As excitement built around “Barbie,” Zaslav’s enthusiasm grew as well. He was skilled in marketing and at Discovery, he transformed “Shark Week” into a cultural phenomenon with stunts like staging a race between Michael Phelps and a shark (in reality, Phelps was alone in a time trial and the shark was a computer-generated image, but it still garnered big ratings). Now, with a whole media conglomerate at his disposal, Zaslav instructed his marketing team to engage every division of W.B.D. to make the summer of 2023 the “summer of Barbie” and they delivered. There was a Barbie Dreamhouse Challenge series on HGTV and a Barbie-themed episode of “Summer Baking Championship” on the Food Network. Warner Brothers even partnered with Airbnb to renovate a real-life Barbie Dreamhouse in Malibu. Leading up to the premiere, Zaslav sent out Barbie-themed gift boxes to hundreds of friends and acquaintances.
The movie was a huge hit, bringing in $162 million in its first weekend and reminding America why they loved going to the movies. It was a triumphant moment for Hollywood and a testament to its enduring cultural relevance, especially during a time of media fragmentation and streaming services. Additionally, it was a blow to the streaming-age belief that data could engineer or predict a hit. Mattel also celebrated the movie’s success, with CEO Ynon Kreiz hailing it as a “milestone moment” for the company’s larger strategy of turning Mattel into an intellectual-property company. However, despite the movie’s success, W.B.D. and Zaslav did not see a significant shift in stock performance.
Ultimately, Zaslav found solace in the company’s cash flow, as W.B.D. reported generating $1.7 billion in cash flow in the most recent quarter, allowing them to pay down more debt. Although there were challenges, Zaslav remained optimistic and focused on finding more savings through his “transformation team.”
There was still one source of solace for Zaslav: cash flow. When W.B.D. reported its earnings to Wall Street in early August, the big news was that it had generated $1.7 billion in cash flow in the most recent quarter, enabling the company to pay down more of its debt. Most of this was because of Zaslav’s strict cost-cutting regime, but the writers’ strike had been a boon, too, enabling W.B.D. to save “in the low $100 million range” during the quarter. Of course there were challenges, Zaslav told analysts. The studio and DC had “underearned their potential” — “Barbie” was not part of that quarter — and this was, moreover, a tough time for the business. Wiedenfels, Zaslav’s longtime chief financial officer, said that he was “incredibly proud” of that $1.7 billion, but there was a lot more where it came from; his “transformation team” was looking for more savings.