Can a Live-Action Movie Save Barbie and Mattel?

Ken and Barbie
Think Barbie isn’t enough of a “real woman?” Well, she’s about to become one.

For years, Mattel has been battling the notion that their hallmark brand, once a symbol of female empowerment, enforces impossible body-image standards. But the recently-announced live action Barbie film could change that … assuming they don’t cast this woman.

Unique public perception issue aside, the Mattel announcement almost feels par for the course in a post-LEGO Movie world.

“The Barbie movie represents this paradigm in which the studios are taking large bets on tried and true franchises and intellectual property that the public is aware of,” said Rob Levy, President of InterMedia Entertainment.

The big question, though, is what could a live-action Barbie movie accomplish for Mattel? With Mattel shares falling and Barbie sales plummeting, could it save the brand? Or will it come across as a forced, last-ditch effort?

Brand lift vs. brand integration

It’s almost impossible to resist comparing the potential of a live-action Barbie movie to the runaway success of this year’s The Lego Movie. They’re both brands with rich histories woven into American culture, both fantasy play toys with an appeal that spans generations.

But the comparisons really end there.

“I took my six-year-old to The Lego Movie, and the minute we got home he said, ‘Let’s play Legos,’” said Doug Scott, President of OgilvyEntertainment. “Of course, he realized he didn’t have all the characters he needed from the movie, so that was able to trigger a spike in sales.”

With a live-action film, the connection between the content and toy sales could be a more difficult one to make.

“One of the keys for Mattel,” Scott said, “is to figure out how they tap into that story to create a role-playing structure that will help them drive sales or reinvigorate a desire for the doll.”

Of course, if negative feelings about the brand is the wound that’s bled sales, perhaps that’s where the pressure should be applied.

“Ultimately, with live action it’s more about a halo affect,” Levy said. “You get consumers reengaging with the brand through the film. And I wouldn’t be shocked to see if Mattel had some direct brand integrations in the script. With live action, it certainly can be done.”

Success via story

That reengagement with the Barbie brand is clearly the biggest potential win for Mattel. Ultimately, it will all come down to storytelling.

“What Mattel has here is a chance to reinvent the brand, and a lot will be depend on the script and how it’s executed,” Levy said. “If some of those stereotypes are reimagined and reinvented, and if it’s a well-executed script, Mattel has the opportunity to undo some of those criticisms.”

That’s a task easier said than done. Not only does Mattel have public perceptions of Barbie to overcome, but creating a relatable story around a character who lives in a rather materialistic fantasy universe could be tough.

“Live action will be a challenge for them because that world Barbie lives in, with the product line they have out there, doesn’t make Barbie approachable,” Scott said. “Not every girl has a Malibu beach house.”

Ultimately, putting a new twist on the classic Barbie narrative could serve as a huge opportunity for Mattel.

“It’s an opportunity for them to shift the conversation,” Scott said, “and actually evolve Barbie into the contemporary role model that she could be.”

Critical casting

In order to do that, however, a great script must be paired with the right cast. Or, at least, the right Barbie.

“They have to be careful,” Scott said. “If they cast toward the high arch and the impossible waist that would make her tip over, the project is doomed from the start.”

But the live-action Barbie has to look enough like the legendary Barbie to satisfy audiences, right? It seems the key for Mattel will be to walk that line carefully. The opportunity lies in finding the right actor to embody the right non-physical characteristics that Barbie has long been missing. After all, as much as the public has been told about her hundreds of jobs and break-ups with Ken, this will be the first time the public will meet Barbie in the flesh.

“As a consumer I’ve always wondered, ‘Who is Barbie?’” Levy said. “Even with the myth and the legend that is Barbie, her story hasn’t been fully told, and it gives the filmmakers carte blanche to create the Barbie story from scratch.”

“I imagine this new Barbie will have a lot more depth than we ever thought she would.”

Done correctly, a live-action Barbie film could not only change the public’s perception of who Barbie is and reshape her story, but also reposition Mattel.

“If the film does well,” Scott said, “it establishes them as a player in this sort of crossover world between toy producer and storyteller.”