The ‘Peanuts’ business empire looks to grow with Apple, other deals for a new generation of fans
Unlike their cartoon character rivals in Southern California, the “Peanuts” gang isn’t typically thought in the same league with Mickey and Co. as a massive business juggernaut.
There is no escaping the Walt Disney Co. with its theme parks, stores, TV channels, comic book franchises and various toys that are likely in every household, helping the Burbank-based company earn $81 billion in revenue in its last fiscal year.
But the reach of Peanuts Worldwide is extensive even if it isn’t as ubiquitous to the typical consumer compared to the big-eared mouse and his friends. In fact, the New York-based company that licenses Charlie Brown and his gang had approximately $2.5 billion in annual retail sales last year with global products that were originally created by the late Charles Schulz, whose 100th birthday is being celebrated this month.
The company’s mission isn’t to get a product placed on every retail shelf in the country nor jump on the latest trend to grow market share, said Tim Erickson, executive vice president of Peanuts Worldwide.
Instead, it’s all about the fans.
“Peanuts has always prided themselves on doing things that are really fan-centric,” said Erickson, who worked as a former executive at Disney, DreamWorks and 20th Century Fox. “For us, while we have a very robust business around the world, it's done with such purpose. It's such a focus, so it feels when you see it, it feels authentic.”
When in doubt on a potential deal, Erickson said it is not uncommon that his team ask one simple question among themselves: What would Sparky do? (Sparky was Schulz’s nickname.)
“It's great to have folks that have (worked with Schulz) and then you understand what Charles Schultz would have done,” Erickson said.
Thriving business locally, worldwide
Peanuts Worldwide is a partnership. WildBrain Ltd., a publicly traded company based in Canada, owns 41% while Sony Music Entertainment (Japan) Inc., which has an extensive music and animation portfolio; owns 39%. The Schulz family owns the remaining 20%.
Jean Schulz, the cartoonist’s wife of 27 years until his 1990 death, emphasized in a statement that “we spend a lot keeping Sparky’s brand true.”
Schulz is one of the principal investors in Sonoma Media Investments, owner of The Press Democrat.
Schulz added that the 40 internal employees “who work for Peanuts Worldwide are carefully vetted in the hiring process, not just for their business skills, but for their love of the comic strip and what the characters mean.”
But that doesn’t mean Peanuts Worldwide is gun-shy on deals.
The extensive product line from the company includes $500 million in sales for various holiday products. The licensing deals range from Pottery Barn plates to Hallmark greeting cards featuring such beloved characters as Snoopy, Linus van Pelt and even his crabby sister, Lucy.
The business empire also focuses on in-person experiences that include the 11 amusement parks in North America operated by the Cedar Fair Entertainment Co. and a location at Universal Studios Japan. Those parks feature a “Peanuts”-themed children's area with characters and rides that build upon the first Camp Snoopy that opened at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park in 1983.
There also is a burgeoning business of pop-up events across the country.
Social media, Apple TV+
Another major part of the business comes from the editorial content from Charles Schulz’s almost 18,000 comic strips and “Peanuts” TV specials, especially turning it into digital forms through such channels as Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok. (Yes, the comic strip is still published in 2,000 newspapers and publications including The Press Democrat.)
The most ambitious venture in that realm has been its partnership with Apple Inc. that the company first struck in 2018, which resulted in Apple TV+ becoming the new home of “Peanuts” from the classic holiday specials to new shows tailored to a current generation such as “Snoopy in Space” and “The Snoopy Show.”
The Apple deal is ripe for growth, said Eric Ellenbogen, CEO of WildBrain, on a Sept. 14 conference call with analysts as he ticked off the burgeoning portfolio that includes four family specials, multiple seasons of two original “Peanuts” series, two original documentaries and 13 classic “Peanuts” specials.
“Apple TV is the greatest home ever for ‘Peanuts.’ And there is lot more to come in that pipeline,” Ellenbogen said.
There is, however, a balancing act as well given how much the cartoon characters continue to resonate for millions of fans. The team at Peanuts Worldwide is careful that they feel not excluded, especially as Apple TV+ requires a monthly subscription fee.