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Will the Live-Action Barbie Movie Be a Hit?

She has been an astronaut, a fashion model, a race car driver, and many other things, but now the first lady of American toys is becoming the star of a live-action film that will attempt to launch a franchise.

Blame The Lego Movie. The hit movie took in nearly half a billion dollars in global box office and gave any company with a successful toy line visions of cashing in at theaters.

One of the first new entries to jump into the toy-to-cinema fray is Mattel  (NASDAQ: MAT  ) , which plans to team with Sony  (NYSE: SNE  ) to make a live-action movie based on its Barbie franchise.

Sony won film rights from Mattel when producers who work with the studio pitched an idea in which Barbie uses her "personal and professional skills to step into the lives of others and improve them, almost like a modern-day Mary Poppins," Deadline reported.The film will likely be cast with unknowns in the lead roles (including the title character and her chaste boyfriend Ken). 

But while The Lego Movie showed that it's possible to take a long-established toy brand and make it hip for the big screen, toy-to-movie conversions have been as hit-or-miss as Battleship (the game, not the movie adaptation). Barbie will be attempting to make the transition at a time when the brand is arguably in a weaker position than it has been since its launch in 1959 (though she looks good for 55). 

A recent history of live-action movies based on toys

Just because The Lego Movie was a hit and there have been three successful movies based on The Transformers, that doesn't guarantee that hit toy equals a hit movie. In fact there have been more missteps than blockbusters. Below is a look at the box office takes for a number of films that brought popular toys to the big screen through live action (rather than animation). (All totals are from Box Office Mojo).  

  • Clue (1985): $14.6 million
  • Masters of the Universe (1987): $17.3 million
  • Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (2008): $17.6 million
  • Bratz: The Movie (2007): $26 million
  • Transformers (2007): $709 million
  • Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009): $836 million
  • Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011): $1.12 billion
  • G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009): $302 million
  • Battleship (2012): $303 million
  • G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013): $375 million

While this list represents a relatively small sample size the only blockbuster hits on it are The Transformer movies. The G.I. Joe films were modest hits while Battleship was not as big a failure as people remember it, but with a budget IMDB estimated at $209 million it was still a failure. Most troubling for Sony and Mattel -- the movies on the list aimed at boys do better than those aimed at girls.

American Girl dolls (also owned by Mattel) appeal to the young end of the Barbie audience while Bratz has been a very direct competitor ... and movies based on both bombed. In the animated world, Disney's (NYSE: DIS) Frozen has set box office records, but live-action films targeted at girls have struggled. (That's not limited to toy adaptations -- 2011's Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer brought in $15 million in box office, just a tad less than another literary adaptation, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, which pulled in $1.3 billion the same year.

Potter pulls in both genders-- boys are the prime audience, but Harry's appeal crosses gender lines, and the movies are filled with strong female characters. It's unlikely that Barbie will appeal to many boys, even if Ken has a really strong part. 

Is Barbie still popular?

Toy lines including Bratz and to a lesser extent the Monster High dolls (also a Mattel brand) have challenged Barbie's once unquestioned dominance, but the line still sells doing $1.2 billion in 2013. Numbers however are going in the wrong direction --sales for Barbie worldwide were down 6% in 2013 and fell a further 14% in the first quarter of 2014.  

"Barbie is competing with a lot of other girl brands that didn't exist previously," Stephanie Wissink, senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray, told the New York Daily News.

As a brand Barbie is struggling to stay relevant. A movie could make the toys cool again and serve as a relaunch, or it could demonstrate just how far the once indomitable brand has fallen.

The next hit or the next failure?

While Barbie has been a huge toy property it's hard to see how the character will translate into a movie that will have the broad appeal of The Lego Movie or Frozen. Sony and its producing partners seem to have agreed upon a plot that highlights the character's accomplishments rather than her fashion sense, which might help but it's barely a start. To succeed Barbie has to be both a movie kids want to see and one parents are willing to take them to. Part of the appeal of both Frozen and The Lego Movie is that the film's offer something for adults. 

The success or failure of the movie likely comes down to whether the studio can find a way to market the film in a way that makes the well-known doll feel fresh, hip, and modern. The Lego Movie used smart pop culture references and Frozen offered an empowered female heroine who is not just another princess character. It's possible to reinvent Barbie the same way but the toy has a lot of baggage that it won't be so easy to liposuction away.

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Daniel B. Kline

Daniel B. Kline is an accomplished writer and editor who has worked for the Microsoft's Finance app and The Boston Globe, where he wrote for the paper and ran the business desk. His latest book "Worst Ideas Ever" (Skyhorse) can be purchased at bookstores everywhere.

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