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Mattel isn’t trying to sell toys with its toy movies; it's "creating quality content"

Now that Mattel made a $100 million movie about its most famous doll, the company is ready to transition into a content company

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Barbie and the children who admire her
Barbie and the children who admire her
Photo: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

The thing about Barbie is it’s a movie about a very famous doll. That doll, “Barbie,” is a toy. It’s a toy made by Mattel, the makers of such toys as Hot Wheels, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, and Polly Pocket. Recently, Mattel produced a film version of the Barbie doll from Greta Gerwig. But don’t get it twisted. Mattel isn’t absolutely not trying to sell toys with their Barbie movie. It makes “quality content,” and it’s turning Hot Wheels, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, and Polly Pocket into said content.

Per Variety, Mattel pitches Hollywood hard on how making a Barbie movie isn’t about selling toys. “The risk was that people outside of Mattel would think that we want to make movies in order to sell more toys,” said Ynon Kreitz. “And I was very clear that this is not about selling toys. This is about creating quality content, creating an experience with societal impact that people would want to watch. We’ve been selling toys before we made movies, so we’re not dependent on that.”


Selling toys is simply a side-effect of releasing a $100 million Barbie movie because, as Variety notes, Barbie is the top-selling doll worldwide and accounts for a third of Mattel’s $5.2 billion 2022 revenue. For what it’s worth, Mattel did release a line of toys based on the film, and why wouldn’t they? They’re the toy company Mattel.

Of course, that’s all part of the gameplan, as Kriez told New Yorker a few weeks ago, transitioning from “being a toy-manufacturing company, making items, to an I.P. company, managing franchises.” This synergy isn’t an effort to sell toys like “Major Matt Mason,” a forgotten action figure that’s being developed into a Tom Hanks movie inspired by Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Why, that would be the uncouth move from the fourth largest toy company on earth. This is the company that invented He-Man, for crying out loud!


Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is getting a lot of praise for its idiosyncratic and satirical take on the doll, its maker, and its impact. And to their credit, it seems like Mattel gave her a lot of leeway in terms of making the Barbie she wanted to make. But let’s not kid ourselves: This is a movie designed to sell a product, and whether that product is a toy or a movie about a toy, the two are inherently linked. There would be no movie without a toy, and the toy would have no relevance to all the zoomers, millennials, Oppenheimer directors, and politicians forced to meme or talk about Mattel’s toy.

Maybe that’s just the landscape we live in, where Gerwig’s reward for Little Women is making a Barbie movie. That still feels like a shame. At least that’s how Gerwig’s agent, Jeremy Barber framed it in the New Yorker when wondering if Hal Asby and Sydney Pollack would be making a Polly Pocket movie today.

“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?” Barber said. “I don’t know. But it is the business. So, if that’s what people will consume, then let’s make it more interesting, more complicated.”

The thread Mattel is trying to needle is really bizarre. In both Variety and The New Yorker, executives work themselves into knots explaining how toys can create quality content, like a Bass Fishin’ movie that becomes “intense sports drama about this cheating scandal in competitive fishing.” A Barney movie can be a “surrealistic” comedy inspired by Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze. However, “Thomas the Tank Engine isn’t going on a bender with his friends,” said Mattel executive Kevin McKeon. But at the end of the day, even when producing movies, toys have to be on the mind. “Our top priority is to make really good movies—movies that matter and that make a cultural footprint,” McKeon continued. “Our second priority is to make sure that we do no disservice to the brands.”