Kevin is joined by Academy Award-nominated producer and President of Mattel Films, Robbie Brenner who helped reinvent Barbie and create a contemporary movie classic.
Robbie produced the record-breaking blockbuster movie Barbie and has had an illustrious career making acclaimed films including Dallas Buyers Club, for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and that went on to win three Academy Awards. We'll hear Robbie's insider stories of how Barbie went from an idea that seemed destined to fail to the biggest comedy hit in years. She also shares her war stories guiding Barbie through development and testing, while creating the bold creative vision needed to reinvent an iconic brand by bringing on director Greta Gerwig at the suggestion of Margot Robbie. Robbie Brenner also shares her vision for Mattel Films and insight into her upcoming projects.
Getting Barbie Off the Ground (8:00)
Robbie shares the early development process for Barbie, and why Kevin initially thought it would fail.
The High Heel and the Birkenstock (12:16)
How Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach got attached to the project and shifted the tone.
Behind-the-scenes stories from test screenings of Barbie (18:18)
Kevin and Robbie share stories from the early screenings of Barbie, and the changes that were made to the film.
Convincing Mattel (25:44)
Robbie explains how she had to convince the Barbie brand team to "get comfortable with being uncomfortable" during the filmmaking process.
Polly Pocket, Hot Wheels, and Barney (35:46)
Robbie discusses the future slate of films based on Mattel brands, including Hot Wheels, Barney, and more. She shares the big Hollywood names attached to the projects; people like J.J. Abrams, Lena Dunham, and Daniel Kaluuya.
The Cultural Significance of Barbie (38:33)
Robbie explains how Barbie substantively unpacks cultural issues, beyond just being commercially appealing.
Taking Risks (42:25)
Robbie talks about having conviction as a filmmaker to take bold risks, even if you "fail miserably.”
Tune in for an entertaining glimpse behind the scenes of a contemporary classic in the making. Robbie brings an infectious energy as she shares anecdotes that capture the importance of conviction and the power of meaningful storytelling in producing great films. Robbie has an innate sense for compelling stories, a passion for telling them authentically, and the talent relationships and tenacity to get films made. Her insights into utilizing audience research to craft satisfying endings, grabbing viewer attention early, and leaning into a filmmaker's unique voice reveal why she's been behind so many memorable movies.
Host: Kevin Goetz
Guest: Robbie Brenner
Producer: Kari Campano
Writers: Kevin Goetz, Darlene Hayman, and Kari Campano
For more information about Robbie Brenner:
Mattel Films: https://corporate.mattel.com/robbie-brenner
For more information about Kevin Goetz:
Audienceology Book: https://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Audience-ology/Kevin-Goetz/9781982186678
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram: @KevinGoetz360
Linked In @Kevin Goetz
Screen Engine/ASI Website: www.ScreenEngineASI.com
Podcast: Don't Kill the Messenger with Movie Research Expert Kevin Goetz
Guest: President of Mattel Films and Producer of the movie, “Barbie”
There's a little-known part of Hollywood that most people are not aware of known as the audience test preview. The recently released book, Audienceology, reveals this for the first time. Our podcast series, Don't Kill the Messenger, brings this book to life, taking a peek behind the curtain. And now, join author and entertainment research expert, Kevin Goetz.
Kevin Goetz (00:24):
When you've been doing what I've been doing for as long as I have, you've basically seen it all. But recently, a movie came along and taught me several really big lessons. That movie was Barbie. About five years ago, my company Screen Engine, was hired to do concept testing on Mattel properties to see which sort of had the most movie potential for their newly formed film division. And, based on the study results, perhaps surprisingly, Barbie was near the bottom of the list. Not because she wasn't loved and didn't have great nostalgia attached to her, but moviegoers saw it for really young girls. It was a very limited audience. I told my guest today who had commissioned that study, run from this property. Her response was, how can I run from this? This is one of Mattel's most important properties. I can't run. I've got to make it work.
Kevin Goetz (01:17):
Little did I know then that she, along with Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach, Margot Robbie, and the rest of the creative team involved in the film would literally change the IP’s DNA into something that became a groundbreaking hit for all audiences. My big lesson, and what I'd like to communicate to all my listeners, is that you can change a property's DNA, but you better do it boldly, and with great commitment. Barbie has given us an elevated theatrical experience like no other. It's the biggest movie of the year. It broke 17 box office records so far, and it's the highest-grossing global release in Warner Brothers Studio's 100-year history. I am privileged to have Robbie Brenner here today, one of the producers of the movie who has over 20 years of experience in the film industry and who has been recently promoted to president of Mattel Films. She's a graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts. She's held key positions at Relativity Media, Miramax, and 20th Century Fox. Among her many producing credits is Dallas Buyer's Club, which earned her a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture and went on to win three Oscars.
Kevin Goetz (02:40):
Robbie, thank you so much for joining me here today.
Robbie Brenner (02:41):
Kevin, thank you so much for having me. It is such an honor to be here and to sit here with you and to watch you do your thing.
Kevin Goetz (02:49):
Well, first of all, let's tell the audience that you and I, I'm going to say maybe 6, 7, 8 years ago, went beyond the point of professional colleagues to friends. And so, I know a lot of the answers to the questions I'm going to be asking, but I also don't know a lot. So, I want to start with you, and I want to start with, you must have had an interest, if you went to college for film. You must have always had an interest in film. Tell me about that and what formed the Robbie that attended NYU?
Robbie Brenner (03:25):
Hmm. Well, from when I was a little girl growing up in New York City, my father used to take me to this shoe store called True Tread. It was on 83rd and Third Avenue on the corner, and it was a very, very popular shoe store.
Kevin Goetz (03:39):
Did you live on the Upper East Side?
Robbie Brenner (03:40):
I lived on the Upper East Side.
Kevin Goetz (03:42):
Where? I was on 81st and and York.
