore fan. We now offer ‘The Simpsons’ on high-definition Blu-ray, which has been embraced with great success.”

“Simpsons” DVDs generally come loaded with bonus content, from group commentaries on every episode, to behind-the-scenes featurettes and special promo spots.

“We feel very strongly that we do these DVDs as an homage to the show and the great work done by all the people involved,” said Denise Sirkot, president, worldwide brands, for Gracie Films, which produces “The Simpsons” for Fox. “I’m thrilled and excited to be able to commemorate the journeys of this show. It has become such a part of the pop culture. I think it can last forever.”

At least one “Simpsons” DVD set has been released each year since 2001, typically coming in the summer. From 2004-06 an additional release came in December. In early 2010, with 12 seasons and The Simpsons Movie already released, Fox jumped ahead and released season 20 on DVD and Blu-ray (about half the episodes were produced in widescreen for HD).

Sirkot said the 20th season wasn’t meant to fit into the regular release pattern of “Simpsons” seasons and was intended to commemorate the show’s 20th anniversary, which is why it came with a different packaging style and no extras.

“That was done on purpose,” Sirkot said. “We just wanted the episodes to stand alone. Some fans were frustrated with it, but the intention was to make it look and feel different. When the time comes, we will be going back and doing season 20 like we do the other seasons.”

With “The Simpsons” about to enter its 22nd season (new episodes return Sept. 26), Sirkot said the creative team has resisted the urge to push out DVD sets of the earlier seasons in order to catch up.

“There definitely has been a voice from the fan community that wants these out quickly,” Sirkot said. “But to be as thorough as we want to be takes a lot of effort. We have a certain standard to meet for this show. It would be a disappointment if we didn’t do it right.”

Sirkot said there were no plans to skip ahead again to release the recently concluded 21st season, which was also the first season produced entirely in widescreen high-definition.
However, the recently released 13th season (2001-02) set also made it to Blu-ray. Sirkot said upgrading the earlier episodes was a necessary challenge.

“There’s a point in time the technology has to be looked at, and we have to embrace the new,” Sirkot said. “We spent a lot of time and attention to upgrade the episodes to the look and feel of Blu-ray. The show has changed dramatically over the years, but all the episodes have a beauty to them. They aren’t perfect, but we tried to stay true to the watchability of each episode.”

Sirkot was mute on whether the earlier seasons already on DVD would be re-released on Blu-ray.

“We haven’t really discussed it,” Sirkot said. “I assume at some point we will. Right now we’re moving ahead with season 14.”

As the show has evolved, so has its DVD packaging. The first five seasons came as standard plastic trays in a cardboard sleeve with a booklet, with cover art depicting the family in a TV.

For the season-six DVD in 2005, the style changed to highlight a specific character on the cover, with the set coming in a plastic replica of Homer’s head.

“We had done an ad for the season premiere using the top of Homer’s head, and we thought it would make for a unique DVD package,” Sirkot said. “Fox was supportive, and we worked hard to create it. But it was not necessarily well received.”

When fans complained the Homer head didn’t match the other seasons on their shelves, Fox sent fans who requested it a replacement box that was more shelf-friendly. Season six has since been reissued in a style more similar to the first five seasons. For seasons seven through 10, fans could choose from two versions: traditional like the earlier seasons, or an eccentric molded replica of a Simpsons family member’s head — Marge, Maggie, Lisa and Bart.

The season 11 DVDs in 2008 saw another change, with the molded head of the collector’s edition gummed to the front of the regular box design. Also gone were the plastic trays, swapped for a more environmentally friendly cardboard sleeves depicting the multitude of Simpsons characters interacting at an event. The DVD of the 11th season featured a Krusty the Clown cover and carnival theme to tie into the opening of The Simpsons Ride at Universal Studios (the set even included a line pass for the ride). Season 12 offered Comic Book Guy with a Comic-Con mural, and the recently released 13th season DVD set features an arcade theme with a Ralph Wiggum cover.

While fans loved the new artwork, they weren’t too thrilled about how the discs were stored.

“The response was that it was a challenge to take the disc out of the packaging, and people were worried about scratching them,” Sirkot said. “We wanted to establish a story with the artwork, like a standalone episode. We love them. I don’t know if we’re ready to abandon that. We did create a sleeve that allows easier access.”

Perhaps the biggest component of making the DVDs such fan favorites are their menus, which are usually fully animated and tell a story unto themselves. Sirkot said the menus are scripted, storyboarded and animated in Korea.

“It’s complex, just like doing an episode,” Sirkot said. “It takes about nine months. We have a very dedicated team.”

While the cover character is kept confidential until the release plans are announced, Sirkot did say animation company Film Roman had something special planned.

"Film Roman is saying they are doing something unique and exciting and different, which is great,” Sirkot said. “We always aspire to make the next DVD the best season ever.”

And what about the original “Simpsons” shorts that aired from 1987-89 on “The Tracey Ullman Show”? Other than the few that have made it onto various DVDs, however, Sirkot said there aren’t yet plans to release the bulk of them.

“I love those shorts. I’ve spoken with [executive producers Matt Groening and James L. Brooks] about what to do with them,” Sirkot said. “They’re really fantastic, but we don’t know if they are fantastic on their own as a creative expression. I know at some point we’ll find a home for them. When the time is right to bring them out we’ll find a way.”

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