February 23, 2024


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Mattel’s windfall from the “Barbie” movie extends far beyond dolls

Mattel’s windfall from the “Barbie” movie extends far beyond dolls

When Yinon Kriz arrived at Mattel in April 2018, the new CEO had one motto when it came to a feature film starring Barbie, a project he really wanted to get off the ground: He didn’t care if the movie sold a single copy. Extra doll.

But “Barbie” should have been a good movie and a hit. It had to be different. He had to break the mold.

And if that means turning Mattel’s CEO — himself — into an object of comedic ridicule in the film’s portrayal of the executive character (“messy and foolish to the nth degree,” he says… Developed by The Guardian newspaper), so be it.

This approach has paid off to a degree that even Mr. Kriz did not think was possible. “Barbie” is approaching $1.4 billion in revenue and has surpassed one of the “Harry Potter” films to become the highest-grossing Warner Bros. film of all time. It could end up near the $2 billion mark. (The record holder is “Avatar” in 2009, with revenues of $2.9 billion.)

How Mattel pulled off this feat, which had eluded the company for years, has been the subject of recent interviews with Mr. Craze; Robbie Brenner, Executive Film Producer, Mattel; Spokesmen for Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig, the film’s star, writer and director; Others are familiar with the puppet’s sometimes winding path to the big screen.

Mattel and Warner jealously guarded their financial arrangements. But people familiar with their agreement said Mattel received 5% of the box office revenue, plus a cut of the final profits as a producer of the film and additional payments as the owner of the intellectual property rights to Barbie. With $2 billion in box office revenue, that comes out to $100 million. Additionally, there are sales of merchandise associated with the film as well as an expected increase in doll sales.

Representatives for Mattel and Warner declined to comment on the financial arrangements, although Mr. Craze said during the company’s earnings call in July that Barbie merchandise related to the film had already been sold through his company’s distribution channels.

Although Barbie’s results weren’t reflected in Mattel’s most recent earnings, which were released on July 26, all anyone wanted to talk about on the earnings call was “Barbie.” Mr. Kriz hailed the film as a “defining moment” in the company’s strategy to “capture the value of its intellectual property” and demonstrate its ability to attract and collaborate with the best creative talent – a cornerstone of its ambitious slate of more themed games. films.

After the first trailer for “Barbie” — which shows Ms. Robbie and Ryan Gosling looking very blonde and surfing along Venice Beach — went viral in December, anticipation began to build. Mattel stock has been on a tear. It has risen 38 percent, from $16.24 on December 19 to $22.30 this week. The S&P 500 rose 8 percent during the same period.

Wall Street has been reluctant to give too much credit to a single success, on the theory that such success is difficult to replicate. (“Barbie” had no noticeable impact on Warner Bros. Discovery’s stock price.)

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But for Mattel, the positive impact of “Barbie” goes beyond just one movie. The company’s years-long strategy to become a major movie producer, using its huge stock of games as intellectual property, has been met with skepticism in Hollywood, if not outright ridicule. Not only were top talent lined up to direct a plush purple dinosaur like Barney. But now the perception that Mattel’s leadership is willing to trust and support an unconventional creative team that has been a box-office hit and a potential awards contender has radically changed that.

Mattel’s surprising willingness to poke fun at itself was one element that mostly pleased critics and added to the hype, which had more moviegoers than the “Barbie” fan base.

Mr. Kriz’s willingness to laugh at his own caricatures came as a surprise to some of his acquaintances and former colleagues. An Israeli military veteran with dual Israeli and British citizenship, a former professional surfer, kiteboarder and fitness enthusiast, with more than a passing resemblance to a younger Arnold Schwarzenegger, the 58-year-old Mr. Kriz comes across as more of a square-jawed GI Joe action hero. Being a Barbie fan he has a great sense of humor.

Mr. Kriz’s entire career has been in media and entertainment, not retail. His longtime mentor, entrepreneur and Power Rangers billionaire Haim Saban, recently hired him from the University of California, Los Angeles, to launch Fox Kids Europe, a joint venture with Fox. He later ran Maker Studios, a YouTube aggregator, which was acquired by Disney in 2014. Mr. Kreiz left in 2016, and Maker was folded into the Disney Digital Network in 2017.

Making Barbie was no easy feat. It has been languishing at Sony for years, with Mattel routinely revamping the option, and many writers have struggled to adapt the doll to the big screen. Although she is one of the most popular toys of all time, Barbie has been the subject of intense controversy, as she has been seen as a symbol of female empowerment and as an impossible standard of beauty and femininity. It seems that the only possible approach is parody. Comedian Amy Schumer was scheduled to play the role. But the texts came and went.

Weeks after taking over as CEO in 2018, Mr. Krez declined to renew Sony’s option, according to several people interviewed for this article. He called Ms. Ruby’s agent and asked to meet him. Ms. Robbie was among the most sought-after young actresses in Hollywood, following acclaimed performances in diverse roles — such as the ill-fated ice skater Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya”; In the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” directed by Martin Scorsese; And as a staple of Warner’s DC Comics universe as Harley Quinn, the Joker’s ex-girlfriend. Although no human being can replicate Barbie’s exaggerated proportions, Ms. Ruby came reasonably close, while also radiating a healthy beauty.