Robbie Brenner (03:44):
82nd and York.
Kevin Goetz (03:46):
Oh my God.
Robbie Brenner (03:47):
Kevin Goetz (03:47):
Robbie Brenner (03:48):
Kevin Goetz (03:48):
This is bashert.
Robbie Brenner (03:50):
Kevin Goetz (03:50):
She says Kismet. I say bashert, we have this thing we do. We go do, do, do.
Robbie Brenner (03:56):
Kevin and I, we used to walk our dogs together, may they rest in peace. Oh God. Oh my God. Coco, Marley.
Kevin Goetz (04:02):
And they were buddies. Alright, so you went to this shoe store?
Robbie Brenner (04:06):
I went to this shoe store and my dad was so funny, he would write down, you know, the, there would be a list like where you'd put your name and they would call it like a clipboard when it was your time to get fitted for shoes. So my dad, he thought it was very funny, but he wrote Duck <laugh> instead of like Robbie. So they were like, Duck, Mr. Duck. Anyway, I was off.
Kevin Goetz (04:27):
Was he a shrink?
Robbie Brenner (04:28):
No, my dad was a lawyer. He, he actually…
Kevin Goetz (04:30):
Wait, your mother was a shrink?
Robbie Brenner (04:31):
Yes, my mother, my mother ran Bellevue and my father was the, was the general counsel.
Kevin Goetz (04:35):
Maybe it should have been the other way, right? <laugh>
Robbie Brenner (04:36):
I think so. Anyway, he thought it was very amusing. But I was off watching these movies. There were the sort of like old-school viewmasters that you could like look into, and they would have just like many, many images. And when you would crank it, it would move together and it would become a movie. So I would sit there and watch the movies. I just loved movies. I loved images. I loved storytelling from a very, very young age. My father and I used to develop photography in the bathroom. We would go into the bathroom and take all the equipment and the developer and the enlarger and, yeah.
Kevin Goetz (05:11):
Wow. You know, you are a walking oxymoron. I am? Yes. I want to explain to our listeners, so Robbie has exquisite taste and is very independent-minded. And to think that she had such a strong hand in the single most commercial movie that has come out in the last how many years is so extraordinary to me. You gravitate towards great material. A second lesson you taught me, about you have to have something that really is on the page that speaks to you, that sings to you, that really is special in some way. And a lot of the things that are that way happen to be quote-unquote smaller movies.
Robbie Brenner (06:03):
Well, I feel like I've learned actually so much from you. I feel like in all of the testing of all the movies that we've done and listening to you speak about it, telling me, you know, Robbie, these movies need to have a reason to exist. Why are you making this movie? Does it, you would always say, is the movie sticky? Is it sticky? And I find myself saying that a lot to people, you know, because the movies that really work, whether it's Everything Everywhere, All at Once, whether it's Into the Spiderverse, whether it's Barbie. I mean, look at Barbie, it's sort of the perfect intersection of art and commerce because it is really truly a personal story of a woman who had a very intimate and personal experience with Barbie that did something that is authentic and bold and is not afraid of speaking her mind and saying the things that she wants to say and doing the things. It has such a singular, strong point of view. And I think the movies that really work, especially in 2023, where there's so much in the world, there's so much noise, there's so much television, there's, you know, social media, there's gaming, there's every, so many distractions, are movies that feel, as you would say, sticky and singular and different. And those are the movies that drive people to the box office that people want to see.
Kevin Goetz (07:24):
There's no question about it. If you look at every successful movie, even if there's a familiarity about it, there's something in that movie that is different enough or emotionally resonant or some kind of connection that transcends all those other ones like it. Or in the case of Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, something we've never seen in that sort of multiverse.
Robbie Brenner (07:51):
Kevin Goetz (07:51):
So I want to then go back to that test that we conducted about whatever it was five years ago. Well, when did you start at Mattel? Because it would've been when you started.
Robbie Brenner (07:59):
Kevin Goetz (08:01):
Okay. And so here's how the conversation went. She called me up, Kevin, I have a big job that I have to make movies, and they really need to be successful. And I said, of course they do. How can we help? And we came up with this idea together of testing these, these concepts on almost all of the IP that was meaningful. Because Mattel has a ton of really good IP and some that are hardly known. And we created like a hierarchy. And Barbie was like on the bottom of the list. And I remember literally saying to you, run from this project. It was like the DNA at that time, although it had great, great awareness and great affinity and love, to be, to be fair to the, to the brand. It was perceived as a tiny area of like three-and-a-half to four-year-old to six-year-old girls, and some moms who had a nostalgia for it. But really, no one beyond that. And I remember there were two previous iterations of the movie. One was set up, I believe, with Anne Hathaway, and one was set up with Amy Schumer, both at Sony, which I want to hear about how it ended up getting to Warner Brothers. And neither of those projects found their way. That was prior to you joining. Your boss, who is…
Robbie Brenner (08:19):
Kevin Goetz (08:20):
Ynon, who's the CEO of Mattel, hired Margot Robbie. I remember sitting with you and Tom at a dinner about four years ago, and I had just heard that Margot was hired. And I, I said to you and to Tom, who is married and a producer of Barbie as well, great guy. I said, why would you hire Margot without an idea? It's crazy. Well, she looks like Barbie. What we know is Barbie. And I just thought it was so ass backwards and told you as much, and you taught me something so incredible. You said, I don't have a choice. I've gotta do this. Now, my advice to you at the time, in fairness was make Magic 8 Ball. Call Jason Blum, because he's got the imprimatur of the horror imprimatur and he's, we'll figure this out. And Couper Samuelson, and you went down that road, you sort of never really got the script that you were both agreed upon or whatever. Fine, that happens all the time. But my thinking was, make a $40 million gross at the box office and have a strong double under your belt and say, look, we made a movie, it made money. And you actually went that route. And I think it was a really smart route. But then something happened. And I need to hear, we need to hear the story of how the genesis of how you took this brand that was so limited, so pink, so girly, so video-like, and made it a insanely worldwide sensation.
