‘It was our secret’: The inside story of Mattel’s Barbie windfall

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When Ynon Kreiz arrived at Mattel in April 2018, the newly installed CEO had one mantra 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 additional doll.

But Barbie the film had to be good and a cultural event. It had to be different. It had to break moulds.

Barbie star Margot Robbie with director Greta Gerwig.Credit: AP

And if that meant turning the CEO of Mattel — i.e., himself — into the object of comic ridicule in the portrayal of the CEO character in the film (“vain and foolish to the nth degree,” as The Guardian put it), then so be it.

That approach has paid off to a degree even Kreiz could hardly have believed possible. Barbie is close to grossing $US1.4 billion and passed one of the Harry Potter movies as the top-grossing Warner Bros. film of all time. It could end up near the $US2 billion mark. (The record-holder is 2009’s Avatar, at $US2.9 billion.)

How Mattel pulled off a feat that had eluded the company for years was the subject of recent interviews with Kreiz; Robbie Brenner, Mattel’s executive producer of films; spokespeople for Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig, the film’s star and its writer-director; and others familiar with the doll’s sometimes tortuous path to the big screen.

Mattel and Warner have jealously guarded their financial arrangements. But people with knowledge of their agreement said Mattel earned 5 per cent of the box office revenue, as well as a percentage of eventual profits as a producer of the movie and additional payments as owner of the Barbie intellectual property rights. At $US2 billion ($3.1 billion) in box office revenue, that amounts to $US100 million. In addition, there are sales of merchandise connected to the movie as well as an expected boost in sales of dolls.

Representatives for Mattel and Warner declined to comment on the financial arrangements, though Kreiz said during the company’s earnings call in July that movie-related Barbie merchandise had already sold out throughout his company’s distribution channels.

Even though Barbie results weren’t reflected in Mattel’s latest earnings, released July 26, all anyone wanted to talk about at the earnings call was Barbie. Kreiz hailed the film as a “milestone moment” in the company’s strategy to “capture the value of its IP” and demonstrate its ability to attract and team up with top creative talent — a cornerstone of its ambitious slate of more toy-themed movies.

After the first Barbie trailer — showing a hyper-blonde, Day-Glo-clad Robbie and Ryan Gosling skating along Venice Beach — went viral in December, anticipation started building. Mattel stock has been on a tear. It has gained 38 per cent, from $US16.24 on December 19 to this week’s $US22.30. The S&P 500 rose 8 per cent over the same period.

Wall Street has been reluctant to give much credit to one hit, on the theory that such success is hard to replicate. (Barbie has had no discernible impact on Warner Bros. Discovery’s stock price.)

But for Mattel, the positive impact of Barbie goes far beyond just one film. The company’s years-long strategy to become a major film producer, using its vast storehouse of toys as intellectual property, had been met in Hollywood with scepticism, if not outright mockery. A-list talent wasn’t lining up to direct a plush purple dinosaur like Barney. But now the perception that Mattel’s leadership is willing to trust and support an unorthodox creative team that delivered both a box office bonanza and a possible awards contender has radically altered that.

Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz with Robbie Brenner, one of Barbie’s producers.Credit: Rozette Halvorson/The New York Times

And Mattel’s surprising willingness to make fun of itself was one of the elements that mostly delighted critics and added to the buzz that roped in many more moviegoers than the Barbie fan base.

That Kreiz was willing to laugh at his own caricature came as something as a surprise to some acquaintances and former colleagues. An Israeli military veteran with dual Israeli and British citizenship, a former professional wind surfer, an avid kite surfer and a fitness buff, with more than a passing resemblance to a younger Arnold Schwarzenegger, the 58-year-old Kreiz comes across as more of a square-jawed G.I. Joe action hero than a Barbie fan with a sense of humour.

Kreiz’s entire career was in media and entertainment, not retail. His longtime mentor, Power Rangers entrepreneur and billionaire Haim Saban, hired him fresh out of UCLA to launch Fox Kids Europe, a joint venture with Fox. He later ran Maker Studios, a YouTube aggregator, which Disney acquired in 2014. Kreiz left in 2016, and Maker was folded into the Disney Digital Network in 2017.