Ms. Robbie was reaching out to Mattel and Mr. Kreiz at the same time after learning that the “Barbie” option had not been renewed. She was looking for a potential franchise to take to Warner, where her production company, LuckyChap, had a first-look deal. But she wasn’t looking forward to participating in the film herself.

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Over breakfast at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the swanky entertainment and celebrity hangout not far from Mattel’s less glamorous headquarters in El Segundo, Kriz shared his vision: He didn’t want to make movies just to sell toys. He wanted something new, unconventional and bold.

“Our vision for Barbie was someone with a strong voice, a clear message, and cultural resonance who would make a societal impact,” he said, recalling his message.

Mr. Kriz’s obvious enthusiasm and determination, and his keen eye for creative integrity, make him difficult to resist, as Ms. Brenner, an executive producer, discovered when he hired her to run Mattel’s newly created film division over another meal at the Polo Lounge. Ms. Brenner, a respected producer and Oscar nominee for “Dallas Buyers Club,” was drawn to his idea for the film. In Mr. Craze’s vision, Mattel would be as much a movie company as it is a toy company. The two bonded after he asked her who should play Barbie, so she volunteered for Ms. Ruby as well.

At their first meeting, Ms. Ruby suggested hiring Ms. Gerwig as director. The two were friends and talked about working together. Mr. Craze liked the idea in part because it was so unexpected — Ms. Gerwig had directed and written popular but offbeat independent films like “Frances Ha” and “Lady Bird” and a new take on the classic “Little Women,” but not big-budget fare.

“Lady Bird” was one of Mrs. Brenner’s favorite films. But would Ms. Gerwig consider such a comprehensive business proposal?

It turns out that Mrs. Gerwig played with Barbie dolls and loved them. She even had old pictures of herself playing with Barbie. Ms. Brenner met Ms. Gerwig and her partner Noah Baumbach, also an acclaimed screenwriter and director, at an editing facility in New York. They have thrown around some ideas, but nothing concrete has emerged. Everything seemed possible.

A deal was reached, and Warner signed on as co-producer. Once Ms. Gerwig was on board, Ms. Ruby agreed to participate in the tournament.

At which point Ms. Gerwig and Mr. Baumbach backed down. “I know it’s not traditional and it’s not what you’re used to, but we have to go into a room for a few months. This is the way we work and we want to do it,” Ms. Gerwig said, Mr. Kriz recalled.

When the script arrived in Ms. Brenner’s email, it was 147 pages long, the length of a Quentin Tarantino film, an epic film by Hollywood standards. She closed her office door and began reading. “It was like going on this crazy trip,” she recalled. He broke the rules, including the so-called fourth wall, by addressing the audience directly. He made fun of Mattel.

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Ms. Brenner, who was new to the company, did not know whether this would be too much for Mattel executives. But she thought it was a great script.

Ms. Brenner’s first call was to Mr. Kriz. “I read a lot of scripts, and this is very different,” she told him. “It’s special. You don’t get that feeling many times in your entire career.”

Mr. Craze read the script twice, back to back. “It was profound, provocative, unconventional and imaginative,” he said. “It was everything I hoped it would be.”

Mrs. Brenner was a pleasant surprise. “Yenon is a very confident person,” she said. “He can laugh at himself.”

At one point, Mr. Craze traveled to London, where Barbie sets were being manufactured at Warner’s studio outside the city. He and Ms. Brenner spent half an hour discussing the ideal shade of pink.

Mr. Craze and Ms. Ruby knew they had a potential hit. “It was our secret that we couldn’t talk about,” Ms. Brenner recalls.

The original budget goal of $80 million jumped to more than $120 million once Ms. Gerwig signed on. But even that wouldn’t fulfill the director’s full vision for the film. For Warner executives, it was difficult to find what were known as “comps,” similar films that generated enough revenue to justify such spending.

Will Barbie be another Charlie’s Angels from 2019 — which had a budget of $55 million but made only $73 million and, after marketing costs, lost money? Or another Wonder Woman movie from 2017, with a budget of over $100 million, with a global total of $822 million?

The budget eventually reached $141 million, and with some reshoots, it eventually exceeded $150 million.

On opening night, July 21, Mr. Kriz took his 19-year-old daughter to the Regal Cinema complex in Union Square in Manhattan. As they approached the theater, large numbers of moviegoers – not just young girls – were heading towards it in pink clothes. Five shows were in progress. All sold out.

Mr. Craze and his daughter were coming in and out to gauge the audience’s reactions. People laughed, applauded, and in a few cases shed tears.

Of course, the success of “Barbie” has dramatically raised the profile and expectations of Mattel’s films in development, starting with “Masters of the Universe,” written and directed by brothers Adam and Aaron Nee. Twelve other films are in various stages of development, including “Hot Wheels,” produced by JJ Abrams, who is also at Warner. Some of these may need to be rethought.

There will undoubtedly be sequels to the “Barbie” movie, and perhaps even a James Bond-like series, which would be Mr. Kraze’s final fantasy (although he said it was too early to discuss any such plans).

Mr. Kriz admitted that in a volatile and unpredictable business, future success is not guaranteed. But the “Barbie” movie gave Mattel momentum — the beginning of what he calls a “multi-year franchise management strategy.”