Robbie Brenner (09:03):
Well, the truth is, is that before Greta came on board Barbie, Tom and I, Tom Ackerley, who's married to Margo, they have a company together, Lucky Chap. Um, we went down a path and we probably met with 30 different writers, and we heard 30 different Barbie takes. Nothing that really stuck out. They were, they were like little kernels of like, oh, that's interesting.
Kevin Goetz (09:28):
And some major writers, right?
Robbie Brenner (09:29):
Major writers, major writers, some major directors. There was no shortage of people that were interested in sort of trying to unlock this Barbie movie. But it was sort of just like the generic, like, okay, Barbie lives in Malibu, she's got her dream-boat, Ken. It all just felt like very familiar. And you had seen it before. And then actually Margot who had a relationship with Greta, she came up with the idea of Greta. She said, you know, what about Greta? Margot did? Margo did. And I was like, uh, fantastic. I mean, obviously.
Kevin Goetz (09:58):
Why would you think fantastic? Like, what would prompt you to think that Greta Gerwig, who did a huge independent…
Robbie Brenner (10:07):
Kevin Goetz (10:07):
Lady Bird, and then she did Little Women, which was commercial and made a lot of money, but certainly was not anything in the realm of the Barbie, early Barbie. How did you think that that was a great idea?
Robbie Brenner (10:22):
Look, I think that we needed to do something that felt very unexpected and very different. And with Greta, I felt like we were going to get that sort of like that, that je ne sais quoi, that thing that like, you cannot even bottle. Like, it is the secret sauce that most movies just don't have because she has it, you know, from the, from the very first frame of Lady Bird when she opens up the door and falls out of the car door, you're like, okay, I'm in. This woman is like interesting and amazing and tells stories in such a dynamic, incredible way. And so it was like, aha, Greta Gerwig wants to make Barbie, aha. Sign me up for that. I'm in.
Kevin Goetz (11:03):
Well, that turned out to be a very fortuitous hire. How did Noah then get involved in the project?
Robbie Brenner (11:12):
So she said…
Kevin Goetz (11:13):
By the way, Noah Baumbach is?
Robbie Brenner (11:16):
Her partner. They have two children together.
Kevin Goetz (11:18):
And she had one during the screening process.
Robbie Brenner (11:21):
She did. And she said, I want Noah to write this movie with me. I want to write it with him. And so Margot, Tom, and I went to New York, and we met with Noah and Greta in, I think it was Noah's mother's Brownstone. I want to say he might've been cutting A Marriage Story. Maybe it was the movie before. I don't know. But he, he was busy. And so we all sat together and you know, we sort of talked about it very…
Kevin Goetz (11:49):
Who was with you?
Robbie Brenner (11:50):
It was, it was Margot and Tom and myself and Greta and Noah. And we talked about sort of, you know, very loosely ideas. Like, what is this? What should it feel like? What does it look like? And it was very, they were very, very kind of broad ideas and I know that…
Kevin Goetz (12:07):
But were they different than those other ideas that the 30 prior writers had pitched? Like was there a different vibe in the room?
Robbie Brenner (12:14):
Yes. Well look, I think that Greta is just sitting in a room with her. I mean, and you know her, Kevin, I mean, she's so effervescent. It's just she's infectious. You just somehow like, hang on her every word, you believe everything, you, you are just like on for the ride with her. You know, there are not many people that have that quality that you're like, I'm, I am so in, I believe everything you say.
Kevin Goetz (12:34):
And you'll fulfill on it, <laugh>.
Robbie Brenner (12:36):
Yes, you will.
Kevin Goetz (12:36):
Robbie Brenner (12:37):
And she had this idea, and it's actually in the movie, she said, you know, I feel like the movie lives between this high heel and this Birkenstock. That somehow the movie, it's going to live between these two shoes. And I, I don't know what it is, but that's sort of the leaping off point.
Kevin Goetz (12:59):
What a great image. I want to just say to our listeners here that what you said, you, I urge you all to pay close attention to, we had to do something unexpected and different. And I remember early on you and I had the conversation, I said, Robbie, the only way this is going to work, and I feel like I was a little preachy at the table that night at that event, but I said to you, how do you hire Margot without an idea? And I said, whatever you do, it better be so incredibly unique and different. I think I mentioned Legally Blonde at that time, like it had to go to a whole different place and feel very contemporary. Do you remember that kind of?
Robbie Brenner (13:43):
Yeah. No, I do. I remember that conversation.
Kevin Goetz (13:46):
So you're in that brownstone. I wish we could all be a fly on the wall in that brownstone and this movie's going to go down in the history books. So that conversation was a very, very important one. What were the next steps after that?
Robbie Brenner (14:00):
So they said, okay, well we are going to deal with Warner Brothers. And so we went back to LA and you know, of course takes just months and months and months. And so that went on for a very, very…
Kevin Goetz (14:12):
Well, hold on. The project was out of Sony by this point?
Robbie Brenner (14:14):
Yeah, so I had, we had nothing to do with Sony when I started at Mattel. We had gotten the rights back from Sony. Ynon and I decided that we were going to start free and clear with all of the IPs that we weren't going to bother with anything that had existed before that. This was sort of our vision of what we wanted to do for Mattel Films. And we just started from the beginning. And so we set the IP that Barbie, and actually Hot Wheels as well, up at Warner Brothers. They were passionate about it.
Kevin Goetz (14:44):
Who was the exact?
Robbie Brenner (14:45):
Courtenay Valenti was the president of Warner Brothers at the time, and Toby Emmerich.
Kevin Goetz (14:51):
So Toby and Courtenay actually bought the, or said we want to be involved, or how did?
