Glenn Ross and Mattel might make Barbie DVDs for kids, but they certainly don’t treat the discs like child’s play.
Over the course of his home entertainment career, Ross has shepherded the DVD rights to the iconic doll through his — and her — three studio homes: Artisan Entertainment, Lionsgate and, currently, Universal Studios Home Entertainment.
Ross, Universal’s family entertainment topper since 2005, and Barbie franchise owner Mattel have collaborated on nine made-for-DVD titles, selling more than 37 million copies worldwide to date, because of their shared conviction that the doll requires the highest production values.
“When talking to Mattel before the first movie, we knew that we should make Barbie a movie star,” Ross says. “It had to be the same way that you would feel when seeing a Meryl Streep movie.”
The series kicked off with CGI-infused “Barbie in the Nutcracker” in October 2001, a time when such special effects were rare in theatrical tentpoles, much less straight-to-DVD projects. “Nutcracker’s” animation was derived from capturing the movement of New York City Ballet dancers.
“We are great believers in the power of little girls,” says Rob Hudnut, Mattel executive producer. “We believe they deserve the best entertainment that we can give them. We did some of the first motion-capture for made-for DVD. And when we started producing the movie, there were animated bugs, cars and plastic toys. No one was doing anything for girls.”
Illustrating the painstaking nature of the production, Hudnut recalls, “It was the job for six months of one ‘Nutcracker’ animator to keep Barbie’s dress from going over her head. The company has made a serious financial investment in ensuring these movies are the quality that girls deserve.”
Since that time, other titles “Barbie of Swan Lake” (September 2003) and “Barbie in the 12 Dancing Princesses” (September 2006) have likewise been choreographed with the New York City Ballet. Additionally, most Barbie titles are crafted with live professional musical backing, such as the London Symphony Orchestra and the Czech Philharmonic.
Ross credits the success of the Barbie DVDs for launching the family department at genre specialist Artisan Entertainment, which eventually was folded into Lionsgate in 2003.
In April of last year, Mattel strengthened its commitment to Ross and Universal by signing its first multipicture U.S. DVD output deal with a studio. Previously, Mattel had worked with Ross on a title-by-title basis at Artisan and Lionsgate. Through the entire disc series, U has overseen Barbie’s international distribution.
Universal is slating additional Barbie titles under the series’ two brands, the traditionally feminine Princesses line and the edgier fantasy skein of “Fairytopia.” For 2007, the studio is launching the franchise’s second full-length Princess musical in the September-October window, “Barbie as the Island Princess,” following the release of “Barbie Fairytopia: Magic of the Rainbow” on March 13. “Island Princess,” pairing Barbie with animal co-stars, will be announced at this month’s Toy Fair 2007.
Barbie is enjoying the benefits of being under a major’s charge for the first time. In November, the doll headlined her first Spanish-language telecast, Telemundo’s airing of “12 Dancing Princesses.” Telemundo and the Universal DVD unit are sister companies under parent NBC Universal.
“Universal has a bigger reach,” says Ross. “We can coordinate worldwide marketing events. There’s the promise that we can do something at (Universal) theme parks.”
Currently, the Barbie brand holds sales blue ribbons in a slew of categories, including holding the No. 1 spot for overall worldwide toy property and worldwide doll property, according to Mattel research. Each DVD title has sold in excess of 1 million copies, adds Ross.
Richard Dickson, Mattel senior VP of marketing, media and entertainment, thanks DVD for contributing to Barbie’s staying power.
“At the beginning of 2000, we saw girls’ interest in traditional toy play evolving,” Dickson says. “Girls were spending more and more time in the entertainment world. And Barbie had to be there.”
However, as it nears a dozen titles through 2007, the Barbie line does risk becoming stale. Competition abounds from MGA Entertainment’s trendy, flashier Bratz doll and DVD line. DIC Entertainment made a go at “Fairytopia” with its doll and DVD treatment of the classic Trollz property.
But Mattel and Universal have plenty of fresh Barbie concepts up their sleeves.
Bowing this past Saturday at Ohio’s Columbus Symphony was the initial stop of “Barbie at the Symphony,” the franchise’s first orchestra tour. The event features live symphony music taken from the Barbie DVD titles, and is accompanied by clips from the movies scrolling on giant videoscreens. Grammy-winning artist Arnie Roth, who has produced the music for the six Princess titles, serves as music director and conductor for “Barbie at the Symphony.”
“We are always talking to the girls and their moms, and we continue to hear about what they feel is relevant and what is right for the Barbie brand,” says Barry Waldo, Mattel senior director of distribution and marketing. “We continue to come up with great concepts of what they want.”