When Yunon Kreese 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 take off: He didn’t care if the movie sold a single copy. extra doll.
But Barbie had to do well and be a cultural event. It had to be different. He had to break the molds.
And if that means turning the CEO of Mattel — that is, himself — into an object of comical satire in the film’s portrayal of the executive character (“a fool to the ninth degree,” he says), Posted by The Guardian newspaper), if so be it.
This approach paid off to a degree not even Mr. Craze thought possible. “Barbie” is approaching $1.4 billion in revenue, and it has overtaken 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 the 2009 movie “Avatar,” with $2.9 billion in revenue.)
How Mattel pulled off the feat that eluded the company for years is the subject of recent interviews with Mr. Kreese; Robbie Brenner, Executive Film Producer, Mattel; spokespeople for Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig, the film’s star, writer and director; And others are familiar with the doll’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 percent of the box office revenue, plus a percentage of the final profits as the film’s producer and additional payments as the owner of Barbie’s intellectual property. With $2 billion in box office revenue, that comes to $100 million. In addition, there are sales of movie-related merchandise as well as an expected increase in doll sales.
Representatives for Mattel and Warner declined to comment on the financial arrangements, although the company’s chief financial officer said at a conference Thursday that the company will make about $125 million in total billing from the film.
Although Barbie’s results weren’t reflected in Mattel’s latest earnings, which were released on July 26, all anyone wanted to talk about on the earnings call was “Barbie.” Mr. Craze 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 top creative talent – a cornerstone of its ambitious slate of more themed games. films.
After the first trailer for “Barbie” – featuring very blonde Ms. Robbie and Ryan Gosling surfing along Venice Beach – went viral in December, anticipation began to build. Mattel stock has been on a tear. It has risen by 33 percent, from $16.24 on December 19 to $21.55 this week. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index rose 16% over the same period.
Wall Street has been reluctant to give much credit to one success, on the theory that such success is hard to replicate. (“Barbie” had no notable impact on Warner Bros. Discovery’s share price.)
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 vast arsenal of toys as intellectual property, has been met with Hollywood skepticism, if not outright derision. Outstanding talent wasn’t lined up to direct a stately purple dinosaur like Barney. But now the perception that Mattel’s leadership is willing to trust and support an unconventional creative team that’s both a box office hit and a potential award contender has fundamentally changed that.
One element that mostly delighted critics was Mattel’s sudden willingness to make fun of itself and added to the hype that captured more moviegoers than the Barbie fan base.
Mr. Craze’s willingness to laugh at his caricatures came as a surprise to some of his former acquaintances and colleagues. An Israeli military veteran with dual Israeli and British citizenship, a former professional surfer, kite surfer and fitness fanatic, with more than a passing resemblance to a younger Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mr. Kreese, 58, emerges as the more square-jawed GI Joe action hero. From being a Barbie fan with a great sense of humor.
Mr. Craze’s entire career has been in media and entertainment, not retail. His longtime mentor, billionaire Power Rangers entrepreneur and billionaire Haim Saban, has hired him, fresh from the University of California, Los Angeles, to launch Fox Kids Europe, a joint venture with Fox. He later runs Maker Studios, a YouTube conglomerate, which was acquired by Disney in 2014. Mr. Kreiz left in 2016, and Maker was merged into the Disney Digital Network in 2017.
Creating Barbie was no small feat. It has been a soft spot for Sony for years, with Mattel routinely revamping the option, and many writers have struggled to adapt the doll for the big screen. Despite being one of the most popular toys of all time, Barbie has been the subject of fierce controversy, as it was seen as a symbol of female empowerment and as an impossible standard of beauty and femininity. The only possible approach seems to be parody. Comedian Amy Schumer was slated to play the role. But texts came and went.
Weeks after becoming CEO in 2018, Mr. Craze declined to renew Sony’s option, according to several people interviewed for this article. He called Mrs. Ruby’s agent and asked to meet him. Ms. Robbie was among the most sought-after young actresses in Hollywood, after her acclaimed performances in roles as diverse as doomed figure skater Tonya Harding in “I, Tonya”; in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”; and as a staple of the Warner’s DC Comics universe as Harley Quinn, the Joker’s ex-girlfriend. And while no man could ever replicate Barbie’s exaggerated proportions, Ms. Ruby came reasonably close to it, while also radiating a healthy beauty.
Ms. Ruby was reaching out to Mattel and Mr. Kreiz at the same time after learning that the “Barbie” option wasn’t renewed. She was looking for a potential franchise to take to Warner, where her production company, LuckyChap, struck a deal at first sight. But she wasn’t looking forward to being in the movie herself.