Robbie Brenner (14:58):
Yes, they basically said, we want to buy the rights, let's make Barbie and Hot Wheels.
Kevin Goetz (15:02):
So they licensed the property from Mattel?
Robbie Brenner (15:05):
Kevin Goetz (15:05):
So you guys didn't pay for the movie, Warner Brothers did?
Robbie Brenner (15:08):
Warner Brothers paid for the movie. We were producers on the movie.
Kevin Goetz (15:12):
Got it. And so that is an arrangement that you're going to continue to make. Are you sort of reassessing now that you've had such great success?
Robbie Brenner (15:19):
Look, I mean, I think everybody would love to be able to finance their own movies. I mean, when it works, it's like.
Kevin Goetz (15:25):
You think that's true?
Robbie Brenner (15:26):
<laugh>, I mean, hello. You have to have skin in the game. But I mean we…
Kevin Goetz (15:29):
The upside is that much more, of course.
Robbie Brenner (15:31):
Yes, absolutely. But we're, this was, this was our first foray into making movies. So we did it pretty well. I think we were a little nervous moving forward. I feel like I've got a target on my back.
Kevin Goetz (15:41):
I would be very nervous because how do you hit home runs, people? We know it's impossible. So we'll just say that. But everything you touch is quality. So I have no doubt that you're going to be successful. But this is zeitgeist stuff. This is lightning in a bottle stuff. I mean, Josh Goldstein, I've praised him so many times on this program and outside of this program of creating a buzz in a marketing campaign that was so compelling and so in sync with what you all created creatively. Alright, the movie gets made and now we go to the screening process and that was a, that was a real interesting process.
Robbie Brenner (16:23):
So the first screening we did was actually a blind screening. We decided…
Kevin Goetz (16:28):
Oh, so no one knew what they were coming to see.
Robbie Brenner (16:29):
Nobody knew what they were coming to see. Right. We did this.
Kevin Goetz (16:31):
That's what a blind recruit is, right? We just give them kind of similar kinds of movies so we know we're not getting like the wrong people that would never see the movie.
Robbie Brenner (16:40):
Right. But, you know, we were nervous. We were nervous about spoilers and people exposing Barbie and people knowing it was Barbie. There's so much hype on the movie from the first time that those first two photos were released from Venice Beach of Margot and Ryan, it like basically shut down the internet. So, we were very nervous about people knowing that it was going to be Barbie. So we did, you know, you remember, the blind recruit in Arizona, which was interesting to show a movie there, especially, I think the audience didn't know what they were going to see.
Kevin Goetz (17:11):
Let me ask you this, the movie scored okay, wasn't extraordinary, but there were some big changes made or not such big changes made?
Robbie Brenner (17:20):
I mean, I always say that the movie that you see in the theater is very similar to the movie that was on the page. I mean, yes, we cut things out of the movie because we couldn't afford it budget-wise or things shape-shifted. There were two narrators at one point. And that ultimately there was just one. But the, as you would say, always, Kevin, the DNA of the movie was the DNA of the movie and the trajectory of like, the scenes and the way that it all played out starting in 2001. That was always at the beginning going to Barbieland, coming the way she comes down. We are Barbie coming down to the…
Kevin Goetz (17:53):
So it was a calibration issue really?
Robbie Brenner (17:55):
Kevin Goetz (17:55):
It was about calibrating. If I recall, it was a lot about the male patriarchy?
Robbie Brenner (18:00):
Kevin Goetz (18:00):
That was a little too much, too heavy-handed. And when Greta pulled that back, it found its center.
Robbie Brenner (18:07):
Yeah. I think it was just like a modulation of things.
Kevin Goetz (18:11):
Greta listened really well. Like I thought she listened to the audience.
Robbie Brenner (18:15):
Well, she loves information. I think every time, she's so close to it. First of all, she wrote it, she directed it, she lived it.
Kevin Goetz (18:21):
I remember very clearly she stuck to her guns. She knew what she wanted, but she also listened. And I think the great filmmakers that I've worked with have the ability to respond to the research but keep their vision at the front and center.
Robbie Brenner (18:35):
Kevin Goetz (18:36):
And she never wavered from that, nor did you, nor did Margot, nor did Tom. You know, you guys really kept it right. And, you had another producer on the movie too, right?
Robbie Brenner (18:46):
Oh yeah. David Heyman.
Kevin Goetz (18:48):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And so all of you kind of were in sync with hearing the audience's responses and responding to them, and then the next screening was mind-blowing.
Robbie Brenner (19:00):
Yes, it was. It was.
Kevin Goetz (19:01):
Where was it? The next screening?
Robbie Brenner (19:02):
I feel like it was in New York.
Kevin Goetz (19:04):
Robbie Brenner (19:05):
Oh, in New Jersey. Yeah, it was in New Jersey. I rode in the car with you home. You went to the Jean George restaurant, remember? Oh my gosh, yes, yes. It was amazing because this was not a blind recruit. And when I arrived at the theater, there was a sea of people in pink wrapped around two blocks out. And I was like, wow. Oh my God.
Kevin Goetz (19:25):
I've done screenings, obviously since Barbie's opening, and I have a litany of screenings of Barbie photos to send to you that I've never sent you of theaters around the country of people in pink, straight men in wigs. Ken Wigs. Speaking of Ken, how did you get Ryan? What a stroke of genius that was. Two of the sexiest actors working in film today on the screen together. And he was so phenomenal.
Robbie Brenner (19:55):
Oh my God, he’s…
Kevin Goetz (19:56):
He's so great.
Robbie Brenner (19:57):
Kevin Goetz (19:58):
How did that come to be?
Robbie Brenner (19:59):
That was really Greta. Greta was like, Ken is Ryan. It's Ryan. I mean it's Ryan and you know, she went after him and look, who does not want to be in a Greta Gerwig movie? I mean, like, she literally, every person she approached was like a sign me up, the cast.