That Barbie even got made was no small feat. It had languished at Sony for years, with Mattel routinely renewing the option, as various writers struggled to adapt the doll for the big screen. Although one of the most popular toys ever, Barbie was the subject of intense controversy, seen both as a symbol of female empowerment and as an impossible standard of beauty and femininity. The only feasible approach seemed a parody. Comedian Amy Schumer was once slated for the part. But scripts came and went.

Weeks after becoming CEO in 2018, Kreiz refused to renew the Sony option, according to multiple people interviewed for this article. He called Robbie’s agent and asked for a meeting. Robbie was among the most sought-after young actors in Hollywood, fresh from acclaimed performances in diverse roles — as the ill-fated ice skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya; in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street”; and as a fixture in Warner’s DC Comics universe as Harley Quinn, the Joker’s former girlfriend. And while no human could replicate Barbie’s exaggerated dimensions, Robbie came reasonably close, while also radiating wholesome beauty.

Robbie was simultaneously reaching out to Mattel and Kreiz after learning that the Barbie option hadn’t 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 to star in the film herself.

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

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

At their first meeting, Robbie suggested Gerwig for the director. The two were friends and had talked about working together. Kreiz loved the idea in part because it was so unexpected — Gerwig had directed and written acclaimed but offbeat independent films like Frances Ha, Lady Bird and a new take on the classic Little Women, but no big-budget fare.

Lady Bird was one of Brenner’s favourite movies. But would Gerwig consider such a mass-market, commercial proposal?

Gerwig, it turned out, had played with Barbie dolls and loved them. She even had old photos of herself playing with Barbie. Brenner met with Gerwig and her partner, Noah Baumbach, also an acclaimed screenwriter and director, at an editing facility in New York. They kicked around a few ideas, but nothing concrete emerged. Anything seemed possible.

A deal was struck, and Warner signed on as co-producer. Once Gerwig was on board, Robbie agreed to star.

At which point Gerwig and Baumbach retreated. “I know it’s not conventional and not what you’re used to, but we have to go into a room for a few months. That’s how we work and want to do it,” as Gerwig put it, Kreiz recalled.

When the script did land in Brenner’s email, it was 147 pages — the length of a Quentin Tarantino film, epic by Hollywood standards. She closed her office door and started reading. “It was like going on this crazy ride,” she recalled. It broke rules, including the so-called fourth wall, addressing the audience directly. It poked fun at Mattel.

New to the company, Brenner didn’t know if this would prove too much for Mattel executives. But she believed it was a great script.

Brenner’s first call was to Kreiz. “I’ve read a lot of scripts, and this is so different,” she told him. “It’s special. You don’t get this feeling many times in an entire career.”

Kreiz read the script twice, back to back. “It was deep, provoking, unconventional and imaginative,” he said. “It was everything I was hoping it would be.”

Brenner was pleasantly surprised. “Ynon is a very confident person,” she said. “He can laugh at himself.”

At one point Kreiz flew to London, where Barbie sets were being built at Warner’s studio outside the city. He and Gerwig spent a half-hour discussing the perfect shade of pink.

Kreiz and Brenner knew they had a potential hit. “It was our secret that we couldn’t talk about,” Brenner recalled.

The original budget target of $US80 million jumped above $US120 million once Gerwig was signed. But even that wouldn’t realize the director’s full vision for the film. For Warner executives it was a struggle to find what are known as “comps,” similar films that had grossed enough to justify such an outlay.

Would Barbie be another Charlie’s Angels from 2019 — which was budgeted at $US55 million but grossed only $US73 million and, after marketing costs, lost money? Or another Wonder Woman from 2017, budgeted at over $US100 million, with a worldwide gross of $US822 million?

Eventually the budget hit $US141 million and, with some reshoots, ultimately topped $US150 million.

Of course the success of Barbie has drastically raised the bar — and expectations — for Mattel’s movies in development, starting with Masters of the Universe, written and directed by brothers Adam and Aaron Nee. Twelve more films are in various stages of development, including a Hot Wheels produced by J.J. Abrams, also at Warner. Some of these may need to be rethought.

And there will no doubt be Barbie sequels, perhaps even a James Bond-like franchise, which would be Kreiz’s ultimate fantasy (although he said it was too soon to discuss any such plans).

Kreiz acknowledged that in a notoriously fickle and unpredictable business, future success is hardly assured. But Barbie has given Mattel momentum — the beginning of what he calls “a multiyear franchise management strategy.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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