Mattel must've been eavesdropping on all this talk about healing our inner child. Barbie, it seems, is just the first step in the toy company's plan for a Hollywood takeover. Mattel is lining up playdates with the movie industry's hottest names. Lena Dunham is directing a Polly Pocket movie, Daniel Kaluuya will produce an "A24-type" live-action film focusing on Barney the purple dinosaur, Tom Hanks has signed on to play Major Matt Mason, an astronaut that has all but vanished from public memory, save his role in inspiring Buzz Lightyear. It's a great time for nostalgia. It's an interesting time for theatre-going.
In recent years, original concepts have taken a back seat, while a flood of reboots, sequels and adaptations have been greenlit as a sure bet. Just look at how many of the RUSSH editor's favourite films from 2022 were based on alternative source material. Or better yet, how many Marvel movies and shows there've been in the last year alone. (The answer? Three, with six more on the way.)
Marvel seems to be an inspiration for this new approach from Mattel. When businessman Ynon Kreiz stepped in to head the toy manufacturer in 2018, he was its fourth CEO in as many years. The company was hemorrhaging money, but Kreiz had the idea to create Mattel's own cinematic universe, evolving from solely toy manufacturing to franchising its own distinct intellectual property. Hence Barbie, and given its' success at the box office, grossing $380 million worldwide in just five days, it looks like the move is working for Mattel so far. Greta Gerwig might not see a Barbie sequel in her future, but I imagine Mattel certainly does.
At the time of writing, Mattel has 45 movies in development and 13 more publicly announced. Aside from the three previously mentioned, the company is also working on a He-Man film entitled Masters of the Universe, which is no longer at Netflix and is currently being shopped around; along with Hot Wheels, produced by JJ Abrams; an UNO picture, which was first penned as a heist film, and another project on Thomas & Friends. How the writers aim to whip these plots into shape? Beats me. I'd strike too.
At least, it seems, Mattel have learned from the mistakes of Hasbro, even Marvel. As Kreiz pointed out to the New Yorker, franchising IP has been done before: think Transformers and The Lego Movie. They're aware of the fatigue audiences, including Hollywood itself, has with franchises like the action-fuelled but essentially empty creations of Marvel. They've also reached out to a range of studios, wary of what happened between Hasbro and Universal (even Rihanna couldn't rescue Battleship), and introduced development deadlines within each contract.
“At the outset, we’re not saying, ‘Okay, let’s think already about movie two and three.’ Let’s get the first one right and make that a success. And if you do that, opportunities open up very quickly, once you establish the first movie as a successful representation of a franchise on the big screen.” Kreiz told Variety.
Even if critics are still divided, commercially Barbie is a success. And not just for its box office numbers, but for its impact on Mattel's original business. In June, Mattel released a doll based on Margot Robbie's stereotypical Barbie that sold out immediately, as did a later released pink corvette. Countless collaborations have cropped up, from Airbnb to Glasshouse candles and Impala skates. Elsewhere, it's having a cultural moment too. Barbie has been memed to death (with a little help from Oppenheimer), there's Barbiecore and the joy of Margot Robbie's press tour wardrobe.
It appears the toy manufacturer is quietly preparing for all its projects in the works. Major Matt Mason action figures re-emerged at Comic-Con last year and He-Man is back on shelves, celebrities are performatively playing UNO and prices for Allan dolls are skyrocketing on the collector's market. Surely, it will be a matter of weeks before he too is back in toy aisles.
Barbie was always going to be a success. As the film's marketing slogan acknowledged, she has a history of being a polarizing figure in pop culture. It's the reason Margot Robbie was drawn to the role in the first place. As Barney and Polly Pocket are dug out from their dusty toybox, I wonder if nostalgia is enough of a drawcard on its own. Then again, Barbie proved that marketing is might. Who knows, maybe with the right names attached, the right Pantone purple, and enough "millennial angst", we'll be filing into theatres to see Barney in droves. By any means necessary, right?