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The Hollywood Insider Mattel Toys Comeback

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Photo: Mattel

Online Shopping? That Will Never Last.

When we look back and perform the autopsies of so many famous companies that did not survive the wrath of the new millennium, quite often it is very easy to point to what it was that killed them: online shopping. Once upon a time when Jeff Bezos was just a nerd with a bookstore in his garage and it took 10-14 days to get something you ordered online and maybe it would show up, massive storefronts were all the rage. Shopping in stores and waiting in lines for much-anticipated items were once just the way things were done, long before we ever knew any other option could possibly exist. 

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Mattel, the toy and board game producer behind such mainstay hits like Barbie and Hot Wheels, was just another one of these companies reliant upon storefronts to sell their goods. Through a strategic partnership with these brick-and-mortar establishments, Mattel, and its chief competitor Hasbro, had a nice thing cooking. All of this would soon come crashing down hard with the advent and success of online retail, as Mattel found themselves woefully unprepared for this turning of the tide. 

As the 2000s went on and entertainment moved to a far more digitally dominated space, Mattel sat back like many other companies and saw the shifting landscape as a “fad” that certainly would not last. They continued to operate as if things would swing back in their favor to the more traditional model of people buying their Barbies and Hot Wheels at the local Toys R’ Us. After all, whether by their hubris or because of past success, they saw themselves as having had a track record under their old model for financial success. To put it lightly, they were sorely mistaken. Mattel continued to focus on its core brands of Barbie and Hot Wheels but was missing out big time in the shifting cultural landscape that Hasbro had embraced. With the announced bankruptcy of their longtime partner and collaborator Toys R’ Us in 2017, Mattel seemed doomed to the same fate if they did not adapt to the modern-day ASAP. 

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A Change in Strategy Right in the Nick of Time 

One of the core inflection points many point to in the shifting tides of the past 20 years is the different ways companies approach licensing their material. I’ve written before about how merely licensing your content as opposed to producing and distributing it is often the death knell for a production company or studio but the opposite is true for say, a toy company. Hasbro was very wise to this and ahead of the curve, licensing their incredibly popular toys (perhaps you’ve heard of them?) Transformers to be made into feature-length films in Hollywood. An interesting move at the time and depending on your opinion of those films, maybe an unnecessary maneuver altogether, but Hasbro had the incredible foresight to make themselves an absolute crap ton of money by not even having to lift a robotic finger. Opening up this additional licensing revenue stream for them was a total no-brainer. Being able to profit off of your own product that you will then in turn end up selling a ton of more product of, how could you possibly say no? Well, Mattel did. 

Mattel kept quiet while all of this was going on, even though they controlled some of the most valuable I.P. in the game with their core Hot Wheels and Barbie brands, while also having the rights to toys like “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” and the American Girl Doll series. Mattel again considered this a blip on the radar and continued trying to do their business the old-fashioned way. 

Attitude Reflects Leadership

In 2018, Mattel was faced with a very challenging inflection point. They were tanking, losing in every way to their competition, and seemingly over a barrel after the closure of every Toys R’ Us. They needed to make a change and found the leader they needed in Ynon Kreiz to come in and take over as CEO of the famous brand. Kreiz, whose background was in the film and television space, seemed to be the absolute perfect fit for a company that needed a wake-up call to jolt them into the 21st century. 

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Having run FOX Kids Studios UK, Endemol, and most recently before joining Mattel, Maker Studios, Kreiz was perfectly positioned to help turn Mattel back into a winner. Using his business acumen, previous experience, and frankly, a strong amount of common sense, Kreiz shifted gears of the company and began following the blueprint of Hasbro by licensing out Mattel brands to make film and television content based on their products. Most notably the upcoming Margot Robbie starring ‘Barbie’ film that continues to add impressive cast members seemingly every day, and the ‘Hot Wheels’ feature film that will be made by Warner Brothers. These moves to embrace the success and brand recognition of their products were a huge turning point in getting the company back on track. 

Also worth highlighting is how the company embraced other aspects of our modern-day entertainment. The Hot Wheels “rocket league” video game is an incredibly successful game reflective of the digital content and “new” version of toys kids want to play with. By continuing to license out their different brands, the company is utilizing their own kind of self-aware advertising in which their products become synergized with every aspect of the content. 

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Embracing the Moment

Not only has the company been able to flip the script on its bottom line profitably by embracing modern times, but Mattel has also put itself squarely in the dialogue of representation. Leaning into the products they have, Mattel has made themselves both culturally aware and relevant through their new portrayals of the infamous Barbie character. Barbie, much to the dismay of a bunch of weirdos online, is no longer just the white-skinned and blonde-haired doll of our past (a lot has changed since 1959.) Barbie, now, can be anyone.

A simple, but effective message I believe for so many out there, Barbie is portrayed in every possible human form now. There are Black Barbies, Asian Barbies, and Gender Neutral Barbies. The company has done a nice job of embracing the much-needed and meaningful change of our modern day. It may feel like a small fix, but if it can impact anyone’s life, that fix is worth it. Mattel has also reached out to and collaborated with important modern icons like Naomi Osaka to create their own signature Barbies. A really important further step in the right direction for the company really didn’t make too many changes since 1959. 

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Mattel – To Infinity…And Beyond? 

Alright, that was super lame and on the nose, but is a part of the future story of the brand. Under the guidance and leadership of Kreiz, Mattel did not just survive that turbulent 2018 but finds itself primed for incredible future success in the years to come. They secured an exclusive deal with Disney to produce the very popular Baby Yoda dolls from ‘The Mandalorian’ and have an overall licensing deal with Disney to create all of the toys for any Disney movie or television show to come. 

With such strong business leadership at the helm, Mattel seems poised to be around and in our lives for a long time to come. 

By Mark Raymond 

Click here to read The Hollywood Insider’s CEO Pritan Ambroase’s love letter to Cinema, TV and Media. An excerpt from the love letter: The Hollywood Insider’s CEO/editor-in-chief Pritan Ambroase affirms, We have the space and time for all your stories, no matter who/what/where you are. Media/Cinema/TV have a responsibility to better the world and The Hollywood Insider will continue to do so. Talent, diversity and authenticity matter in Cinema/TV, media and storytelling. In fact, I reckon that we should announce “talent-diversity-authenticity-storytelling-Cinema-Oscars-Academy-Awards” as synonyms of each other. We show respect to talent and stories regardless of their skin color, race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc., thus allowing authenticity into this system just by something as simple as accepting and showing respect to the human species’ factual diversity. We become greater just by respecting and appreciating talent in all its shapes, sizes, and forms. Award winners, which includes nominees, must be chosen on the greatness of their talent ALONE.

I am sure I am speaking for a multitude of Cinema lovers all over the world when I speak of the following sentiments that this medium of art has blessed me with. Cinema taught me about our world, at times in English and at times through the beautiful one-inch bar of subtitles. I learned from the stories in the global movies that we are all alike across all borders. Remember that one of the best symbols of many great civilizations and their prosperity has been the art they have left behind. This art can be in the form of paintings, sculptures, architecture, writings, inventions, etc. For our modern society, Cinema happens to be one of them. Cinema is more than just a form of entertainment, it is an integral part of society. I love the world uniting, be it for Cinema, TV, media, art, fashion, sport, etc. Please keep this going full speed.

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