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Mattel’s Robbie Brenner Knows ‘Barbie’ Is a “Unicorn” That May Never Be Topped. She Still Has a Slate to Build

Five years after being tasked with building Mattel Films, THR’s Producer of the Year launched with the global phenom. Some $1.4 billion later, the indie veteran has a dozen (or so) projects in development: “I'm drinking from a pink fire hose.”

Mattel headquarters, in El Segundo, is some three freeways removed from the heart of Hollywood. It shares a parking lot with a DoubleTree, and the Stamps.com headquarters is across the road, but given the hold that Barbie has on the entertainment industry, it might as well be the center of the universe. Inside, Hot Wheels decorate the walls, a giant Magic 8 Ball sits by the elevator, Barbie-centric Warhols and Basquiats are housed on the upper floors, and Robbie Brenner is navigating future projects after producing the movie that became the cultural touchstone of 2023.

It’s a world away from her former indie film realm, one that saw her triumph with Dallas Buyers Club, the Oscar-winning AIDS drama, but also struggle to get funding for stories fewer and fewer in Hollywood want to tell. A New York City native who made student films at NYU with Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball), Brenner is an alum of Shakespeare in Love-era Miramax and has been known to take on her fair share of hard-to-finance auteur passion projects. “I’ve funded payroll before,” Brenner says with a laugh. “I’m thinking I’m either just the craziest, most unintelligent person in the world or I’m just passionate.”

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 Given all these indie credentials, in 2018, it came as a shock to some in the industry that Brenner took her current gig: making movies for toy corporation Mattel. Internally, there was some skepticism, too. Recalls Brenner: “They really hadn’t had any movies before. People were very encouraging, but were like, ‘We’ll believe it when we see it.’ ” After all, this was a decade after fellow toy corporation Hasbro had released its first major Hollywood entry, Transformers, with still no Mattel movie in sight. But some five years on, Mattel Films has released its first feature, Barbie, through Warner Bros. With over $1.44 billion at the global box office, it’s the rare project to attain frontrunner status for a best picture nomination and hold the distinction of being the No. 1 Halloween costume of the year.

Brenner, The Hollywood Reporter’s Producer of the Year, sat in a corner office filled with Barbie-inspired Barbies recently to talk the ups and downs of indie production, partnering with Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig, and shaking off worries about a sophomore slump.

You are best known as an independent producer, but you have previously worked in the studio system.

I worked at 20th Century Fox for several years and saw the way the other half of the world lived. I had come from Miramax, where everybody was so into sharing ideas and seeing movies. It was very alive. So then imagine: I went to the opposite in [Fox’s] Building 88, where you could roller-skate from one end to the other. You can hear a pin drop in that building. I had this huge office and I had a clicker to close the door because it was that far from the desk to the door. So, I walked into my office, I clicked the door closed and I sat there, and I just felt so overwhelmed and I actually cried, because it was so different. But it was a good cry because it was the beginning of a new chapter. 

What were some of the things you learned there?

I learned about the P&Ls and about making big movies with big ideas. I remember my first week we were told to come to the meeting with our big ideas. I was like, “Big ideas? What’s a big idea? I don’t have any big ideas!” I would just go with my intuition and how something makes me feel. I did that for a few years but then went off to produce more. There’s something so fulfilling about identifying an idea from the very beginning and then seeing it all the way through to the very, very end. You’re the first one in and the last one standing. I feel like every person in the movie business should produce a movie just to really understand what you’re up against and how difficult it is to actually make a good movie. It’s almost impossible. Making a bad movie is hard, so imagine trying to make a good movie.

What was one movie you were producing where you weren’t sure if it was going to be possible to make?

Dallas Buyers Club. The fact that we got that movie made — 20 years in the making with that movie. The movie fell apart three weeks before we were starting to shoot it. Matthew [McConaughey] had lost 45 pounds, and the person who was financing the movie didn’t come up with the money. I called Matthew to ask him if we could push the movie till after Christmas to try to regroup, and he said, “No, you’re going to need to figure it out. I’ve lost weight. I’m going to be there, and you’re going to show up and you’re going to be there and you’re going to figure it out.”

Somebody had put me in touch with these two guys who weren’t even in the movie business in Texas. I remember driving my car up Laurel Canyon. I pulled my car to the side of the road at Mulholland and I pitched them Dallas Buyers Club. At the end, they were like, [Brenner does a Texan accent] “All right, we’re in!” I was like, “It was that easy?” After the hundreds of people who passed, we made the movie for $4 million.

Brenner left on set for with Sigourney Weaver for 2022 Sundance feature Call Jane.
Brenner (left) on set for with Sigourney Weaver for 2022 Sundance feature Call Jane. Courtesy of Subject

You had a long career as an independent producer. Why did you decide to go internal again? 

I had just made this movie Burden, which was another 20-year journey, and it won Sundance [the audience award in 2018] and we couldn’t get distribution for the movie. I’m thinking, “This story is so incredible and it’s important, and it’s a true story. I just don’t understand.” It’s hard because you could get one bad review and you’re hanging out there for a long time before you get your next one, so then everybody piles on, asking, “What’s the Rotten Tomatoes score going to be? Can we distribute this movie?” That can determine the fate of your movie. It’s hard because you put your heart and soul and everything you have into telling these stories and in one moment it could be the end of it.

