Barbie’s Billion Dollar Success Should Not Be Treated Like a Fluke

Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie’s Barbie just crossed $1 billion in less than three weeks. The industry should take away from this more than we need a new round of “toy movies.”

Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig on Barbie Set
- Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

In the weeks leading up to the release of Barbie last month (not to mention the SAG-AFTRA strike), actress and producer Margot Robbie revealed just how hard she had to pitch taking a chance on what was an elevated interpretation of a Barbie movie… Robbie had to also pitch why she wanted to make it a Greta Gerwig movie.

“I think my pitch in the greenlight meeting was the studios have prospered so much when they’re brave enough to pair a big idea with a visionary director,” Robbie told Collider. “And then I gave a series of examples like, ‘dinosaurs and [Steven] Spielberg’ — pretty much naming anything that’s been incredible and made a ton of money for the studios over the years. And I was like, ‘And now you’ve got Barbie and Greta Gerwig.’ And I think I told them it’d make a billion dollars, which maybe I was overselling, but we had a movie to make, okay?”

As it turned out, Robbie was underselling. As of press time, Barbie has already grossed $1.03 billion at the global box office, with $460 million of that being earned in the U.S. alone. And it’s barely been in theaters for two weeks. In other words, this summer must be Wednesday all week-round, because everyday we’re wearing pink, and by the time Labor Day gets here, Barbie will almost certainly have passed The Super Mario Bros. Movie. That will make Gerwig’s vision the highest grossing movie of the year. In terms of its cultural footprint, Spielberg and dinosaurs, or for that matter Nolan and Batman, or even Cameron and seven-foot-tall Smurfs, turned out to be appropriate.

It would be a shame, then, if Hollywood took the wrong lessons from this runaway success.

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Already it seems the machinations for flattening what was initially a refreshing success are in motion. Much hay was made after Barbie’s massive opening weekend when folks were reminded Mattel has an armada of other toy properties they’d like to see turned into big Hollywood movies next—with everything from Hot Wheels to Polly Pocket in development. But while this (seeming) gold rush to toy lines is endlessly familiar, one should keep in mind that of course Mattel would like to replicate the Barbie success for their various other brands, and it was at least this company’s openness to being lightly interrogated by Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach’s pen that helped turn Barbie into such an unexpectedly ambitious and artistic achievement.

However, just because it makes good business sense for Mattel to want to leverage all of its toy lines in the movie industry after Barbie, it doesn’t mean the moral of Barbie’s success for studios should be that audiences are desperate for a Magic 8-Ball flick. Instead, they should really look back to Robbie’s original pitch for Gerwig to WB: Be brave enough to pair a big idea with a visionary director. Especially if it’s a woman.

While the fact that Barbie is based on one of the most globally beloved toy brands of all time—if not the most loved—played a major factor into why Gerwig’s movie generated immediate interest from casual moviegoers, it was not just the brand or the admittedly brilliant WB marketing campaign that has turned this into a week-after-week cultural phenomenon. It was Robbie’s insistence, and Mattel’s willingness, to let an artistic voice take some chances with the property, and to tell a story from a singularly female perspective. Barbie adopts cornerstone feminist ideas about the insidiousness of the patriarchy—or just mansplaining The Godfather and talking Zack Snyder’s movies to death—and finds an accessible, fun, and big-hearted way to present it to a global audience that invites everyone to the table by covering it with pastel party streamers and balloons.

It’s too easy to think that the only, or even most important, ingredient in its success then is the brand, or that this was just a novel way to kick off a new franchise. In fact, the most common thing to occur when a film hits like this is to treat it as a fluke, particularly if it’s directed by a woman.

In the last decade alone, we’ve seen this several times. A “gamble” is taken on a female director or subject matter, and the trades repeat the conventional wisdom of the last 40 or so years about blockbusters in their headlines. You know the old song: women will not show up for action movies and, more importantly, men will not show up for any kind of movie starring women. There were exceptions, of course, through the decades, but when The Hunger Games film series began in 2012, there was some suspicion that the (male-directed) actioner would be too violent or off-putting for young women and too feminine for teenage boys. Meanwhile when Patty Jenkins directed the first female-led superhero movie treated like a major blockbuster event, Wonder Woman, in 2017, profiles like one in The Hollywood Reporter began by asking, “Can Patty Jenkins make the superhero world safe for female directors?”

The tone of so much of this is reminiscent of what a male editor tells Jo March at the beginning of Gerwig’s 2019 version of Little Women: “If the main character is a girl, make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead, either way.” That scene is set in 1868, and yet it’s not that far afield from 2018 when (male) powers-that-be revealed a continued skepticism toward women directors, or even women-led superhero movies.

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Consider that while The Hunger Games was a massive success, the fact the Divergent series, which sought to replicate that formula, petered out after three entries led studios to move away from adapting female-led Young Adult novels in the mid-2010s. Conversely, Wonder Woman was its own kind of cultural phenomenon in 2017, at least stateside, but to date there have been only five other major superhero movies directed solely by women. One of them was a sequel to Wonder Woman, one starred Robbie who was again working as a producer, and another hasn’t been released yet.

The question of whether “the superhero world [is] safe for female directors?” appears to be treated still with a degree of apprehension and uncertainty at the studios.

If Barbie is similarly dismissed as a fluke, one which is simply too creative, unique, or perhaps feminist to duplicate, and the industry takeaway becomes “more doll movies” and maybe a Barbie sequel (which has yet to be confirmed in no small part because no one who made the first film was signed on to make another), then the same male-dominated C-suites are repeating the same mistakes after Wonder Woman.

Not only should more women like Gerwig be allowed to take big risks, but the types of stories they want to tell shouldn’t be limited to the same handful of genres and conventions women directors have been put into the past—be it romantic comedies in the ‘90s and 2000s, or low-budget indie and costumed fare in the 2010s, with the occasional unicorn like Jenkins’ Wonder Woman or Kathryn Bigelow’s entire career, which are perceived as outliers that exist in the periphery.

As it turns out, audiences are eager for not only feminine-driven stories, but outright feminist ones that can appeal to a large global audience that’s long been underserved. And moviegoers are definitely ready for the studios to take more risks. Tying Gerwig to Barbie really did line up with the big names Robbie mentioned. And honestly, so would “Nolan and Oppenheimer.” Audiences are eager for bravery from studios; not just risk-averse franchises that after 20, 30, or even 40 years are finally hitting an era of diminishing returns.

Even if Gerwig comes back for Barbie 2—a movie that, creatively, has little room to add onto what made the first film’s ending such an epiphany—her opportunities, and those of many other filmmakers, shouldn’t be placed squarely in a Mattel box.

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