In the year 3000, TV network executives will know better than to cancel series that have small but rabid audiences and the potential to grow. But this was 2003, so Fox pulled the plug on “Futurama,” its 4-season-old animated comedy series about a pizza delivery guy named Philip J. Fry who wakes up in the 31st century after having been cryogenically frozen since Jan. 1, 2000.
But “Futurama,” like Fry, had more life left. Cartoon Network picked up the series for its Adult Swim channel, where 2.1 million viewers now watch and rewatch the original 72 episodes each week. DVD box sets sold well. Web sites sprang up. Fans clamored for more.
Four years later, they’re finally getting what they want. On Nov. 27, “Bender’s Big Score,” the first of four new “Futurama” movies, will be released. That will be followed by three more direct-to-DVD movies, which will be edited into 16 half-hour episodes scheduled to air in early 2008 on Comedy Central.
“We worked really, really hard to bring it back,” said executive producer David X. Cohen, “and the four years were not due to lack of trying. It paid off, and ultimately the fans are responsible because money talks. It was the success of the reruns and the DVDs, once it was out of our control, that saved the day.”
At the time the show was canceled, Cohen felt relieved. Everyone involved — from creator Matt Groening on down — had become accustomed to being on edge, waiting to hear whether the show would be renewed. The show, which won the Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program in 2002, required a lot of work, and Cohen had spent four years giving it his all. Coupled with the five years he’d put in before that on “The Simpsons,” he was tired.
During his rest, Cohen wrote two series pilots no one saw, punched up movie scripts and worked on miscellaneous projects. In the meantime, his exhaustion wore off. He started making phone calls — first to Groening, who called 20th Century Fox Television and pitched the idea of a direct-to-DVD movie.
A couple of years went by. Yes, years.
Then 20th Century Fox Television called back and said, “How about two DVDs?” Two became three, then four. They brought back the voices (including Billy West and Katey Sagal) and reassembled the writing staff, including Mike Rowe, who’d gone on to “Becker.”
“I was on what I thought was one of the coolest, hippest shows,” Rowe said, “and then suddenly I was on a show that was more for my dad. It was kind of whiplash in a way. When we came back, it was a great, non-pressure, let’s-get-the-work-done situation.”
And with four movies, the project became economically viable. Comedy Central is paying for part of the production; DVD sales will cover the rest.
“It’s a new economic model for putting on a show,” Cohen said. “There’s no network license fee, which is a normally a large chunk of the budget.”
“The numbers fell into place and made sense to us,” Comedy Central President Doug Herzog said. “We’re big fans of David’s and Matt’s and the show has performed really well for Cartoon Network and Adult Swim. We thought it was something that would work here if we could ever get our hands on it. So we did.”
The project has come full circle for Herzog, who was the president of Fox when “Futurama” and “Family Guy” — another animated series resurrected by fan support after being canceled — belonged to the network. Herzog acknowledges that his stewardship didn't help either show.
“But you have to remember,” he said, “it was 1999, and they were more cable than network to a certain degree. That’s not a knock; I would say that’s a compliment. They really found an audience on cable — and an audience that knew where to look for it — which gets harder and harder. On a Cartoon Network or Adult Swim or Comedy Central, with shows that appeal to young males, you’re in the right place.”
Older males, too. Tim, 51, Webmaster of Futurama Madhouse (futurama-madhouse.com.ar), discovered the series two years ago and calls it “probably the only television show I’ve seen in 30 years that has so much appeal to me.” The comedy, the science-fiction elements, the math and science jokes embedded in the show, the retro technology of the stick-shift spacecraft with vacuum tubes — all that sucked him in.
He took over as Webmaster of the site, whose owners live in England and Argentina, in August 2006. At the time, no one in the public knew the show would be back. On July 27, 2007, the site celebrated its eighth year. The next day, at Comic-Con in San Diego, the producers announced the DVD movies to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 4,000.
“That was the big one-two punch for us,” said Tim, who asked that his last name not be used.
For Cohen and the rest of the “Futurama” crew, “it was a huge burst of adrenalin in there to see that we had people who still cared what we were doing after four years. Deafening is probably the best word for the response we got there.”
Fans will be rewarded, Cohen said, with DVDs that are technically superior to the old shows. The productions are in widescreen and surround sound. Plus, with no network censor to deal with, the producers will push boundaries a little more. In “Bender’s Big Score,” the crew of Planet Express, where Fry works, runs into some nudist alien Internet scammers and loses ownership of their delivery company. The scammers begin a campaign to steal all of Earth’s greatest treasures from history using time travel and force Bender, who is Fry’s robot roommate, to participate.
The voices include a guest appearance by former Vice President Al Gore, as well as Tom Kenney, Sarah Silverman, Coolio as a Kwanza robot and Mark Hamill as a Hanukkah zombie.
The next three movies will deal with a planet-sized creature that has a romantic relationship with all living beings in the universe simultaneously, a “Dungeons & Dragons”/”Lord of the Rings” fantasy world and an epic sci-fi story involving the clash of two powerful races. And all the DVDs will be packed with extras, including a lecture by Sarah Greenwald, associate professor of mathematics at Appalachian State University, talking about math references in “Futurama” and “The Simpsons.”
Once the DVDs are released, no one is sure what happens next.
“My dream,” Rowe said, “is that these things fly off the shelf enough to get people to do much more.”