Kevin Goetz (20:15):
Well, that says something because she only made two movies prior to Barbie, isn't that correct?
Robbie Brenner (20:19):
Kevin Goetz (20:20):
So that's saying that those movies were so impressive that who wants to be an a Greta movie is even, has even more important in a way, you know what I mean?
Robbie Brenner (20:28):
Kevin Goetz (20:30):
So the next screening we did, the score’s like jump phenomenally. And I love to think of it as, again, Greta finding the center of the movie, having heard the audience, and now it is playing in that stratosphere.
Robbie Brenner (20:45):
That America Ferrera speech, you know, when we were in New Jersey, they were screaming and clapping and people were just going crazy. It's very seldom, I mean, you know, you, you sit in so many screenings, I've sat in a fair share of them, but there are very, very few movies. Not even Dallas Buyer's Club, which scored probably in the seventies. Like, people were kind of like, oh, okay. But Barbie is just like happy, it's like pink. And I think that, I think the other thing is like where we're sitting in the world, like post-Covid and you know, with streaming and people being able to sit in their homes and watch everything and everything is so available. I think people were just starved to get back to the movie theater.
Kevin Goetz (21:25):
I mean, they were going back to the movie theater. This was something else.
Robbie Brenner (21:28):
Well, this was like, this was going to be like, this experience.
Kevin Goetz (21:30):
This was Barben-Heimer, man.
Robbie Brenner (21:33):
Yes. This was going to be like Rocky Horror Picture Show. People were dressing up, they're ready to, like…
Kevin Goetz (21:37):
I haven't…when was the last time? Harry Potter maybe or something where you had that kind of, and Star Wars has that kind of, but you were creating a new franchise essentially of a flawed or deeply limited piece of IP that you, it's extraordinary. I mean, again, I'm, I'm going a little bit hyperbolic here because I, I had to eat my hat and crow more than once.
Robbie Brenner (22:05):
But, you know what, it could have turned out like horribly. I mean, I would say 99% of the people that probably would've directed this movie would've been terrible. It just could have been, it could, it could have just, you know, as you, as you thought, I think in those, these capabilities studies about Barbie, I think Barbie is polarizing. I mean, I think as much as people play with Barbie and love Barbie and identify with Barbie, people you know don't like Barbie and, and they, it makes people feel bad about the way they look and their image, and I need to be perfect. And I think what Greta and Noah did so brilliantly in this script is they unpacked all of that. They talked about it, what it feels to, to look a certain way or not be perfect, or what if I have cellulite and what if I don't look like this? And so it really explored all of women and what women deal with and what women deal with in corporate America. I mean, those scenes in the boardroom resonate with people because that's the truth. <laugh>. I mean, that is the world we're living in as much as women have a place in the world, and we've come a long way. It's still that way.
Kevin Goetz (22:09):
Now, corporately speaking. So Mattel has got to, I mean, I'm sure they've tried to create what you did in a movie for years for the brand itself, but this has genuinely changed it in the most positive way. The monetary value of that property and that image is now just exponentially huge. Correct?
Robbie Brenner (22:34):
Well, I think that because Mattel was really a character in the movie, I think it's in the zeitgeist now. I think people are like, oh, Mattel. And it's, it feels modern and cool.
Kevin Goetz (22:42):
And you guys allowed, you guys allowed like some self-deprecating stuff, which I thought was really smart.
Robbie Brenner (22:48):
I mean, we did, I mean I had many…
Kevin Goetz (22:50):
it was kind of brave, actually.
Robbie Brenner (22:51):
We had to be. I had many meetings with the, you know, with the people from the brand team, from the Barbie team and they had never made any movies before. They didn't know what the process was. They didn't know what to expect. So there was a lot of educating. Here I am working inside of a toy company and I'm educating people, and they're reading the script going like, I mean, are you, are you crazy? I mean, have you like lost it? Like we don't even know you that well. I know you've made some good movies, but like, are, are you sure?
Kevin Goetz (23:18):
What are they saying now? And I mean that sincerely.
Robbie Brenner (23:21):
Well, look, I think that they all went on board for the ride because I basically said like, get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You are never, you're going to white-knuckle it the whole time. It's going to be you're, it's for something that you feel like you have ownership over and, and you have like been the ambassador of for 15 or 18 years, you know, watching Barbie evolve and the body types and everything. Like there are going to be things that you're not going to like, like that scene for instance where Sasha, the young girl in the movie like basically really gives it to Barbie and calls her a bimbo and tells her she's a fascist. And you know there’s…
Kevin Goetz (23:58):
Who’s the one, what's the line that, that I know is a big controversial line?
Robbie Brenner (24:01):
Kevin Goetz (24:02):
Robbie Brenner (24:03):
Kevin Goetz (24:04):
She goes, hey, you motherfuckers. She comes down and says that or something. But Greta came up with a great solution for that. Right?
Robbie Brenner (24:09):
I know, but you know, it's interesting because at the end that was, that was Issa Rae. She says, you know, this is my dream house, motherfuckers.
Kevin Goetz (24:16):
Which was so funny and got took the house down, but I know Warner Brothers, rightly so was like, we can't have that word because that's crossed. And I think, I don't know if Mattel felt that, but I would imagine they did, like that word might've just been going just past the guardrail. But in order to keep the intent of it, you came up with like a bleeping out thing, right?
Robbie Brenner (24:37):
Well, I mean that was really Greta, I think the thing is, is that we went to the MPA and they actually gave her the PG-13 with the in it.
Kevin Goetz (24:44):
I heard that. Greta told me that.