It wasn’t a conscious choice that I decided to go back inside [a company]. The world was changing with streaming, and independent movies are becoming harder and harder and harder to make. Watching all that change, I was thinking, “When the world changes, you’ve got to go with it.” At that same time, I was approached by Risa Gertner at CAA, and she had said to me, “Do you want to meet Ynon [Kreiz, Mattel’s CEO]?”

What was step one when building a slate for Mattel Films? 

When I first got here, the thing that I tasked myself with was to go through all the brands. There are hundreds of them, and you cannot even believe what’s there. Apples to Apples and Fireman Sam and Pooparoos. I mean, there’s Pooparoos! I identified the 50 titles that I thought would lend themselves to big theatrical, commercial movies. That’s where I started. 

Where was Barbie on that list?

Barbie was obviously top of the list, but I thought that it would be the hardest one of all to make. Everybody has a relationship with Barbie, and she’s 64 years old and held every career and has been to the moon. We aligned with [Robbie’s] LuckyChap and we started on the journey with them. Before Greta, we had heard other takes, but nothing that, like, “Oh my God, this is the Barbie movie.” But Margot had a relationship with Greta, and she suggested we approach her.

What was it like reading the Barbie script for the first time?

At the very beginning stages of talking to Greta, Tom [Ackerley, Barbie producer], Margot and I went to New York and met with Noah [Baumbach, co-writer] and Greta. They were spitballing nonconnected ideas about the movie, but there was this idea of this Birkenstock and high heel and the movie was going to live somewhere in between.

I’ve never been involved in a movie where you really do not know what the story’s going to be or where it’s going to go or what it even is. We got little bread crumbs along the way, but not really anything. It went from that [meeting] to the moment where the finished script landed in my inbox. I was having an out-of-body experience.

Fellow Barbie producer Tom Ackerley, producer-star Margot Robbie, director Greta Gerwig, star America Ferrera and Brenner.
Fellow Barbie producer Tom Ackerley, producer-star Margot Robbie, director Greta Gerwig, star America Ferrera and Brenner Eric Charbonneau/Getty Images

What was it like pitching to Warners?

Normally when you go to have a movie greenlit, you have to have everybody at the studio buy in. But we were in COVID, so you’re not looking at anybody. Greta put together a pitch with a 12- to 15-minute reel, which she narrated, and it talks about the tone of the movie, the casting of the movie, the look, the feel, the references, the music. We all had our own sections to present. You’re on a Zoom and you can’t see anybody, you’re just looking into a void. But it was so clear to everybody that this script was so unique and fresh and happy and exciting. We were all done with COVID and politics and whatnot, and there was this pink, delicious movie that has so much to say.

The Mattel board and the CEO are the butt of a lot of jokes in Barbie. What convincing did you have to do, internally?

We all just had to get on board. Ynon has a great sense of humor, and I think he thought it was funny. A lot of boardrooms do look like they have a lot of men in them because they do. Half of our board is women, but for the most part, most corporations are predominantly men. To be inside the joke and to be part of it and to be able to laugh at yourself, we all just had to encourage each other that it’s funny. If you’re not laughing at yourself, someone else is.

Brenner with Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz. Above
Brenner with Mattel CEO Ynon Kreiz Courtesy of Subject

When did you first recognize that Barbie could be as big as it became?

I knew from going to the test screening in New Jersey. People knew they were coming to see Barbie, because people find these things out. I got to the mall in Paramus and I see this pink parade. They had dressed up for a test screening.

Did you anticipate Barbie being fodder for Fox News, which accused the movie of everything from virtue signaling to “toxic femininity”?

I don’t think we talked about it or anticipated it, but it was the talk of the world. I think anybody would try to grab onto anything that is taking over, saying, “How do I make myself part of this conversation?”

Have you seen more buy-in from the industry for Mattel now that Barbie is out?

It was great from the day that I got here. People did want to work [with us], but, yes, I now have a meeting every five minutes. People see how supportive we are of filmmakers and how we are not here to micromanage people. We’re here to really tell the best version of whatever brands these are and to make something that feels different and interesting. To have made a movie without a sword and a cape in it and it’s in the top 14 grossing movies of all time, it’s amazing. I’m drinking from a pink fire hose.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about a Barbie sequel.

When you have something that’s successful, how can you not talk about the sequel or what that is? But everybody is just reveling in the moment here now and enjoying this ride that just keeps going.

You have many, many properties in development. Is there crossover potential?

There’s so much crossover potential. Certainly Barbie can live with Hot Wheels and Matchbox and Major Matt Mason. The other day someone came to visit, and we were giving them a tour and we were showing them the Basquiat upstairs and the Warhol. It happened to have been Halloween, so all of the kids were trick-or-treating [in offices] and in costumes. I thought to myself, this is a setup for a movie, a kid’s heist film where they steal the Basquiat and Warhol. That’s a good Mattel movie.

Barbie set the bar high for your first film out of the gate. Do you worry about the follow-up for Mattel Films?

Barbie is a unicorn. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before; nothing that most people have been a part of. But the only thing that I can do is to just focus on each project, individually. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.