This piece first appeared on my newsletter, Future Proof. You can subscribe for free — and if you enjoy it, maybe you can take out a paid sub. Paid subscribers are, famously, more successful and attractive.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, the actor Randall Park made the following observation about the success of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie, which has just passed a billion dollars at the Box Office. “I feel like this industry is taking the wrong lessons,” he told the magazine. “For example, Barbie is this massive blockbuster, and the idea is: Make more movies about toys! No. Make more movies by and about women!”
This came off the back of Mattel, the manufacturer of Barbie dolls, announcing its plans to make more movies based off its existing intellectual property. And, of course, what else would we expect them to do? Do we really think that a massive toy conglomerate is going to take any lessons from the success of its movie based on a toy other than “make more movies based on toys”? After all, for Mattel the success of Barbie is a double win: huge box office receipts, and massively increased cultural salience for its dolls (which were in danger of being relegated by current social mores). Why shouldn’t it try and do the same for Polly Pocket or Hot Wheels or American Girl?
But a toy company should be the cultural barometer of precisely nothing. Instead, I take Park’s comment as symptomatic of a view, within Hollywood, which I both hugely agree with and hugely disagree with (I am a man of many takes, after all).
Firstly, it is clear, right now, that you’re dumb if you’re not making movies that target female audiences. Overwhelmingly, blockbusters are essentially marketed towards men. The Avengers, Fast and Furious, Star Wars, Avatar: all these major franchises utilise historically masculine tropes and women in skin-tight outfits. Sure, plenty of women love them; but the default consumer is perceived by producers and marketers as a young adult male. If you look at a list of the highest grossing films of all time, the only entry in the Top 20 that you could plausibly claim was targeted at adult women is Titanic (which was also marketed as being from the director of Terminator and featuring a big boat sinking). Barbie, now the 25th highest grossing movie of all time, sits just below Iron Man 3 and The Fate of the Furious.
In the United States and the UK, there are more women than men. Young women, particularly, tend to be better educated and higher achieving. And they like discretionary spending (this is not a gender stereotype, it’s just true of most young, affluent people). Just look at the recent Taylor Swift tour, which was overwhelmingly marketed towards women. Tickets retailed for anything from $289 to well over a thousand dollars. Not only has she sold out every night of that tour months in advance, but there was a scrum to do so. She broke the ticketing software, for God’s sake.
There is a clear opportunity to make movies with adult women in mind. Just look at the success of Bridesmaids ($306m off a $32m budget) or Girls Trip ($140m off $19m). The problem has been the tendency of studios in recent years to do things like remake Ghostbusters, What Women Want or Ocean’s 11 with female casts. The proof of the pudding has been in the Box Office: Ghostbusters made $229m from $144m, What Men Want made $72m from $20m, Ocean’s 8 made $297m from $70m. None were hits. But crucially, none were really marketed to women, other than having women in the leads. Instead, they all just made blokey films, albeit with women, and then faced the wrath of weirdos on the internet who saw it as part of a pernicious diversity agenda.
The combination of the Eras tour and Barbie has made some commentators declare that this is the summer that women took control of culture. The problem with this analysis is that Barbie is actually a piece of very old IP, with extremely good brand penetration.
Because Barbie is not a Marvel or a Star War, it has experienced the soft bigotry of low expectations. Indeed, it has also been subject to a soft erasure where many write-ups have treated Barbie as though it is a piece of original IP, rather than something that’s been in most American households since the 1950s. And Mattel is right that, for audiences, that recognition allows them to parse the marketing in a way that they couldn’t if the film had been structurally the same but called, say, Barbara.
In a cost of living crisis and spiralling prices of cinema tickets, audiences will be more judicious about what they go and see. The cost to take your whole family to see Barbie, in most American venues, was in excess of $100. This is not something that most families can do either regularly or without properly understanding what they’re going to see. It is why Disney and Pixar are still so dominant in the children’s market — and it also explains the success of the real №1 movie of the year.
That movie isn’t Barbie: it’s The Super Mario Bros Movie, which is currently the 15th highest grossing film of all time. Barbie will get the headlines — maybe it’s a better more interesting film, maybe it suits a cultural agenda — but they’re actually very similar products. Both are films whose financial risk was offset by their ability to sell a product, whether that’s a doll or a video game. Both have succeeded internationally because they are relying on two children’s titles — Barbie and Mario — which have God-tier cultural penetration. And there is almost nothing that compares to that name recognition.
What products are there that haven’t been adapted for the screen yet, which have anything like the same level of awareness as Barbie or Mario? I can’t think of one. So while Mattel might talk a big game about a Polly Pocket movie or a Hot Wheels franchise, my guess is that, before the year is out, they announce Barbie 2. They will say they are building a franchise for women — just like the myriad franchises for men — but in reality the best way to make lightning strike twice is to stand still.
Randall Park is right, I think. There is a huge, ready and well-financed market for blockbusters aimed at adult women. But Barbie isn’t really evidence of that. Barbie is evidence, instead, of the persistence of old ideas, even in this new age.