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The Business of Barbie

After disappointing first quarter earnings, Mattel is placing big bets on turning its toy chest into a film empire

By Molly Innes

20 July 2023
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arbie is everywhere. It’s hard to think of a brand that hasn’t jumped on a partnership ahead of the film’s release, or a thought leader who hasn’t waxed lyrical about the genius of Barbie’s marketing strategy on LinkedIn. We really are in a Barbie world right now, and it’s all intentional.

Mattel has struggled in the 21st century, but its new phase as a film producer is being held up as the answer to many of its problems. It’s a familiar story: Marvel, which by the turn of the millennium was facing bankruptcy, turned its fortunes around by cannibalising its portfolio and releasing more than 30 films in 16 years. The likes of Lego and Hasbro have also leveraged their toys into cinema. Mattel is late to the game.

The business of Barbie is as complicated as society’s relationship with the doll. Its current iteration was spearheaded by Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz, who joined the company five years ago with a vision to leverage its IP into cinema. He was Mattel’s fourth CEO in as many years.

“There have been moments when Barbie was everything, to times when Barbie was vilified – and now, this moment of great celebration.”

This film is an expensive venture. Barbie, released Friday 21st July 2023, cost $145m to make, and on top of that, a rumoured $100m has been spent on marketing by Warner Bros, if you couldn’t tell. What’s more, Mattel, of course, has its own marketing budget, in the region of $500m+, of which Barbie can expect a chunk each year - it’s unclear how much Mattel is putting behind Barbie itself ahead of the film’s launch, but it feels like a lot.

How did we get here?

In 2018, Hollywood heavyweight producer Robbie Brenner - producer of Academy Award Winning Dallas Buyers Club (2013) - was brought in to lead Mattel’s film division as its first-ever executive producer. At the time, she told Variety: “Generations of children around the world have grown up with deep emotional connections to Mattel’s brands and characters. There are so many stories to be told and so many imaginations to be captured by these iconic brands.”

The same year, Margot Robbie met with Kreiz to pitch her production company, LuckyChap Entertainment. Robbie has been producing for almost a decade, with films from her production company including I, Tonya (2017) and Promising Young Woman (2020). Her productions focus on female-centered stories, making Barbie both a perfect fit, and perhaps a conflicting one.

The following year, Robbie was announced as Barbie's lead actress, as well as producer. Fast forward to 2021, and Greta Gerwig signed on as director and co-writer. Everything had fallen into place.

This web of powerful women feels like a rarity for Hollywood. Plus, before the film, it seemed the world had fallen out of love with Barbie. In 2015, Mattel’s sales were down three years consecutively, and Barbie was seen by many as an anti-feminist hangover from previous generations.

While deeply cemented in culture for just over six decades, Barbie hasn’t always been in step with the cultural zeitgeist. The business’s sales struggled in the first decade or so of the 21st century; in 2015, its sales were down three years consecutively.

It was only in 2016 that Mattel started selling Barbie in different body shapes, from curvy to petite to tall. Then in 2020 it released its “most diverse doll line” to date, with dolls in more skin tones than before (not hard), a Barbie in a wheelchair and one with the skin condition vitiligo.

This work set the stage for the Barbie film. As Lisa McKnight, Mattel’s evp and global head of Barbie and dolls told AdWeek: “I don’t think we would have attracted filmmakers like (Robbie) and (Gerwig) if we hadn’t been doing that work.”

"The likes of Lego and Hasbro have also leveraged their toys into cinema. Mattel is late to the game."

Has Mattel successfully ushered in a turn-around? Barbie sales hit a record high of $1.7bn in 2021. But two years on, Mattel’s 2023’s first quarter results reported a sales drop of 22% for Barbie, although this is against a difficult macroeconomic backdrop. In short, it’s hard to say.

Mattel’s film ambitions aren’t “about making movies so that we can go and sell more toys,” Kriez told Time magazine. But it won’t hurt if it gives the business a hefty sales boost. “This movie will recontextualise the brand for the next decade,” McKnight also told Adweek.

Mattel also has dozens of toys ready in its product-to-movie pipeline, from Polly Pocket to Hot Wheels and Thomas and Friends. But although Barbie has taken over the world, the business might not go all in on every toy franchise under its belt.

“(The hype of Barbie) is probably not something Mattel is going to look to replicate at the same level across their other brands,” says Emma Berry, an IP and branding lawyer. She suggests the brand activations for the upcoming film have provided Mattel with a reason to use its trademark in as many countries as possible, to “run less risk of them being struck off” if not used.

Creative control

That Gerwig was given the freedom to create the film in her vision is something of a “goddamn miracle”, the director said. Mattel relinquishing creative control is a rare move for a business that likes to keep hold of the reins. Back in 1995, for example, it didn't license Barbie for Toy Story, fearing the film wouldn’t be successful (It was, obviously, a triumph, and Barbie appeared in the following films). Aqua’s 1999 hit ‘Barbie Girl’ was also a point of contention for Mattel, with the business trying – and failing – to sue the band’s label for trademark infringement.

Despite the history, Aqua feature on Barbie’s soundtrack, with the remixed ‘Barbie World’ with Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice. Entrepreneurs can learn something from this, suggests Hershatter.

“People who might feel like competitors, could very well be collaborators if you think more broadly about the end result. What problems are you solving? Who might partner with you in that effort?” she asks. Though, she adds, “It’s a fine line between brand expansion and brand dilution.”

"Mattel also has dozens of toys ready in its product-to-movie pipeline, from Polly Pocket to Hot Wheels and Thomas and Friends."

In the run up to the film’s release Mattel has leveraged its IP and leant into more than 100 brand collaborations. The film is going for mass appeal, mass payoff. “It’ll be interesting to see whether it does start getting a little bit annoying for people,” says Andrea Hershatter, senior associate dean at Emory University Business School.

“It would be hard to imagine a female-facing product that would be off-brand for Barbie,” she adds. “She can be almost anything, and Mattel has been very careful I think in its licensing not to abuse that relationship.”

“There have been moments when Barbie was everything, to times when Barbie was vilified – and now, this moment of great celebration,” says Hershatter.

But getting to this point has required Mattel to adapt to a new zeitgeist and become less protective over the minutiae of its IP. But let's wait and see whether the celebration continues, and if Mattel can successfully turn itself into a film business. Others have set the precedent, and Mattel’s effort feels a little bit late.

The Short Stack

After disappointing first quarter earnings, Mattel is placing big bets on turning its toy chest into a film empire.

By Molly Innes

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