‘Barbie,’ a rare original-film blockbuster, will not reverse the franchise flood


“Barbie” racked up superlatives and was the unlikely original film to dominate the box office this summer. But as film studios and advertisers search for takeaways and Hollywood writers get back to work, analysts say the film’s success will be hard to repeat and is unlikely to stop the deluge of franchise movies, remakes and sequels.

They note the obvious: Franchise films make a lot of money, even amid signs of superhero-film exhaustion. Original films not tied to 60-plus-year-old iconic toys probably won’t get the same marketing push as “Barbie” did. And mixing big budgets with indie filmmakers, whose willingness to take more risks might help reinvent older ideas, hasn’t always been successful.

And even as summer-season offerings from the “Indiana Jones” and “Mission: Impossible” universes couldn’t keep pace with “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” analysts noted that although franchise films are often eclipsed by overblown expectations, viewers are still pretty open to the industry’s efforts to reinterpret aging stories.

“I don’t think there’s an inherent bias by audiences against sequels or franchises,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for Comscore. “I think it’s bad-movie fatigue.”

The success of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” over the summer came after theaters reopened following pandemic shutdowns and as investors agitate for better profitability from major studios. The films also debuted after Hollywood’s writers and actors strikes had largely shut down production. Meanwhile, streaming continues to upend the thinking over what types of theatrical releases can work at various times of year.

Mattel has already said “Barbie,” which was written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach, was a template for a film franchise and other content. Others have noted that as Mattel looks to convert more of its toy catalog into content, additional films are unavoidable.

“Director Greta Gerwig has indicated there is no Barbie sequel now in development, although mutual economics and Mattel’s franchise marketing emphasis for Barbie’s ‘rich universe’ suggest follow-ups are inevitable,” Benchmark analyst Matthew Harrigan said in August.

“Although it is silly to say the media will ever be discussing who will be the seventh Barbie lead actor (see James Bond),” he continued, “eventual sequels and even new castings seem tenable despite Robbie’s iconic performance.”   

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which produced and distributed the film, also said in August that it would be trying to squeeze more out of its existing intellectual property following a “challenged” performance by its studios segment in recent years. That will likely mean even more superhero films, more J.R.R. Tolkien and more Harry Potter in the years ahead.

“We are taking meaningful steps with respect to the creative direction of both Warner Brothers Pictures Group and DC,” Warner Bros. Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav said on the company’s earnings call in August. “And a key facet of this strategy will be to lean into some of our great underutilized storytelling IP. It’s been 10 years since we made a standalone ‘Superman’ movie and nine years since the last ‘Lord of the Rings’ feature, for example.”

Later in the call, he added: “We have a diverse set of assets, global reach, great tentpoles that have been underused that we could now get into, whether it’s ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’ or the whole DC plan for the next 10 years.”

Why we have so many remakes and franchise films goes beyond well-funded Gen X nostalgia, said Jason Squire, professor emeritus at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and the host of the Movie Business Podcast. He said the trend can be traced back to the 1970s, when studios realized they could release a movie in theaters across the country at the same time. The first “Star Wars” and “Rocky” movies that decade were surprise successes that the industry tried to replicate and make better.

“It’s an executive decision that is influenced by the popular culture,” he said. “The audience has embraced the prior IP, and it’s a bit of a balancing act to improve rather than repeat.”

Still, he said he felt that a bigger industry rethinking of that decades-long pattern might be approaching.

“I think we’re in for a bit of a reset,” he said. “But let’s also emphasize: No one sets out to make a bad movie.”

Mattel did not respond to a request for more detail on what its own plans to reset viewers’ expectations might look like. But after collaborating with Gerwig, whose roots lie in mumblecore indie films from the late aughts, and Baumbach, who has been making comedies of manners since the 1990s, a greater openness toward experimentation seems to be emerging at the company.

Lena Dunham, best known for the HBO series “Girls,” is set to direct a movie version of “Polly Pocket.” A film version of “Major Matt Mason,” an action figure Mattel released in the 1960s, will be based on a short story from the novelist Michael Chabon, according to Variety. A Mattel executive, in a New Yorker article in July, evoked Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze and the word “surrealistic” to describe an upcoming film adaptation based on the toy dinosaur Barney, saying it was an “A24-type” film that would play on “the millennial angst of the property” rather than be remade for children. Dergarabedian said such an approach added a jolt of credibility to films about toys.

The trend isn’t universal across Mattel’s projects — which also include film adaptations for Hot Wheels and the card game Uno — and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time an indie director has crossed over into a big-budget film franchise. Rian Johnson gained attention for his indie noir film “Brick” years before directing “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” while Colin Trevorrow went on to direct “Jurassic World,” released in 2015, after the Sundance breakout “Safety Not Guaranteed” a few years earlier. Dergarabedian said that approach has often succeeded, but it has suffered its share of failures as well.

For “Barbie,” the successes have been massive. The film has taken in more than $1.4 billion worldwide. It is Warner Bros.’ biggest-grossing movie ever and the biggest-grossing movie this year. Gerwig has become the first woman solo director to direct a movie that made more than a billion dollars. Mattel got 5% of box office sales, as well as a cut of future profit and other payments, the New York Times reported.

According to data from Circana, sales of Barbie toys climbed 25% year over year in July and August and had six of the top-10 selling items in the dolls category over that time. And according to Adobe, online sales of Barbie products overall jumped 188% compared with daily averages on July 9, when the film had its world premiere in Los Angeles. Sales of Barbie-themed cosmetics and personal-care products were up 465% year over year between May and September. And Adobe said the film could play a big role in reviving toy sales for the holidays, as the industry deals with a postpandemic slump.

“This holiday season, Adobe anticipates dolls and action figures to be a primary driver of toys sales growth, with Barbie products as a key contributor to that subcategory this year,” Adobe said.

Others who have written about the film have attributed its success to any number of things. It appealed to multiple generations of women and didn’t talk down to them. The jokes — from the way children’s play habits govern Barbieland to one-liners about patriarchy and horses, fascism and infrastructure, the indie group Pavement and the punchline at the end — all worked. The executives in charge took a chance on a film that was willing to at least lightly criticize both the doll and themselves. Also: The film also had a massive marketing campaign whose costs, rival executives estimated, ran up to $150 million, Variety reported.

That campaign included an Airbnb Malibu Dream House, Barbie-themed Crocs and dozens of other brand collaborations. It all worked, in part, because everyone already knows what Barbie is.

“Barbie already has 99% brand recognition,” said Patricia Huddleston, a professor of retailing at Michigan State University. “So the strategies and tactics that Mattel used to promote this movie was under the guise of ‘everybody already knows about Barbie.’”

She added: “Most film studios are probably not going to have the patience and also the imagination, I guess, to strike up really unique but appropriate brand relationships, brand partnerships, to release a movie.”

The movie’s success comes as the film industry shows signs of bifurcation — with more experimental offerings debuting on streaming and bigger profit guarantees debuting at theaters. That has raised questions over whether indie filmmakers’ ideas increasingly have to be channeled through one of the main franchises if they want their movies to be seen by a mainstream audience.

“We hope to see them bounce back and forth between the big studio movies and the indie style, or specialized style, we’ve come to love them for,” Dergarabedian said. “We don’t want to see that to go away. But once you get a taste of the blockbuster situation, I don’t know — it’s up to the individual.”

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