Over breakfast at the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the swanky entertainment venue and celebrity hangout not far from Mattel’s less glamorous El Segundo headquarters, Craze shared his vision: He didn’t want to make movies just to sell toys. He wanted something new, funky, and daring.
Reflecting on his message, he said, “Our vision for Barbie was someone with a strong voice, a clear message, and a cultural resonance that would make a societal impact.”
Mr. Craze’s apparent enthusiasm and determination, and his eagerness for creative integrity, make him hard to resist, Ms. Brenner, a producer, discovers when he hires her to run Mattel’s newly created film division over another meal at the Polo Lounge. Mrs. Brenner, a respected and Oscar-nominated producer of “Dallas Buyers Club,” was attracted to his idea for the movie. In Mr. Craze’s vision, Mattel will be as much a movie company as it is a toy company. The two bond after he asks her who should play Barbie, and she also volunteers for Mrs. Ruby.
At their first meeting, Mrs. Ruby suggested that Mrs. Gerwig should be appointed manager. The two were friends and talked about working together. Mr. Craze liked the idea in part because it was so unexpected—Mrs. Gerwig had directed and written popular but offbeat independent films like “Francis Ha,” “Lady Bird,” and a remake of the classic Little Women, but no big-budget fare.
“Lady Bird” was one of Mrs. Brenner’s favorite movies. But would Ms. Gerwig consider such a comprehensive business proposition?
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 a noted screenwriter and director, at an editing facility in New York. They put forward some ideas, but nothing concrete emerged. Everything seemed possible.
A deal was struck, and Warner signed on as an associate producer. Once Ms. Gerwig is on board, Ms. Ruby agrees to take part in the tournament.
At this point Mrs. Gerwig and Mr. Baumbach backed off. “I know it’s not traditional and it’s not what I’m used to, but we’ll have to go into a room for a few months. ‘That’s the way we work and we want to do it,’” Ms. Gerwig said, Mr. Craze recalls.
When the script arrived in Mrs. Brenner’s e-mail, it was 147 pages long, the length of a Quentin Tarantino movie, an epic by Hollywood standards. She closed her office door and began to read. “It was like going on this crazy ride,” she recalled. He broke the rules, including the so-called fourth wall, addressing the audience directly. He made fun of Mattel.
Ms. Brenner, who was new to the company, didn’t know if this would be too much for the Mattel executives to handle. But she thought it was a great script.
Mrs. Brenner’s first call was to Mr. Craze. She told him, “I’ve read a lot of texts, and this is completely different.” “It’s special. You don’t get that feeling a few times during 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 pleasantly surprised. “Yenun is a very confident person,” she said. “He can laugh at himself.”
At some point, Mr. Craze traveled to London, where Barbie sets were being made at Studio Warner just outside the city. He and Mrs. Gerwig spent half an hour discussing the perfect shade of pink.
Mr. Craze and Mrs. Brenner knew they had a potential hit. “It was our secret we couldn’t talk about,” Mrs. Brenner recalled.
The original budget target of $80 million jumped to more than $120 million once Ms. Gerwig signed on. But even this will not fulfill the director’s full vision for the film. For Warner executives, it was difficult to find so-called “comps,” similar films that generated enough revenue to justify such spending.
Will Barbie be another Charlie’s Angels of 2019 — which had a budget of $55 million but made just $73 million and, after marketing costs, lost money? Or the other “Wonder Woman” from 2017, which had a budget of over $100 million, with a worldwide gross of $822 million?
The budget eventually came to $141 million, and with some reshoots, it eventually exceeded $150 million.
On opening night, July 21, Mr. Craze took his 19-year-old daughter to the Regal Cinemas complex in Union Square in Manhattan. As they approached the theatre, large numbers of movie-goers – not just young girls – dressed in pink were flocking to it. Five shows were in progress. They are all sold out.
Mr. Craze and his daughter would come in and out to gauge the audience’s reactions. People laughed, clapped and, in a few cases, shed tears.
Of course, the success of “Barbie” has dramatically raised the bar and expectations for Mattel’s in-development films, starting with “Masters of the Universe,” which was 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 Warners. Some of these may need to be rethought.
Undoubtedly, there will be other Barbies, perhaps even a James Bond-like series, that will be Mr. Crazy’s final fantasy (although he said it was too early to discuss any such plans).
Mr. Craze admitted that in a volatile and unpredictable business, future success is not guaranteed. But the Barbie movie gave Mattel impetus — the beginning of what it calls a “multi-year franchise management strategy.”
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