Barbie’s still pretty, but her sales figures aren’t. So Mattel Inc. is hoping a live-action movie will breathe new life into the iconic character.
The El Segundo toymaker last week announced that Barbie will be the star of a feature-length comedy produced by Parkes+ MacDonald/Image Nation (“Men in Black 3”) and Mattel, and released by Culver City studio Sony Pictures Entertainment.
The announcement followed Mattel’s recent earnings report, which disclosed that Barbie sales fell 14 percent in the first quarter compared with the same period a year earlier. The news showed a trend: Barbie sales also fell 13 percent in the fourth quarter amid weak demand during the holidays.
Sean McGowan, an analyst at Needham & Co. in New York who follows Mattel, said a live-action studio movie has the potential to revive toy sales, but it will depend on whether people see and like the movie.
“It’s likely it would stimulate demand,” he said, “but it’s not clear how much.”
Mattel managed to increase toy sales 1 percent last year, but toy sales have in general been challenged by a slow economy and the advent of technological gadgets that increasingly vie for kids’ attention. Also, as shoppers move online, toymakers are losing out on opportunities for in-store promotions.
Mattel had previously announced its intention to increase its focus on movies. The company last year launched an in-house studio, Playground Productions, to develop and exploit its intellectual property for the big screen. Along with Barbie, Mattel is working with Sony on a movie adaptation of its He-Man and the Masters of the Universe toy line from the 1980s.
Barbie first appeared as a toy in 1959, and then in cartoons and videos. But this will be the first feature-length live-action Barbie movie to appear in theaters.
It’s no secret that the right movie can spur huge toy and merchandise sales. For example, demand for dolls and dresses related to Walt Disney Co.’s “Frozen,” which are made by Jakks Pacific of Malibu, has far exceeded expectations. Some replica dresses have reportedly sold for $1,600 on eBay as toy stores have sold out.
The Barbie movie will be a buddy comedy that pairs her with an overworked bureaucrat, according to the Hollywood Reporter. It will be written by Jenny Bicks, whose credits include “Sex and the City.” It’s expected to begin production later this year.
There is another concern, however. By introducing a live-action Barbie, Mattel runs the risk of linking the character to reality. That could backfire if the yet-to-be-cast actress alienates fans on or off the screen.
“You run that risk with live actors,” McGowan said. “You can never control real people.”
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