An Inside Look at the Finances of ‘The Simpsons’
“The Simpsons” is the most iconic animated series ever made. It’s certainly the longest running — the series will be entering its 31st season in late 2019.
It might just be the most lucrative show in history, too. “The Simpsons” is its own multi-media empire, with 30 years of toys, video games, apparel, DVDs, costumes and innumerous memorabilia. In this article, we’re taking an in-depth look at everything finance behind “The Simpsons,” including cast salaries, advertising rates, budgets and lawsuits.
Cost Per Episode
Each episode of “The Simpsons” had cost Fox at least $5 million in 2011. At 22 episodes per season, that’s $110 million per year. And that’s the low estimate. Five million dollars for a 23-minute animated television show is enormously expensive. For perspective, 2011 was the year that “Game of Thrones” released, and the HBO hit cost between $5 and $10 million per one-hour episode.
Since then, costs have decreased — because Fox was done paying the show’s stars the big bucks (more on that in a bit).
“Son, being popular is the most important thing in the whole world,” Homer once told Bart. And that’s true for advertisers. While “The Simpsons” isn’t making as much as it used to — even in 2008, it was raking in $314 million a year in advertising — ad sales are still pretty good.
According to Ad Age, the cost to air a 30-second commercial on “The Simpsons” was $162,725 in 2018. To put that in perspective, a 30-second commercial for “This Is Us,” the top-rated non-sports show on primetime television, costs $433,866. Using Ad Age’s figures, “The Simpsons’” ad spot costs are on par with “Chicago Med” and “Modern Family.”
A History of Pay
When “The Simpsons” premiered, the lead voice actors were paid $5,000 to $30,000 per episode. These deals lasted for 10 years, until the actors threatened to go on strike if they didn’t receive a pay raise or a cut of the merchandising. Fox then threated to fire them and hire new voice actors, but probably realized that was a bad idea.
In 1998, Fox agreed to pay the actors $50,000 per episode along with a guaranteed $10,000 pay raise each year for three years, according to Hollywood Reporter. In 2001 the cast received an even bigger pay raise of $125,000 per episode. In 2004, the cast demanded a raise again, receiving $250,000 to $360,000 an episode.
Then in 2008, the actors demanded another pay raise, which halted production. They received a per-episode fee of $400,000.
And then…their pay decreased.
In 2011, Fox said that “The Simpsons” was too expensive to keep running. In a statement, the studio said that it “cannot produce future seasons under its current financial model” and called on the voice actors to “reach an agreement” in pay. According to the Daily Beast, the actors said they would take a 30 percent pay cut in exchange for a sliver of the back-end profits made off of DVD sales, video games and other merchandising. Execs told them to take a 45 percent pay cut or “The Simpsons” would get the ax like Scratchy.
And they did. Although it wasn’t quite the $180,000 pay cut that executives wanted. Instead, cast members accepted a new per-episode-pay of $300,000, dropping them down to their 2004 pay levels.
No Raises for 8 Years
In 2015, Harry Shearer — the voice behind Montgomery Burns, Ned Flanders, Seymour Skinner and other Springfield denizens — threatened to quit the show if the studio wouldn’t up his pay. Executive producer Al Jean said Shearer would be recast if he chose to quit. Shearer relented and returned to the show, reportedly for the same $300,000 per-episode pay. Ever since, it appears that the entire main cast has been receiving the same salary.
But some critics say the show’s quality has been declining for quite a while. Perhaps this Homer quote is relevant: “If you don’t like your job, don’t strike. You just go in every day and do it really half-assed.”
Tapping Out the Cash
Want to have Springfield in your pocket? You can, with the “The Simpsons: Tapped Out,” a free-to-play (and pay-to-have-fun) mobile game from EA. The game generated over $130 million in revenue from August 2012 when it released until Q3 of 2014. Those are the last numbers EA released, but it’s been five years, so it’s safe to say that the game has made boatloads more.
Big Bucks from ‘The Simpsons Movie’
After over twenty years of television time, Fox finally dished out the cash for a feature-length film. “The Simpsons Movie” released in 2007 and made $527 million worldwide on a $75 million budget. Woohoo!
FX Pays a Monty Burns-Sized Lump for ‘Simpsons’ Episodes
In 2013, FX Network paid a record-breaking sum of $750 million, the largest off-network sale ever made, for access to “The Simpsons” episode archive for 10 years. But then Disney purchased FX and Fox, and acquired “The Simpsons” catalog. Variety reports that “The Simpsons” will stream exclusively on Disney+ in the future.
