Even though she’s been around for 60 years, and reinvented many different times, Barbie’s current “You can be anything” tagline probably fits best with what Mattel is trying to do right now.
The company has faced many years of financial struggles and in Q3 2018, net sales fell 8% to US$1.44 billion. It’s also had to deal with senior staffing shuffles, recently bringing aboard new CEO Ynon Kreiz, after Margo Georgiadis had only been with the company for 14 months. Now, the toyco is looking to make some major changes—starting with its new division, Mattel films.
Helmed by Oscar-nominated executive producer Robbie Brenner (Dallas Buyers Club, Mirror Mirror), the theatrical division plans to focus on developing and producing movies inspired by the toyco’s franchises, of which there are many.
Brenner, who has also held executive positions at Twentieth Century Fox, Miramax and Relativity Media, started at Mattel by sifting through hundreds of the company’s brands and picking out the ones with the best big-screen potential. At this point, Brenner and Mattel films really could be anything—just like Barbie.
The first project to kick off the new venture will be based around the toyco’s iconic blonde doll. Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street, Mary Queen of Scots) has signed on to star in the movie, and her prodco LuckyChap Entertainment will co-produce along with Warner Bros. Pictures Group. It was an easy first bet for Mattel, notes Brenner, especially since—despite falling net sales—Barbie saw its gross sales increase 14% to US$374.7 million in Q3 2018.
Since the early January interview, Mattel signed a deal with Warner Bros. to bring the Hot Wheels. It inked similar live-action movie deals with MGM, first with American Girl , then for ViewMaster. (And for a possible sneak, during the Q&A, Brenner hinted, more than once, at Magic 8-Ball.) Brenner promises each film will take on a totally different form than audiences have seen from Mattel brands in the past. The division is aiming for high-quality, big-budget films with broad appeal. After all, Barbie’s Dreamhouse has room for everyone.
Kidscreen: Why did you want to take on this new role?
Robbie Brenner: When I heard about the position [from my agents at CAA], I was excited about it.
I love the idea of going to work in a huge company that has a library of beloved, untapped, unexploited IPs. It would be something that’s very different than what I’ve done [previously]. I thought it would be a great opportunity to use all of my resources and experiences, and do something entrepreneurial.
For me, everything comes down to story. You can put whoever in the movie and have the greatest director in the world, but if you don’t have a strong script, with strong characters and a clear story for a specific audience, then the movie is not going to work.
KS: What are your plans for this division?
RB: It’s part of Mattel. We’re not a studio, so I don’t ever want to say that. But we want to do what’s best for each of these properties. My job is to quarterback and decide where they should live and, creatively, who we should align ourselves with. Within the year, we’ll have our first movie [in production] and ramp up from there.
We want to make sure everything we do is the most elevated version of what it can be and that it can capture the widest audience. Some of them might be US$100-million studio films, but others might be projects we finance in a more independent way.
KS: How closely will you be working with the other Mattel teams like TV and consumer products?
RB: All of the different departments touch and influence each other, and I’ll be working very closely with all of them. Of course there is going to be synergy between TV and film to ensure we’re not cannibalizing each other. If there’s going to be a Masters of the Universe television show and we’re making a movie [the division has partnered with Sony Pictures for a silver-screen reboot of the property], we want to make sure they’re creatively aligned, or—if we’re doing something completely different—that one is not going to step on the other.
KS: What brands are you focusing on?
RB: When I came to the company, I was handed a list of the IPs with hundreds of titles. It goes on and on and on. I spent the first weeks distilling it down to 40 properties I thought could be good theatrical movies. In the 13 weeks I’ve been at Mattel, we’ve sped up about seven movies set to be announced over the next couple of months. I assume over the next year we’ll probably figure out another 10 to 15 that will get into the development pipeline.
There are [brands] that jump out at you, and it’s obvious it’s a movie.
Obviously, we’re focusing on making a Hot Wheels and a Barbie movie. I love the idea of American Girl. It’s educational and in the world we’re living in today, which is very complicated and diverse; we’re all searching for identity. I grew up on toys like Magic 8-ball (and everyone knows what it is) and ViewMaster (I love the idea that you can press that little slide and jump from world to world).
KS: Why make a live-action Barbie movie?
RB: There have been a lot of successful Barbie iterations. Barbie is an icon. Everybody has a relationship with her. Everybody knows who she is. In the world we’re living in, Barbie has an incredible message of female empowerment, being the best version of yourself, believing you can do anything, and a bit of wonder and wish fulfillment. This movie can embody all of those things. We have seen great versions of animated Barbie. In the live-action movie, Barbara Roberts will come to life as a real person, and we will get to know and experience her in an entirely new way. Live action is the most relatable and we feel like it’s going to be a huge theatrical, four-quadrant experience [appealing to all age groups and genders].
KS: How will product integration work with the movie? Will there be new products and/or a nostalgia push?
RB: I’m sure it’s going to be all of the above—it’s Barbie. Obviously there are all of the different characters like Stacie, Skipper and Ken. I’m not sure exactly who is going to be in the movie yet at this point because we don’t know what the plot or the storyline is—but there’s definitely room to evolve from where Barbie is and create more. It’s too early to tell where it’s going, but I don’t think it’s just a nostalgia play. We want to do something bold, modern and exciting, not only for people who grew up on the doll like myself, but for young girls today—for everyone, really.