Margot Robbie & LuckyChap’s Entertainment Empire: How They’re Thriving Off ‘Barbie,’ ‘Saltburn’ Shocks and ‘Being Original Every Time’

Margot Robbie & LuckyChap’s Entertainment Empire: How They’re Thriving Off ‘Barbie,’ ‘Saltburn’ Shocks and ‘Being Original Every Time’

Movies

When pitching Warner Bros. and Mattel on their offbeat, feminist reimagining of “Barbie,” producer and star Margot Robbie and writer-director Greta Gerwig predicted that their film would make a billion dollars at the box office. They, of course, were right — and then some. But one thing about the movie’s improbable journey to cultural ubiquity and its $1.4 billion global haul has taken Robbie completely by surprise. “We didn’t say this is going to make it to the Oscars,” Robbie says, referring to the film’s awards season momentum.  

Sitting on a sunny rooftop patio of her Los Angeles production company, LuckyChap, flanked by co-founders Tom Ackerley and Josey McNamara, Robbie says, “When we finished the press tour, I was like, ‘I guess I’ll throw all the pink out of my wardrobe now.’” They all laugh. “But the fact that we’re going to the Golden Globes and all that stuff? I truly did not see that coming. I’m not trying to be modest.” 

She remembers the feeling of watching Allison Janney win the Academy Award for 2017’s “I, Tonya,” LuckyChap’s first trip to the big show. “It was one of the best moments of my life,” she says, growing a bit misty at the memory. “There’s a really specific satisfaction to sit there and say, ‘ I played a part in seeing that person flourish.’” 

The critical and commercial success of “Barbie” is the culmination of six years of work by LuckyChap, which optioned the original material and enlisted Gerwig and Noah Baumbach to write the script. At LuckyChap, Robbie isn’t a producer in name only. She asks to be cc’d on every email, is involved in managing shooting schedules and budgets and, in the case of “Barbie,” even monitored the number of gallons of pink paint needed to cover the Barbieland sets.   

But it wasn’t just “Barbie,” the highest-grossing film directed by a woman in history, keeping Robbie busy in a jam-packed year. LuckyChap had two other films in motion: Oscar winner Emerald Fennell’s “Saltburn,” a sexually charged look at the British class system that plays like a more perverse “Talented Mr. Ripley,” and “My Old Ass,” a coming-of-age comedy from filmmaker Megan Park that will premiere at Sundance.  

In the process, LuckyChap has made it clear that it’s no longer a scrappy upstart: the partners are building an entertainment empire, one that will see them putting a new spin on the Ocean’s franchise, as well as partnering with red-hot filmmaker Olivia Wilde on “Naughty,” a Christmas comedy that’s been likened to “Bridesmaids” at the North Pole.  

To house its booming production enterprise, LuckyChap is outfitting new digs in L.A. Today, Robbie’s office, one of the only areas that’s fully renovated so far, boasts a plush white carpet and a rendering of a pink high heel that’s reminiscent of the iconic shot of Robbie stepping out of Barbie’s feathered shoes. Her friend also gifted her a piece from a New York street artist that has a 1950s era Barbie sitting on the floor with her stiletto pressed against the face of a crawling Ken doll — a perfect merging of Robbie’s breakout performance in 2013’s “Wolf of Wall Street” and now, Barbie, precisely 10 years later. 

Victoria Stevens for Variety

In that time, the company has grown to 13 employees, with a film division (directed by Bronte Payne) housed in one area of the office and the TV team (led by Dani Gorin) in another, all working on the 20 projects they have in active development.

“The office is a five-minute skateboard ride away from home,” Robbie says enthusiastically, while she and Ackerley give me a tour.

Before “Barbie,” LuckyChap’s three biggest films — 2017’s “I, Tonya” and 2020’s “Birds of Prey” and “Promising Young Woman” — were successful, grossing a combined $275 million worldwide and winning two Oscars out of six nominations. “Barbie” made five times that and recently earned nine Golden Globe nominations and a record-setting 18 Critics Choice nods, on top of special prizes at the Gotham Awards and slots on the National Board of Review and AFI lists of the year’s best films.

“God, if every year could be like this one!” Robbie exclaims as we sit down, her Australian accent punctuated with a hint of wistfulness.

Beyond the broken records and the accolades, Robbie, Ackerley and McNamara see 2023 as a shining example of everything they hoped to achieve with the company, which was founded in their London flat in 2014. Robbie and Ackerley, who are married, met on the set of “Suite Française,” an independent feature on which Ackerley and McNamara (both Brits) were working as assistant directors. Robbie was an Aussie soap star with big-screen aspirations. The trio bonded over their desire to tell female-driven stories. 

How do you plan to build on the success of “Barbie” and “Saltburn”?  

TOM ACKERLEY: What we set out to do in the beginning is working. We’ve built this company around filmmakers, and we want them to take big swings and be really bold and tell original stories. We’re happy to take the big swings and miss; we’d rather that than play it safe. 

MARGOT ROBBIE: Originality is definitely the key. But the thing about being original is you can’t do the thing that worked before. As much as we’re trying to celebrate the moment we’re in right now, our minds immediately go to what’s next. You can’t be original again; you have to be original every time. Whether it’s “I, Tonya” — the tone of that was so completely original — or “Barbie,” they’re all very bold. We swing for the fences, and sometimes you hit it out of the park and it’s amazing. But even if you didn’t hit it out of the park, you can’t not keep taking those big swings. 

