By now, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie requires no preamble. The film has not only grossed over $1.4 billion at the worldwide box office but has become a cultural phenomenon of proportions not seen by a major studio film in years. “Hi, Barbie!” and “I am Kenough” have already entered the mainstream lexicon, and the film’s soundtrack has been successful, with Dua Lipa’s “Dance the Night,” Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice’s “Barbie World,” and Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?” all charting on the Billboard Hot 100. Along with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, Barbie has been hailed as a saving grace for the film industry: an original story backed by a big–budget studio that features two movie stars and has delivered both critically and commercially.
The response to Barbie has been so extreme that naturally the studio behind the film, Warner Bros., has been contemplating how Barbie can be utilized in the future to strengthen the studio. The film has been lauded for its originality and female–driven story, yet Warner Bros. seems less interested in parlaying the success of Barbie into a studio culture of original auteur features than in creating a Mattel Cinematic Universe.
This week, Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz told Deadline that Barbie “is part of a holistic strategy, a multi–year strategy, to capture value from our intellectual property,” a sentiment that Warner Bros. seems to agree with. There have already been industry reports that Lena Dunham will be directing a live–action Polly Pocket film starring Lily Collins, and a Barney film with Daniel Kaluuya. A long list of Mattel properties on Warner Bros.’ radar for live–action adaptations include Hot Wheels (with J.J. Abrams attached), American Girl, Major Matt Mason, the Magic 8 Ball, and even UNO. Greta Gerwig herself was also being asked about the potential for a Barbie sequel in a recent interview with The New York Times.
Of course, not all of these films will be made—or even see the light of pre–production. However, this gut instinct by Warner Bros. to immediately draw up a list of existing Mattel properties that can also be made into films exemplifies the omnipresence of intellectual property in today’s filmmaking, and the idea that films rooted in IP are too big to fail. It should be noted that this is a misconception by the studios; this year, Ant–Man and the Wasp: Quantumania failed to break even at the box office, and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was reported to potentially cost Disney $100 million in losses.
The simultaneous ascension of both comic book film franchises and prestige television in the early 2010s (The Avengers was released in 2012; Netflix’s House of Cards premiered in 2013) spelled trouble for the film industry, which quickly found itself producing big–budget films stemming from existing IP and not much else. Marvel, DC, Mission: Impossible, Star Wars, and live–action Disney remakes dominated the last decade’s box office, sucking up not only studios’ budgets but their entire release schedules and content strategies. In 2010, at the domestic box office, there were only twelve films in the top 25 that were not sequels, prequels, or remakes; in 2019, the year before COVID–19, there were only four: Jordan Peele’s Us; Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; Todd Phillips’ Joker (which is an “original story” within the DC universe, and just completed filming for its sequel); and Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, which in 2022 had a Netflix sequel.
Given these numbers, it is understandable that studios are wary of investing in a slate of completely original stories – even Barbie, with all of its bold swings and idiosyncrasies, is still a film about perhaps the most famous doll in history. The temptation to franchise, to bet on the sure thing, is a strong one for movie executives, especially in an industry currently struggling with strikes and the competition of television and Internet content. However, Barbie and Oppenheimer have proven that audiences are receptive to original storytelling and, in fact, may be craving it.
Warner Bros. and other major studios whose power has been chipped at by the forces of Netflix, Amazon, Apple TV+, and independent juggernauts like Neon and A24, are not exactly in the position to play it safe. In the aftermath of COVID–19, the movie theater experience has not regained the adoration of the public, and many film markets have all–but vanished (the mid–budget “adult drama” has almost completely transferred to limited series). At this critical moment in the film industry, maybe playing it safe is a sure way to fail, or at least to continue to decline as the most popular and essential art medium in the world. Warner Bros. has the opportunity to separate itself from the other studios and create a new era of Hollywood storytelling. It is now up to their executives to decide whether they want to be “the studio that brought you Barbie” or “the studio that brought you Barbie, Barbie 2, Barbie 3” and nothing else new.
Similar to bringing horses to water, you can bring a film studio a hit, but only those with power can decide how to best maximize that hit and use it to propel the industry forward.