Robbie Brenner (24:46):
And she said she was like, uh, well they don't have a problem with it. I mean, what is the problem are we really going to upset people in the middle of the country? But strangely people accept violence and sexuality. But like language is, is a problem, which I, literally having children, scratch my head going like, if they say fuck, like I, I really don't care. But like watching violence…
Kevin Goetz (25:10):
It's amazing. I'm still staggered by the fact that I go to different pockets in the United States and you get parents outraged over a particular word and you're like, but they just used a chainsaw to <laugh>.
Robbie Brenner (25:23):
Right. They just used a gun to kill somebody. Exactly. But that was fine.
Kevin Goetz (25:27):
Yeah. Oh wow.
Robbie Brenner (25:29):
That's a whole other session for another time.
Kevin Goetz (25:32):
When we come back, when we come back, we're going to talk to Robbie about what her plans are for the future. We'll be back in a moment.
Get a glimpse into a secret part of Hollywood that few are aware of and that filmmakers rarely talk about in the new book Audienceology by Kevin Goetz. Each chapter is filled with never before revealed inside stories and interviews from famous studio chiefs, directors, producers, and movie stars, bringing the art and science of audienceology into focus. Audienceology, How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love, from Tiller Press at Simon and Schuster. Available now.
Kevin Goetz (26:15):
We're back with Robbie Brenner, the head of the film division at Mattel Toy Company. Robbie, you, as I said, are an enigma in the business because you're so talent-friendly. You are an amazing development executive. Like you understand script intrinsically and deeply, and you are a great packager. Your taste is very, very classy. And you and I align on so many of the projects you've done. I mentioned Burden before.
Robbie Brenner (26:48):
One of the greatest lessons that I've learned from Kevin Goetz, whoever's listening to this, this is a very, very good one. People will forgive what happens in the first 15 minutes of the movie, so you don't have to worry as much about that. What people will always remember and what is going to be their ultimate takeaway is how a movie ends. So whatever happens in the last 10 minutes of the movie, it better be fucking amazing.
Kevin Goetz (27:13):
I want to amend that slightly with the following. First of all, many of the Act Three problems are Act One problems, as you know, like you have to lay that groundwork enough that it's going to pay off.
Robbie Brenner (27:26):
Kevin Goetz (27:26):
Sometimes people don't do that. So you can tack on something to try to fix your ending, but you gotta go back to Act One to do it. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> Often. Number two, with the streaming services, the, the proliferation of streaming, you will lose an audience in the first five to 10 minutes. You said seven?
Robbie Brenner (27:45):
Kevin Goetz (27:46):
You're exactly right. Five to 10 minutes of a movie. And we've great empirical evidence to, to show this.
Robbie Brenner (27:51):
That's the Netflix algorithm.
Kevin Goetz (27:53):
Well, it's not just Netflix, it's any of them. It's Apple, it's Hulu, it's Amazon, it's all of them. They have to grab an audience. It's a different calibration. It goes the same with advertising materials. You gotta grab them at the beginning. And then it used to be a slow burn, right? But not, so now you have to grab them almost a cold opening. Linear television figured that out. They always had that really exciting cold opening to grab you so you'd stay after the commercial break and come back. And I think movies really are going that route have to think about that. So it's a question that I ask in all my focus groups. Would any of you have tuned out? That's an important piece of information. That said, I still believe what you said to be true. Or I guess what I have said to be true, which is the ending is the most important aspect.
Kevin Goetz (28:44):
How you leave them, and I want to say how you leave them feeling and the satisfaction level. And you have to kind of click two boxes, intellectual satisfaction, meaning all your questions are answered, or even if it's ambiguous or not answered, they're addressed, and your emotional. And Barbie had both, for example. Dallas Buyer's Club, as a bummer as the subject matter is, had both. Burden had both. What other movies can you speak of that you're super proud of that were near and dear to your heart? Because I know you understand what I'm saying and I can even see it in your eyes right now that you get it.
Robbie Brenner (29:31):
Well, I think Call Jane, which you know, I made a few years ago with Elizabeth Banks has that, I think The Fighter, which I worked on, has that.
Kevin Goetz (29:40):
The Fighter. Wow. Probably David O. Russell's best film.
Robbie Brenner (29:43):
Kevin Goetz (29:44):
Yeah. I mean, he's made a couple of really good ones, but that particular one struck a nerve for me.
Robbie Brenner (29:49):
I think so. Look, it was a true story and Scott Silver is just a fantastic screenwriter, and he wrote that script and…
Kevin Goetz (29:55):
But the other thing about you is like, you know the town so well, so you have great relationships. I don't think, and I'm going to maybe go on a limb here, I've never heard a negative thing about you and so, if anyone were to say anything, even questioning your integrity or who you were, I would be suspect of them. By the way, I say the same thing about my father.
Robbie Brenner (30:17):
Aw, that's, that really touches me.
Kevin Goetz (30:20):
It's true. I mean, you are an authentic person, and just the fact that you are coming on this show and talking so openly about not just the great things, but some of the warts to get there is a testament to that. It does. It, it is Robbie.
Robbie Brenner (30:36):
I think the thing is, is that I truly love movies. For me, I make movies and I'm a part of 'em because I have to be, it's something that is in my blood. It's, it's in my skin and I have to do it. I have to tell stories. I can't, I could do another job. I, I maybe I'd find something that I could do well, but for me…
Kevin Goetz (30:58):
I'm sure you're being offered every job in town right now.
Robbie Brenner (31:01):
I just think movies, the idea that you go and you see something for, you know, an hour and a half or two hours, and it could sit with you and resonate with you forever or change the course of your life or change the way that you look at something. Or I think movies are, are so powerful, you know, and they live on, it's just a very, very satisfying, I mean, it can be unsatisfying too. We've worked on movies together that did not succeed.
Kevin Goetz (31:26):
And we've had private conversations where we're like, oh my God, how are we going to fix this? How are we going to get through this.
Robbie Brenner (31:33):
Kevin Goetz (31:33):
And then, ultimately, we have to love those children just as much.