The Tracy Ullman Lawsuit
Tracy Ullman was the first big lawsuit that had a chance at reaching into Fox’s deep pockets. “The Simpsons” first aired on “The Tracey Ullman Show” for a total of 48 shorts, each of which was between one and two minutes long. Ullman argued that a stipulation in her show’s contract entitled her to receive 5 to 10 percent of net receipts, including licensing, from any characters that appeared on her show, even if they were created by someone else.
The lawsuit would have netted her over $2.25 million in 1991 when she began the lawsuit, and would have made her filthy rich as the show grew in popularity. However, a judge decided the suit was decidedly not cromulent, and dismissed the case in 1992.
What Are You, a Wiseguy?
In 2014, actor Frank Sivero sued “The Simpsons” for $250 million, alleging that the show based the character, Louie, on his likeness. Louie is one of the minor gangsters from the Springfield Mafia — and he certainly did look like Sivero, who appeared as a minor character in films like “Goodfellas” and “The Godfather Part II.” But $250 million? Fuggedaboutit! A judge tossed out the claim in 2015. Sivero attempted to renew the case again in 2018, but was rejected by an appeals court.
Perhaps his lawyers should have used the Lionel Hutz plan of attack: “Surprise witnesses, each more surprising than the last! I tell you, the judge won't know what hit him!”
In August 2019, longtime “Simpsons” music composer Alf Clausen sued Fox, alleging that he was fired due to his age. The 78-year-old composer had worked on “The Simpsons” for 27 years before being fired in 2017 and replaced by Bleeding Fingers Music, a music company co-founded by Hans Zimmer.
According to Variety, the suit alleges that “Clausen’s replacement “was substantially younger in age, who was not only paid less, but was not disabled.” Clausen’s disability isn’t specified.
Fox Threatened to Sue itself Over ‘The Simpsons’
In 2003, Fox News became so angered over an episode of “The Simpsons” that it threatened to sue the show…and therefore, itself. The episode in question, Mr. Spritz Goes to Washington, has a bit where the family is watching Fox News on television. A news ticker crawl showed headlines like “Do Democrats cause cancer? Find out at foxnews.com,” “Oil slicks found to keep seals young, supple,” and “JFK posthumously joins Republican Party.”
The joke must have struck a chord with the conservative-leaning news channel, as Fox News threatened to sue “The Simpsons” over it. “Fox said they would sue the show and we called their bluff because we didn't think Rupert Murdoch would pay for Fox to sue itself. We got away with it," Matt Groening said.
However, the channel imposed a new rule: no more tickers. “We can't do those little fake news crawls on the bottom of the screen in a cartoon because it might confuse the viewers into thinking it's real news,” said Groening.
A Fox News spokesman denied that it ever even happened in the first place.
The Lego Partnership
For its 20th episode of its 25th season — episode 550 — “The Simpsons” went full Lego. Animated in a similar (albeit cheaper) style as “The Lego Movie,” all of Springfield and its inhabitants were made of Lego bricks and pieces. The episode took two years to make and was most assuredly expensive — although Fox never revealed the costs. But the partnership was likely lucrative for both Lego and “The Simpsons.” Lego produced a Kwik-E-Mart and a Simpsons House playset, along with Simpsons Lego Minifigures.
The Lego playsets were limited edition and sold out rather fast. They can sometimes be found on eBay, where unused sets can sell for $300 to $400 each.
In 2008, consumers worldwide spent about $750 million in “Simpsons” related products, with half of all sales coming from the United States, Fox told USA Today. Eleven years later, that number has dropped by more than half. Worldwide merchandise sales for “The Simpsons” was expected to be $245 million in 2018, according to Forbes contributor Jonathan Berr, citing the trade publication Licensing Letter.
Visit Springfield (And Bring Your Wallet)
Do you wish you could visit Springfield? Universal Studios Florida, thought you might. In 2015 it opened Springfield USA, a “Simpsons” theme land that recreates several Springfield locations like Moe’s Tavern, Duff Brewery, The Frying Dutchman and Krusty Burger.
The Krusty Burger costs $10.99 for a six-ounce burger with cheddar cheese sauce, secret sauce, iceberg lettuce and a “giant tomato slice.” A Buzz Cola — which is a zero-calorie cherry-flavored cola — costs $4.59. You can even get a Flaming Moe…although it’s not as cool as it should be. There’s no cough syrup in this one — a Flaming Moe at Springfield USA is just orange soda and dry ice. And it costs $9.
If you’re looking for a taste of the cause of — and solution to — all of life’s problems, a glass of Duff Beer costs $9.49.
There have been many “Simpsons” toys created over the last 30 years, and many are worth more than an overpriced, nonalcoholic Flaming Moe. Here’s a quick look at some of the most expensive ones that recently sold on eBay and are selling on Amazon: