Mattel CEO Talks the Major Success of ‘Barbie’: ‘We Knew We Had a Winner’ | Video

TheGrill 2023: Ynon Kreiz describes evolving the toy company to a box office sensation

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Mattel CEO and Chairman Ynon Kreiz discussed reshaping the company from a strictly toy-based enterprise to a powerhouse film producer with this summer’s blockbuster “Barbie.”

“Mattel is one of the most iconic companies in corporate America and what really appealed to me was to transform the toy business and capture full value from the intellectual properties,” Kreiz told TheWrap’s editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman during a spotlight conversation at TheGrill, the publication’s annual business conference, on Wednesday.

“I saw an opportunity to transform the company from being a toy manufacturer to an IP company that manages franchises. This is where we realized that the people who buy our product aren’t just consumers, they’re fans. Once you know you have fans it’s an audience, it changes the conversation. Think film, television, live events and so forth.”

Kreiz said that part of the process was restoring the strength of the Mattel brand, which was then leveraged for the IP strategy. (And that the toy component of Mattel was still hugely important.) The analogy that Mattel used was Marvel, which began life as a comic book publisher before becoming a cross-media behemoth, anchored by zeitgeist-capturing feature films.

“The opportunity is to reimagine your business model. Toys are tactile. Fans touch our product, they hug our product, it’s inspirational and aspirational. You have a very strong emotional bond with your fans. Once you establish that and have a thriving toy business the opportunity is to take that into other area,” Kreiz said. “This isn’t a unique model to Mattel. We started the journey as a toy company instead of a comic book publisher but in success it could be very meaningful.”

Of course, Mattel had a mega-hit this summer with “Barbie,” which opened alongside Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” and went on to becoming the single biggest hit of an otherwise sleepy 2023. Kreiz began the process by looking for a true vision, which they found in star/producer Margot Robbie, director/co-writer Greta Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach.

“The approach was creating something that broke convention — we wanted to create something different, unique, stand out. To create a home for real creative filmmakers with a unique voice that would bring something special,” Kreiz said. “Margot was the one who suggested Greta. I loved the idea. We love Greta as an auteur, as a standout creator that had a very unique voice.”

He said that they “trusted the process, trusted her creative judgement and were happy to amplify the message.”

“This is what a creative process is all about — if you work with talented people you support them, you amplify them, and magic happens. This is what we were trying to achieve. And it played out in a way that is very exciting and resonated with culture all over the world,” Kreiz said.

From the beginning, Kreiz said, “the idea was to create a cultural event.”

Mattel and Warner Bros. leveraged their respective platforms “across all dimensions to promote and push the movie.” What they found, somewhat surprisingly, is that it wasn’t just playing well (and appealing) to girls, but rather “all demographics.” “That’s really what turned the movie into a cultural phenomenon outside of a traditional movie that relates to the release schedule of a studio,” Kreiz said.

Kreiz knew that “Barbie” was a phenomenon on opening night. He was in New York with his 19-year-old daughter. They decided to head to the Regal Theater at Union Square. And he looked out the window of his car and was surprised by what he saw.

“You could see droves of people wearing pink, not even going to the movie,” he said. “By the time we got to the theater, it was mayhem. They had 20 shows opening night. Five were running concurrently at different times. We walked into every screen and it was sold out. I talked to the ushers and they said, ‘This is crazy.’ Different parts of each movie — people were laughing, people were crying,” Kreiz said. “You know that this is not your traditional movie. We knew it before. But it’s nothing like opening night when you see the reaction. And this is one theater out of thousands and thousands of theaters. We knew we had a winner.”

“Barbie,” Kreiz said, was a “creative masterpiece.” “It wasn’t about making a movie to sell more toys,” he continued. “It was about something creative that stands out and has real cultural impact.”

While Mattel has announced a slate of 14 projects, including “Hot Wheels” with J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot and Skydance on “Matchbox,” the approach that made “Barbie” such a success is something that they will apply what they learned on “Barbie” to these new projects.

“We will use the same approach — by partnering with lead creative talents. What we did say broadly is that we are looking to build film franchises. Given the strength of our brands is to build film franchises. It is a moment for Mattel and it’s exciting to see our strategy playing out,” Kreiz said.

About TheGrill: For more than a decade, TheGrill event series has led the conversation on the convergence of entertainment, media and technology, bringing together newsmakers to debate the challenges of and opportunities for making content in the digital age. TheGrill delivers a unique series of curated discussions, industry panels and networking activations that explore the ever-changing media landscape.

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