Robbie Brenner (31:38):
Oh yes. I remember that one time with that one movie. Nothing was working. We workshopped it for a year together. And you basically were like, we're going to screen the end and then we're going to shut it off, and then we're going to ask people what they want to see. And we did that and then…
Kevin Goetz (31:52):
Well, it's in my book, we can talk about it. Yeah. It's Immortals.
Robbie Brenner (31:55):
Kevin Goetz (31:55):
And it was beautifully directed by Tarsem. He's a visual genius. But for whatever reason, the trajectory of the, the driving motor, getting into that second to third act, was just falling short. And so my suggestion from a research standpoint was, let's bring it up to that point and stop the movie and risk the audience turning on us, but bring them in on this. And it was a small group.
Robbie Brenner (32:22):
Kevin Goetz (32:23):
But so effective because the questions were, what do you want to happen now? What do you think should happen? What do you want to happen? And we heard those responses and reshoots, I think $10 million worth of reshoots came as a result of that. But the movie was, I think one of, if not Relativity’s most profitable movies, right?
Robbie Brenner (32:48):
Yeah. At the end of the day, it opened at number one. We completely turned the movie around, and it wound up being a huge success.
Kevin Goetz (32:55):
So Robbie, what's next at Mattel? What are you working on?
Robbie Brenner (32:58):
So we've announced 14 projects that we're doing at studios. 14. 14. So Hot Wheels, and Wishbone, and Polly Pocket that we're doing with Lena Dunham and Lily Collins.
Kevin Goetz (33:11):
Such a smart sort of hire in Lena. Like, what was that? How'd you do that? Or did she come to you? Or how, how did that happen?
Robbie Brenner (33:17):
I was having breakfast with her and she was like, I just love Polly Pocket. I grew up with Polly Pocket, I'm obsessed with Polly Pocket. And so I was like, great, let's develop Polly Pocket. And then I was having lunch with Lily Collins, who I put in Mirror Mirror and you know, I've known for forever. She was in another Tarsem movie, and she said, well, I love Polly Pocket. And so we all sort of joined forces and came up with this idea to do Polly Pocket that, and that Lily would produce alongside us and she would star as Polly Pocket and Lena would write and direct it.
Kevin Goetz (33:51):
Okay. And Hot Wheels is set up where?
Robbie Brenner (33:53):
Hot Wheels is at Warner Brothers. We're producing it alongside J.J. Abrams.
Kevin Goetz (33:59):
Oh, okay. I, first of all, Gary, who's our engineer, wonderful engineer in the other room through the glass, I'm looking, is going, oh yeah, I'm in.
Robbie Brenner (34:08):
Kevin Goetz (34:09):
But he wasn’t, were you in when we just said Hot Wheels? Were you in when we just said Hot Wheels? Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Okay. I was like, uh, when I heard J.J. Abrams and Hot Wheels, I was, I was just sold.
Robbie Brenner (34:23):
Uh, look, I…
Kevin Goetz (34:24):
You get that, you see, you get that intrinsically, you understand how that there are certain elements that will change the DNA.
Robbie Brenner (34:33):
Yeah, well you have to do that. I mean, if you're not basically running at something that scares you, like you should not be doing it. I mean that's, that's where like the magic is, I think.
Kevin Goetz (34:44):
Whoa. And so give us another couple of those projects that have some really interesting folks attached.
Robbie Brenner (34:48):
Well, some of 'em haven't been announced yet, but we have, you know, we're developing Barney with Daniel Kaluuya.
Kevin Goetz (34:54):
Barney, the dinosaur? I would normally say Barney, that little dinosaur that, but with Robbie Brenner spearheading this. No pressure Robbie.
Robbie Brenner (35:04):
Yeah, I mean, look, I think that the key to all of these is like, we're not, I feel like I'm a commercial, we're not about selling toys, but no, we're, it's not about selling toys. It's a, it's a, if we sell toys, fantastic.
Kevin Goetz (35:14):
No, but it isn't for you.
Robbie Brenner (35:15):
Kevin Goetz (35:16):
It's about bringing these properties to life.
Robbie Brenner (35:18):
To life in, in the way, like, like I look at what Kevin Feige did and I think to myself, God, this guy, like what a genius. He just tapped into something that was so incredible. And what I'm so proud of is that we made a billion-dollar movie that, as you said before, is…
Kevin Goetz (35:36):
Almost a billion and a half.
Robbie Brenner (35:37):
Yeah. A billion and a half.
Kevin Goetz (35:40):
Yeah, there's that other 500 million.
Robbie Brenner (35:42):
Exactly. Right. That doesn't have a sword and a cape in it, you know, and it's, it's like, it has something to say and it's complicated and it's messy. And that to me is like, that excites me. And that makes me feel very, very proud of, of that movie, you know, that it's like, it has something really substantive to say, like, if you really, like, if you really look at that movie, it's, there's a lot like about women, about men, about feelings, about physicality. It’s important, complicated stuff.
Kevin Goetz (36:17):
What do you like about capability testing? What do you, how do you use it to help you? In other words, the idea of capability testing is of course testing concepts larger than just a log line, but maybe two to 300 words and sort of pulling out the hyperbole from it and just giving the story elements, the basic story elements, and then adding sequentially, adding in the different elements that you have at the time. You use it really well. And I just want to know why and how and how that affects your decision making, et cetera. Can you just talk about that for a little bit?
Robbie Brenner (36:54):
Yeah, I mean, I think it's an amazing barometer to actually sort of dip your toe with people that are anonymous, that you don't know, of all different ages and demographics and to sort of test these brands, which is like 8 Ball. Do you want to see the R version of this movie? Do you want to see the PG-13 version of the movie? Do you want to see Jumanji or do you want to see sort of straight like Annabell, or Insidious, or The Conjuring? So I think it gives you like a very good roadmap as to sort of like what to lean into. I mean, you always taught me like, don't make a movie that's a feathered fish. Don't make a movie that feels like it's for like only one quadrant or maybe two. Like you want to cast the largest net possible.
