If studios greenlight more movies about toys, they’ll be missing the point. Greta Gerwig’s hit is about smart filmmaking, not brand awareness.
By Kyle Buchanan
Over the past week and a half, Greta Gerwig’s comedy “Barbie” passed the billion-dollar mark at the global box office, and it won’t be long before it overtakes “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” to become 2023’s highest-grossing movie worldwide — a title it’s likely to hold onto. That’s a staggering achievement in so many ways: No movie directed by a woman has ever topped the yearly box office, and it’s been well over two decades since a live-action film without any significant action elements became the biggest movie of the year. (That’d be the Jim Carrey vehicle “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” which ruled 2000.)
But can the runaway success of “Barbie” reshape Hollywood? I’m too cynical to think studio executives will learn all the right lessons from it. Instead, they’ll probably just greenlight more movies about toys. Still, “Barbie” proved at least five things to be true, if decision makers are willing to think outside the pink box.
1. A summer movie can be smartly written
We count on summer movies to deliver spectacle, but how many also come with a witty, thoughtful script? Too often, big-budget blockbusters are rushed into production before the screenplay is finished, and even while shooting, they’re in a constant state of flux, with new writers clambering aboard to stitch everything into some sort of viable patchwork quilt.
“Barbie,” by contrast, feels totally thought through instead of frantically rewritten. Despite the outsize scale of the film, it still shares a distinctive comic sensibility and offhand intellectualism with “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America,” the two movies previously written by Gerwig and her partner, Noah Baumbach, and there are actual ideas at play here that have given “Barbie” a conversational shelf life far longer than most summer films. Though “Barbie” proves that a big movie can be both fun and thoughtful, that’s likely to happen only when a studio hires smart writers, resists sanding down their sensibilities, and gives them enough time and space to truly make the story sing.
2. Make more female-led event films
Though movies as varied as “Bridesmaids,” “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Where the Crawdads Sing” have all become breakout hits in recent years, they’re often treated as aberrations: Peruse a typical theatrical calendar and you’ll find little trace of those films’ influence. Studio executives routinely take female audiences for granted, handing their biggest budgets to movies made by and starring men because the conventional wisdom is that though women will go see those titles, male moviegoers are reluctant to watch a female-driven story.
“Barbie” has now blown a hole in that argument. It isn’t just that men had no choice but to see “Barbie,” lest they be left out of the cultural conversation — the film also demonstrated how women will show up in record-breaking numbers to watch something that truly speaks to them (often bringing friends and going a second or third time, too). Female-led blockbusters don’t all have to star a superheroine: They can be comedies, romances or dramas based on best-selling books, as long as they’re presented as major events.
3. Don’t rely on past-their-prime franchises
“Barbie” will end this summer outdrawing every major sequel. That’s in part because those franchises are so long in the tooth: We’re on the seventh “Mission: Impossible” movie, the 10th “Fast and Furious” and the fifth “Indiana Jones.” Younger audiences have no sense of ownership over those older series, and even longtime fans may be experiencing diminishing returns. If any lasting lesson can be drawn from the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon that sent both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” soaring past their initial projections, it’s that audiences are eager for big movies that feel genuinely new. Films that stoke their curiosity can be even more potent than old reliables.
4. A great soundtrack is effective marketing
Though studios will explore every possible method to market a movie — from billboards to Instagram ads to Happy Meals at McDonald’s — there are few tie-ins as potent as a really killer soundtrack. We used to count on our big summer movies to deliver radio hits, but loaded soundtrack albums have become few and far between these days, despite films like “Black Panther” and “The Greatest Showman” amply demonstrating the boost a film can get from an album that people can’t stop playing.
It’s nice, then, that the “Barbie” soundtrack is filled with bops, like Dua Lipa’s “Dance the Night” and “Barbie World” from Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice. Billie Eilish’s “What Was I Made For?” is destined to make the shortlist for the original-song Oscar, and even Ryan Gosling’s plaintive power ballad “I’m Just Ken” debuted on Billboard’s Hot 100. In an era when TikTok has become a music-industry hitmaker and virality on that platform can rival any paid marketing push, a fun pop soundtrack like the one “Barbie” boasts is worth its weight in rose gold.
5. Stop saving the good stuff for the sequel
With “Barbie” on a path to become the year’s highest-grossing movie worldwide, Warner Bros. will inevitably try to conjure a franchise from it. Yet much of what makes “Barbie” feel fresh is that it tells a complete story and doesn’t spend time setting up spinoffs or sequels. In fact, it ends in a place that would be hard to roll back: with its lead at the definitive end of her character arc. Gerwig and her stars aren’t signed for “Barbie” sequels, and when I spoke to Gerwig after her blockbuster opening weekend, she said she’d put every idea she had into this movie without the thought of doing more: “At this moment, it’s all I’ve got.”
A “Barbie” sequel would certainly make money, but there’s no way it could capture the lightning-in-a-bottle moment that makes this movie feel like such a collector’s item. Would Warner Bros. and Mattel have the guts to preserve the value of “Barbie” by letting it stand on its own? As a top-tier legacy title undiluted by shoddy sequels, it could continue to generate untold amounts of revenue in the years to come. So although it’s unlikely that studio heads will ever choose common sense over cynical cash grabs, the idea of “Barbie” as a one-and-done deserves consideration: After all, a toy only lasts forever if you know when to put it away.
Kyle Buchanan is a pop culture reporter and serves as The Projectionist, the awards season columnist for The Times. He is the author of “Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road.” More about Kyle Buchanan
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