As the buzz around “Barbie” began to grow, so did Zaslav’s enthusiasm. If there was one thing he could do it was market a product. At Discovery, he turned “Shark Week” into a cultural phenomenon with promotional stunts like staging a race between Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps and a shark. (In fact, Phelps was swimming alone in a time trial, and the shark he was supposed to compete against was just a computer-generated image, but he still got big ratings.) Now Zaslav had an entire conglomerate of media at his disposal. He told his marketing team to involve all WBD divisions to help turn summer 2023 into “Barbie Summer,” and they did. There was a four-part series of the Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge on the home improvement channel HGTV, with teams competing to turn a real house into a Barbie Dreamhouse, and a Barbie-themed episode of “Summer Baking Championship” on the Food Network, in which All desserts had to be pink. Warner Brothers even partnered with Airbnb to renovate a profitable, real-life Barbie Dreamhouse in Malibu. Zaslav liked to send gift boxes to hundreds of his friends and acquaintances; Before the premiere, he put together a Barbie-themed one, complete with dolls, toy Malibu Barbie beach cruisers, and pink T-shirts and hats.
It was, of course, a huge success: a true box office smash, grossing a whopping $162 million in its opening weekend while also reminding America why it loved going to the movies. It was a moment of triumph for Hollywood, a validation of its enduring cultural relevance. Even now, amid media fragmentation, it had not lost its democratic power to attract and transport mass audiences around the world. No less important is that the film’s success was a rejection of the streaming-era conviction that data could be used to engineer a hit or, indeed, predict it. Apparently, even in the age of algorithms, no one knows anything. “It’s the kind of good news you get in the movie business but don’t deserve,” Diller says of “Barbie.”
It was also a moment of triumph for Mattel. The company’s CEO, Ynon Kreiz, was a former media and entertainment executive, and “Barbie” was part of his much broader strategy to turn Mattel into an intellectual property company, with a broad portfolio of films based on his toys. . (Coming soon: a Hot Wheels movie, a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots movie, and a horror-comedy movie based on Magic 8 Ball.) He hailed the film as a “defining moment” for his plan and was celebrated as a genius. Mattel shares had been rising for months as enthusiasm grew for the film and Kreiz’s broader Hollywood-focused strategy.
WBD shares, on the other hand, were flat. One movie wasn’t enough to change Wall Street’s perception of the company, which was that it was overloaded with debt and not prepared for growth. Zaslav’s stock didn’t rise either, at least among those who saw him as a symbol of corporate greed. On the Monday after “Barbie” weekend, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined a crowd of protesters at a WGA and SAG-AFTRA rally outside WBD’s world headquarters in Manhattan. “This is a fight against the endless pursuit of more wealth,” she said. “How many private jets does David Zaslav need?”
there was still one source of solace for Zaslav: cash flow. When WBD reported its earnings to Wall Street in early August, the big news was that it generated $1.7 billion in cash flow in the most recent quarter, allowing the company to pay down more of its debt. Most of this was due to Zaslav’s strict cost-cutting regime, but the writers’ strike had also been a blessing, allowing WBD to save “in the low $100 million range” during the quarter. Of course there were challenges, Zaslav told analysts. The studio and DC had “wasted their potential” – “Barbie” was not part of that quarter – and this was also a difficult time for the business. Wiedenfels, Zaslav’s longtime chief financial officer, said he was “incredibly proud” of that $1.7 billion, but there was much more where it came from; his “transformation team” was looking for more savings.