Kevin Goetz (37:37):
Well, that's if you're making a commercial movie. Clearly, Everything Everywhere All at Once is essentially a feathered fish that really works. So I don't know if I'd ever have the guts to have green-lit it.
Robbie Brenner (37:49):
I mean, for, look, for me…
Kevin Goetz (37:51):
You know what I mean?
Robbie Brenner (37:51):
I did not really care for that movie. What I loved about the movie was the conviction and the vision of the filmmakers. But the movie, it was wrapped up in all of this zany insanity. The movie is actually pretty straightforward in terms of like the storyline. The storyline personally did not speak to me and didn't resonate with me.
Kevin Goetz (38:13):
So, but I have to stop. My husband watched, we watched it together, <laugh> and I, I, I loved it. And he's like, I don't get it, I don't like it. And everyone around us was like, I really like this movie. I really love this movie. I really love this movie. And he said, alright, I gotta watch it again. So he watched it again and he hated it more the second time.
Robbie Brenner (38:29):
I'm kind of like, I, I get it, I'm in the Neil camp. Like, I was like, what is this movie? Like what we’re sitting in chairs…
Kevin Goetz (38:36):
That's, well that's, that's the beauty of that movie. Looking back on it is probably the particularity of it, the fact that it does polarize, but the people that love it really love it. And the people that don't like it just don't like it. There's very few people that goes, yeah, that was nice, I liked it. Like, no one says that about that movie, which I think is today, a really important and speaks to what you said earlier, even about Barbie and other properties, which is like, you know, go for something, have a point of view. And I love what, I think it's Rick Linklater said this, if you're really great at something, lean into that. Don't try to make people good and fair to get them to a good, to very good because that's not the way to win an audience. And I agree with that. I think in raising your children, if they're great at skiing and biology, don't, and they're not good at reading and math, don't get 'em in reading and math. No. Get 'em skiing instructor and a frigging lab in your house.
Robbie Brenner (38:40):
Well, I think it's exactly what we were talking about before, which is like, don't be everything for everyone. Lean into things that feel authentic and singular and bold and different and scary. And, and that is where the magic happens. I always say to my children, have conviction in what you do. Have conviction. It doesn't matter what anybody else thinks or whatever. Go at it like with everything you have and if you fail, fail miserably at it.
Kevin Goetz (39:07):
Yeah, I want to just bring up this notion of feathered fish though before we get off this topic. Because Barbie could have been perceived as a feathered fish in a way. Like, what are you trying to do here? Who are you trying to appeal to? Fortunately it appealed to, we don't even call them quadrants. It appealed to Octants, which I call ways in which we look at an audience like boys, girls, moms, dads, teen boys, teen girls, general audience males, general audience females who are non-parents. Like it appealed to all of those eight segments in some form ot fashion. It could have been, as you said, gone a whole different way, but at the end of the day, it wasn't a feathered fish. And I wonder, I'm wanting you to answer the question of why it wasn't. What was it?
Robbie Brenner (39:53):
Well, when I first read the script, I actually, you know, I closed my door, it was Covid, it wound up in my inbox after just really, you know, sort of having that notion that it was going to be about this high heel and, and the Birkenstock. So here you can imagine, I didn't even know, I just remember getting a script and it said on the front cover, I know it's 147 pages, but don't worry, people will speak very, very, very quickly,
Kevin Goetz (40:16):
Robbie Brenner (40:18):
So, I turn the page and lept into reading the script, but I remember. First of all, I was like talking to myself. I was just like, oh my God, this is, this is unbelievable. This is incredible. I, I, this feels so unique. I've never, I've never seen anything or felt anything or experienced anything else like I've read.
Kevin Goetz (40:36):
That's your superpower, girlfriend. I'm sorry. That is your superpower. You see that, and I so respect it, admire it. I mean, seriously, wow.
Robbie Brenner (40:47):
I, when I put this down, I thought this is The Wizard of Oz. It reminded me of The Wizard of Oz about this woman, this girl who goes on this journey to understand all of these people and all of these things that comes back to realize, okay, I'm, after this journey, I'm not the same person anymore.
Kevin Goetz (41:12):
And there's no place like home.
Robbie Brenner (41:13):
Kevin Goetz (41:15):
Robbie Brenner, you are, you're just the greatest. I always speak so hyperbolically about people that are my guests, and the connective tissue of this program is that I basically have worked with everybody and know everybody. You and I have a very deep connection, and I just think your passion and your intensity and your tenacity and sheer, you will things to happen is so admirable. And all I can say to you is do do do do.
Robbie Brenner (41:49):
Do do do do.
Kevin Goetz (41:50):
Take it back.
Robbie Brenner (41:51):
Thank you so much, Kevin. I love you beyond words. I think you are so special and amazing, and I feel so honored that you asked me to be on your show.
Kevin Goetz (42:03):
Thanks. To our listeners, I hope you enjoyed our interview. If there's anyone in the world who hasn't seen Barbie yet, I encourage you to do so. Also, keep your eyes peeled for more movies coming from Mattel inspired by their various toy brands. For other stories like this one, please check out my book, Audienceology, at Amazon, or through my website at KevinGoetz360.com. You can also follow me on my social media at KevinGoetz360. Next time on Don't Kill the Messenger, I'll welcome the great comedy director, writer, and producer Will Gluck. Until then, I'm Kevin Goetz, and to you, our listeners, I appreciate you being part of the movie-making process. Your opinions matter.
Host: Kevin Goetz
Guest: Robbie Brenner
Producer: Kari Campano
Writers: Kevin Goetz, Darlene Hayman, Kari Campano
Audio Engineer & Editor: Gary Forbes
Produced at: DG Entertainment, Los Angeles