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Garfield hits the tube once again to celebrate his quarter-century birthday

Few feline properties have enjoyed as many lives as Garfield. The cynical tabby, which sprang from the mind of cartoonist Jim Davis in the late '70s and won consumers' hearts with his 'What, me, worry?' aphorisms, has grown into a billion-dollar franchise that extends from books, to coffee mugs, to toys.
October 1, 2002

Few feline properties have enjoyed as many lives as Garfield. The cynical tabby, which sprang from the mind of cartoonist Jim Davis in the late ’70s and won consumers’ hearts with his ‘What, me, worry?’ aphorisms, has grown into a billion-dollar franchise that extends from books, to coffee mugs, to toys.

Though the spotlight on Garfield as an entertainment entity faded when his cartoon exited airwaves in ’95, Davis’s company Paws Inc. is planning to celebrate the property’s 25th anniversary next year with a small-screen return. Paws and Lee Mendelson Film Productions (both based in Muncie, Indiana) recently inked a deal with Tremendous! Entertainment out of Minnetonka, Minnesota to develop and distribute a one-hour special documenting Garfield’s career.

The agreement also grants Tremendous! the international distribution rights to 121 half hours of existing Garfield programming (including 13 TV specials) and the option to develop a new Garfield TV series. For now, though, the goal is to complete the special for delivery by June 19 (Garfield’s birthday) and to sell the existing programming into markets where the shows haven’t aired, says Tremendous! president Colleen Steward. In aid of the latter cause, the company plans to shop the library of shows at MIPCOM this month.

Ultimately, Tremendous! pursued the deal with Paws because Steward felt Garfield held the widest demographic appeal of any classic character. His penchant for voicing thoughts that most folks keep to themselves – like ‘I’d like mornings if they started later’ – is what initially attracted people to Garfield and what has kept him relevant to today’s audiences, says Davis.

Launched in 1978 as a syndicated strip in 41 U.S. newspapers, Garfield currently appears in more than 570 papers worldwide, reaching 263 million readers daily. In 1981, a book collection of the strips published by Random House’s Ballantine Books imprint was an instant New York Times bestseller, moving more than a million units by 1988. To date, Ballantine has sold over 130 million copies of various Garfield titles. Merchandise – T-shirts, coffee mugs and tchotchkes – followed soon afterwards and blew out right away.

But by ’85, the cat’s merchandise momentum had slowed. Davis says retailers had deemed Garfield yesterday’s news – but that wouldn’t last for long. Following the success of the Lee Mendelson-produced prime-time TV specials that began airing in 1982, Paws began working on an animated Saturday morning cartoon for CBS that ran from ’88 to ’95.

Two years prior to the toon’s launch, licensee Dakin hit it big with the Stuck on You Garfield, a plush toy with suction cup paws that became a fixture on the inside of car windows during the late ’80s. The success of the accessory (news reports of people stealing them from cars abounded) became a mixed blessing for Davis. Dakin refused to control production, and the property became overexposed.

‘It scared me to death,’ says Davis, whose company took back control of Garfield’s merch program from United Media in 1994. ‘I never wanted it to become like the Cabbage Patch Kids.’ Though today the franchise boasts 600 licensees, Paws had kept Garfield off the radar following the show’s cancellation in ’95.

To honor Garfield’s quarter-century anniversary next year, licensees are planning a range of commemorative product. Ballantine will publish a new collection of strips – Garfield at 25, In Dog Years I’d be Dead – which Davis will support with a national book tour. Paws also plans to release old eps on video, and is considering moving the brand into infant-oriented categories like bedding and sleepwear.

The company also has a deal with Davis Entertainment’s John Davis (no relation), producer of the Dr. Dolittle movies for Fox, to create a Garfield feature. The two parties have hired Toy Story scribes Alec Sokolow and Joel Cohen, who were close to finishing a script this fall. Provided the movie (which Davis says would be a live-action/CGI mix budgeted in the range of US$75 million to US$80 million) gets the go-ahead, it will hit theaters for holiday 2003 or 2004.

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