Ynon Kreiz is the CEO of a $6bn company, responsible for some of the world’s most recognisable brands, and I’m pressing him on whether or not he has a favourite Barbie.
“I wish I had one so I can give you a straight answer,” he says after the third time I ask him. “But I am just inspired by the breadth and variety and diversity of our product. There is a Barbie for everybody.”
To be fair, Kreiz, the man in charge of toy company Mattel, probably has little time to play with dolls. Since he joined from Endemol in 2018 he has overhauled the company, slashing headcount and repositioning the firm from “a manufacturing company that makes things to an IP company that manages franchises”.
He has also overseen Barbie’s rehabilitation, moving past the idea that she represented sexist and outdated ideals and repositioning her as a modern, inclusive 21st century woman.
This new direction is about to hit a major milestone with the release next month of the company’s first movie, Barbie. Starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, and directed by Greta Gerwig, it promises to be a knowing riff on pop culture painted on a canvas of powder pink and baby blue.
It’s a gloriously absurd confluence of talent, bringing together one of the most respected indie directors in Hollywood and two of its biggest stars. Had you told me a year ago that, as a 40-year-old man, one of my most anticipated movies of the summer would be about Barbie, I doubt I would have believed you – and yet here we are.
I meet Kreiz in the bar of a Covent Garden hotel during his whistle stop trip to London, his former home. Wearing a dark suit and white shirt, he’s slim and angular, and could comfortably pass for a decade younger than his 58 years. He’s telling me in his thick Israeli accent that he wanted to make a Barbie film from the day he joined Mattel.
“Within six weeks of joining the company I met with Margot. We talked about how to create something special. I saw her as the ultimate, perfect person to play Barbie and said she should come in as a producer. We took it to Warner Brothers together. She has been involved with the creative process from the beginning. Once she got involved, the project took shape.
“Going live action was a big choice. Making an animated movie is a lot safer but making it live action puts Barbie in a more humanised environment.
“We both wanted someone with a different perspective to take the creative lead and Greta was an incredible choice to write it alongside Noah Baumbach, and the hope was that she would also direct, which she did.”
There is a reason the Barbie movie has generated so much hype: films like this simply don’t happen. IP holders are cautious and top directors demand too much control. This is Barbie we’re talking about, after all. So how much control did Mattel yield?
“We were very involved from the beginning. But the nature of this project was about trusting Greta, asking her to be original and creative. We wanted her to interpret Barbie in her own way.”
So what was it like chatting to a top director like Gerwig about making a movie about a doll?
“We had many conversations about Barbie and the ethos of the brand. Barbie is a pop culture icon. She is much more than the doll – Barbie is a concept. She is a flag carrier for diversity and inclusivity. People have an emotional connection with Barbie. She evolves and transforms and this movie will recontextualise what people think of her again.”
The film is a “big, bold comedy with heart”, according to Kreiz, bringing together various facets of pop culture, including fashion, visual arts and music (Lizzo, Nicki Minaj, Karol G and K-pop band Fifty Fifty are all attached).
Whether you’re a young girl, a Barbie-loving adult or a journalist approaching middle age, you will doubtless have noticed the memes and Instagram filters being shared across social media.
“What you see right now in terms of the excitement and anticipation is mostly organic. There hasn’t been active marketing with billboards and buses, that hasn’t even started…. By 21 July it will be very hard to live on this planet and not know this movie is coming out.”
And Barbie is just the start – Kreiz sees a future for Mattel with multiple franchises all existing alongside the toy business. Indeed, there are already 14 films in development, including Hot Wheels, Fisher-Price, Scrabble, Thomas & Friends, Uno, Masters of the Universe and Monster High. Mattel has also launched a Hot Wheels show at primetime on NBC and there’s a show on design network HGTV about the Barbie Dreamhouse.
Some of these titles give me unpleasant flashbacks to the 2012 movie adaptation of the board game Battleship – how does one go about creating an Uno franchise? – but Kreiz certainly has people’s attention. Unsurprisingly, Marvel is high on his list of inspirations.
“Marvel used to be a comic book publisher until one movie changed people’s perspective. Then Disney did an amazing job in reimagining and recontextualising it and making it current to today’s consumers. This is what we were trying to achieve – our brands are already timeless. The idea is to make them also timely and relevant to today’s consumers through other forms of media and entertainment. Today’s world is all about big brands and big franchises that rise above the rest in a crowded marketplace.”
This is not the start of a shift away from manufacturing toys, insists Kreiz, and nor is it an exercise in simply flogging more dolls – he envisions a world in which toys and movies walk hand in hand.
“We didn’t break apart the company, what we did was restructure and transform the core business – strengthen it, restore profitability, regain top line growth, gain market share – and that gave us the opportunity to grow the entertainment side. We didn’t do it at the expense of the toy side, it’s the opposite – the toy business is good, it’s a great platform to launch an entertainment strategy.”
Mattel is in a fairly unique position, he says, with customers having grown up with the brand from virtually the day they were born.
“Toys have a very high level of emotional relationship with the consumer. When kids get a toy they love they hug it, they go to bed with it, so the emotional relationship is already very strong – and that’s one of the hardest things to achieve. We have brands that have very, very high awareness, and you can leverage that to enter other domains.
“We own one of the strongest children and family entertainment portfolios in the world. The Barbie movie has been 64 years in the making. But we’re not entering film and TV purely to market toys. The mandate was: let’s make quality content that people want to watch. First and foremost, focus on quality. If we do that, well, good things will happen. And then we will also sell more toys.”
He won’t be drawn on how big a portion of the business the franchises may one day represent, but points to strong fundamentals in the toy-making business, with Mattel selling strongly to both kids and adults who still feel like kids (a collection of Barbies made in collaboration with American artist Mark Ryden sell on the Mattel website for $500, which would be a lot of pocket money).
I ask whether sitting beside Robbie, Gosling and Gerwig next month at the premier of the movie he has willed into existence will be his proudest moment but, just like refusing to pick a favourite Barbie, Kreiz circles back to business.
“It’s clearly an important juncture. But we’ve already had key junctures of the company. Becoming investment grade again has been an important moment. This is the life of a CEO, you have to look at the canvas of all of it.”
• The Barbie movie is out on 21 July