Bigscreen beckons but DVDs drive doll's house to new heights

Barbie is going to spend a lot more time in the makeup chair.

Though Universal Pictures is developing a theatrical feature starring Barbie, Mattel will keep the front and center on the small screen as it celebrates the 10th anni of its direct-to-DVD animated film series, whose 22nd installment, “Barbie: A Perfect Christmas,” is in stores now.

The homevid toons have sold more than 100 million units since the first installment, “Barbie in the Nutcracker,” was released in 2001 as a way to introduce the doll to a new generation of 3- to 6-year old girls while spinning off a new line of merchandise.

The titles, whose discs are distributed by Universal Studios Home Entertainment, consistently rank as the top non-theatrical children’s franchise, selling 10 million DVDs worldwide each year. And Mattel believes it still has more room to grow the franchise.

At a time when Hollywood is obsessed with exploiting brands, Mattel’s Barbie films serve as a case study of how producers can monetize well-known properties outside of the megaplex (although Mattel did land Barbie a showy role in Pixar and Disney’s “Toy Story 3,” which has extended to a series of short films).

“For us it’s all about making emotional connections with girls, and storytelling is a big way to do that,” said Lisa McKnight, senior VP of Barbie Marketing and Entertainment at Mattel.

Mattel will launch its first DVD sequel next year with “Barbie in a Mermaid Tale 2,” based on last year’s top seller.

“We now have enough titles and stories in our library that we’re looking at sequels,” McKnight said. “It’s a new strategy for us.”

Initially, Mattel and its toon partners at Rainmaker Entertainment and Technicolor, released one pic each fall. But after the films found an audience, Mattel added a second spring release in 2005, and added a third holiday title in 2008. Rob Hudnut serves as exec producer of the Barbie DVDs.

“Barbie of Swan Lake” ranks as one of the top sellers, while “Mermaid Tale” was the first spring pic to outsell a fall release.

In 2012, Mattel will introduce new films that revolve around Barbie’s sisters — Skipper, Chelsea and Stacie — after a product line for the sibs was launched this past spring.

“Having the products culminate in a movie was exciting for us,” McKnight said.

In 2013, the toymaker will put the first Barbie films on Blu-ray — a format that Mattel has been slow to embrace due to the earlier production times required to convert films. Blu-ray has been a slow seller with families, due to the fact that Blu-ray players aren’t as ubiquitous in homes and inside vehicles as DVD. “The penetration just hasn’t been as great,” McKnight said.

The films also will become available as digital downloads, given that more families own iPods and iPads. The films already play on kids cable channels such as Nick Jr.

Over the years, Mattel found the key to making the films successful was putting Barbie not just in her Malibu digs but in fantasy and storybook settings where she can play a mermaid, a princess or fairy — essentially the same elements that worked for Disney’s princess and fairies line, now a $4 billion a year industry.

Mattel launched Barbie in the underwater world of “Mermaidia” in 2006, which led to “A Mermaid Tale.” In 2007, Barbie found herself in “Fairytopia.” The company chose to launch the film series with “The Nutcracker” because the property was already familiar to families and moms.

The new settings enabled Mattel to pair up with licensing partners to make bath toys, for example, that tie in with the underwater settings, or a line of role-playing products like dresses, tiaras and shoes for the fairy-tale world. The films have also helped launch a successful publishing business, and, of course, enabled Mattel to produce more dolls based on the onscreen characters.

“Girls watch our movies over and over again and get to know these characters well,” which lets Mattel create more products to market to them, McKnight said. “We’re thrilled this is a franchise that has endured,” the exec added. “We’re so appreciative to have this fanbase that is always waiting for the next movie.”

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