How a film commissioned by a children’s toy brand become the blockbuster of the summer, and what that means for the future of cinema
During a trip to Europe with her children, Ruth Handler came across a German doll called Bild Lilli: one that stood out against the infant replicas on toy store shelves, thanks to her curvaceous figure and provocative outfits. Struck by the idea of an adult doll, Handler bought three, giving one to her daughter, and the other two to Mattel, the toy company her husband co-founded. She would go on to redesign it, naming the new version after her daughter—the first of Barbie’s countless reinventions.
The latest is, of course, a major studio film of the same name—one that sees director Greta Gerwig grapple with the high-heeled cultural footprint she left behind, rethinking the brand’s legacy in the context of contemporary feminism. By this point, you’ve definitely heard of it; you may even be sick of it, thanks to Mattel’s $150 million marketing campaign and the #Barbiecore aesthetic that has saturated social media feeds in hot pink for months leading up to its release. And in the wake of the blockbuster’s record-breaking premier, the buzz didn’t stop. People are hotly debating Barbie—from the men’s rights activists who claim the film holds “anti-man” sentiment, to the feminists who don’t think its politics went far enough. No matter how you slice it, Barbie has effectively situated Mattel in the center of public discourse—which is, of course, exactly what the company wanted. So, how did a film commissioned by a children’s toy manufacturer become the cinematic event of the summer?
Barbie is an unabashedly Mattel-funded effort: a piece of “toyetic IP,” as the brand calls it, referring to movie projects that generate their own merchandising opportunities. The idea of transitioning from a toy-manufacturing company to an IP-driven franchise factory originates with Ynon Kreiz, an Israeli businessman who became the head of Mattel in 2018. “In the world we’re living in, IP is king,” he told the New Yorker, asserting that Mattel’s brands, and audiences’ familiarity with them, are their own form of currency. For Mattel, it makes sense to funnel budget toward such projects because—as COO Richard Dickson put it—when toys connect to what’s happening in the world, you see significant sales; when they don’t, interest wanes. “What you start to realize,” he said, “is that this is a pop-culture company.”
Mattel plans to continue this trend beyond Barbie, rummaging around its toy box for properties that might have a second life in the cinema, and enlisting a fleet of Hollywood professionals to gin up the plots. In addition to indie darlings like Gerwig, Mattel’s other collaborators include the rapper Lil Yachty, who’s producing a heist movie based on the game Uno, and Daniel Kaluuya, who’s creating a surrealistic film about Barney the purple dinosaur. These are just two of the 45 toyetic projects currently in development, which also include movies about He-Man, Polly Pocket, and a horror-comedy about the Magic 8 Ball that will stop just short of an R-rating (“We’re not going to make anything that feels violent, or that is alienating to families,” says Robbie Brenner, head of the company’s film division. “We want to stay within the parameters of what Mattel is.”)
If the idea of brand-sponsored, star-studded cinematic projects based on consumer goods sounds vaguely nightmarish, that’s because it is—not because such movies will be bad, but because they may be very good. It’s a concern shared by those at the heart of this enterprise, including Greta Gerwig’s agent, Jeremy Barber. “Is it a great thing that our great creative actors and filmmakers live in a world where you can only take giant swings around consumer content and mass-produced products? I don’t know. But it is the business,” he told the New Yorker earlier this year—adding that, if such content is what people are going to consume, directors might as well try to make it interesting.
“Even without ChatGPT in the writer’s room, cinema seems to have fallen into an ouroboros-like mode of cultural production: one that demands new approaches to familiar characters, while stories that haven’t been told yet wither on the vine.”
For Gerwig, the project fit into the broader arc of her ambitions: to move beyond small-scale dramas, and become not the biggest woman director, but a big studio director. At the same time, the fact that she needed this path paved by Mattel speaks to a concerning truth about Hollywood’s budget allocation: “It has become accepted wisdom that for a movie to succeed, its characters must be recognizable in some way,” Elamin Abdelmahmoud wrote for Buzzfeed News last year, describing the slew of remakes and spinoffs that dominate today’s box offices—and how big studios view remakes as a reliable moneymaker, while new stories are a gamble.
It’s not the only creativity crisis currently facing Hollywood; as the threat of AI looms large, the importance of original, human ideas is a topic of fervent debate among striking actors and writers. But even without ChatGPT in the writer’s room, cinema seems to have fallen into an ouroboros-like mode of cultural production: one that demands new approaches to familiar characters, while stories that haven’t been told yet wither on the vine.
Then there’s the other elephant in the room: The fact that Mattel is enlisting directors like Gerwig to do the emotional and creative heavy lifting involved to make Barbie relevant in the modern day, re-envisioning the company’s brand identity without actually having any say in its decision-making. And it’s not just a cash grab to sell toys: “It’s much bigger than 12-inch plastic dolls. This is about a moment in time where you re-establish Barbie’s dominance in the cultural landscape of the world, and not only for this generation right now,” marketing expert Gary Pope told Vice. “My daughter is going to introduce the Barbie movie to her daughter. It’s a master stroke in brand equity.”
Such projects have already proved profitable for the company: From the sold-out Margot Robbie Barbie and her pink Corvette, to the countless packed theaters that fueled its $150 million opening weekend. The film itself has garnered countless accolades, most of them well-deserved: It’s an objectively fun and funny romp with some important things to say, albeit in terms dictated by its corporate overlords at Mattel.
In the film, the company bears the brunt of a few jokes, with Gerwig gesturing at historic flops—including discontinued dolls like Barbie’s pregnant BFF, and the disabled Barbie meant to illustrate Mattel’s progressive values (at least, until consumers realized her wheelchair wouldn’t fit in the Dreamhouse). At other times, she paints their executives as incompetent, and censors an F-bomb with the Mattel logo—perhaps alluding to the protracted process of negotiating with the company about what she could and couldn’t say. Yet even as Gerwig pokes fun, I found myself thinking, uncomfortably, about how the jokes she makes at Mattel’s expense ultimately serve to generate profit—and how “holding the company to account” is a vital part of the branding exercise, necessary to convince viewers that Barbie is not an extended commercial, but a work of art.
And it was: Gerwig’s displays no shortage of ingenuity, cleverly negotiating the project’s constraints to tell a story that is at once entertaining and life-affirming. I laughed! I cried! But even as I walked out of the theater, proclaiming Barbie was “better than I thought it would be,” I couldn’t help but wonder what other stories Gerwig might have told with such a budget, if she wasn’t tasked with reinventing this one.