Do you face pushback from studios?  

ROBBIE: When you’re in that production meeting on set and you’ve got everyone telling you that you shouldn’t trust that crazy decision — and all the past comps are telling you, “No, play it safe right now; don’t take this leap” — you have to be brave and keep taking that leap. I’ve just seen it time and time again, where there was a fork in the road and we completely backed our filmmaker and something really good happened. It could have been so easy to play it safe and do the thing that “should” work or “could” work or on the page makes more sense, but that’s when you start making mediocre stuff.  

JOSEY MCNAMARA: When everyone’s desperately trying to please everyone, you risk not pleasing anyone, because you can be spread too thin. For us, it’s thinking “Be bold. Know there’s an audience for it.” Particularly with a movie like “Saltburn” and Emerald as a filmmaker, she’s someone who’s willing to risk it all in the pursuit of something great. And the same with Greta and Noah.

“Barbie” ends on an amazing last line, with the title character announcing she’s going to see her gynecologist.  

ROBBIE: The gynecologist line is always the one that I’m waiting for people’s reaction because it takes a second. Like, you hear it and then your brain catches up and understands: “Oh, she has a vagina now.” 

Did Warner Bros. or Mattel ask you to change that? 

ACKERLEY: This feels like a safe answer, but filmmaking is all about trust, and that movie came together because everyone trusted in Greta’s vision so much. Ultimately, the line stayed in the movie because everyone trusted it. It doesn’t mean we didn’t have endless debates about it. But as much as we open the floor to the filmmaker, we also open the floor to the studio. 

ROBBIE: There’s not one voice at the studio and one voice at Mattel, so some people are like, “It’s brilliant. Let’s do it,” and other people are like, “I’m terrified. What if kids are screaming the word ‘Gynecologist!’ and asking their parents what that means.” And I was like, “That could be the best thing to come out of this, is little kids asking what a gynecologist is and learning that early on.” That’s really our gift to the world. 

Greta told us that she called Tom to say she didn’t want to show you different cuts of “Barbie” because she “loves to give actors the final cut of the movie, almost as a present” in exchange for their performance. But, Margot, since you were a producer on the project, that wasn’t possible. She quoted Albert Brooks’ famous line from “Broadcast News” that she wished you were two people “so I could tell my really good friend about this girl I think is so great.” 

ACKERLEY: That was a very funny phone call. 

ROBBIE: Greta’s so self-aware with things like that too; it’s one of the many things that makes her so charming. She’s like, “I know I sound irrational. But here’s what I’m feeling.” We worked through it. About two weeks before the shoot, I try to let that dynamic shift from, “I’m your producer,” to I’m your actor.” That doesn’t mean I stop producing; I just don’t do it in front of them as much, to be honest. Then you’ve got to transition back. It’s like, “OK, she’s gotta stop seeing me as her actor now and see me as her producer. And then we’ll do a press tour, and we’ll shift it back again.” 

What do you make of the “Barbenheimer” memes that greeted the simultaneous release of “Barbie” and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer”? 

ACKERLEY: When things hit the zeitgeist like that, it’s like lightning in a bottle. It just works. It was not intentional. People may try and replicate it, but I don’t think you can. The magic of the “Barbie” marketing campaign was like, even though it was a Barbie movie, it still had a sense of discovery. People were still clamoring for more. 

MCNAMARA: Something new would happen daily, and everyone reacted instantly and figured out new ways to utilize it and move with it. 

Margot Robbie Victoria Stevens for Variety

“Barbie” started out as a globally known brand. “Saltburn” is something very different. How did you approach that marketing campaign?  

ROBBIE: Marketing is very uncharted territory in so many ways that everyone is kind of learning together. And sometimes what you don’t know is a wonderful gift. In the marketing of “Saltburn,” I was like, “Why are we doing a 30-second teaser trailer? Why can’t we do something called ‘tasters,’ and it can be seven to 10 seconds?” And everyone’s like, “Yeah, let’s do that then. If it works, cool, and if it doesn’t …”  

There’s got to be an element of mystery. I hate trailers that have the whole movie condensed to two minutes. Everyone’s like, “It tested really high.” Of course it did; you gave someone the whole movie. Marketing an Emerald Fennell movie is tricky because she is the queen of plot twists, so all the greatest things, you can’t actually show. Because then it wouldn’t be so exciting when you see it in the movie.  

“Saltburn” is filled with provocative scenes, such as the moment where Barry Keoghan’s character, Oliver, slurps the used bathwater of Felix, played by Jacob Elordi. Or the unusual way in which Oliver chooses to desecrate a freshly dug grave. What did you think when you read the script?  

ROBBIE: It didn’t feel that shocking in the script, because Emerald immerses you into a world so quickly. She’s so masterful at tone and plot; she gets you into it so quickly — you’re just immediately like, “I’m in this world.” So by the time you get to something like the bathtub scene, she’s primed you for it. She’s got you. You’re, like, picking at a scab; you’re like, “I can’t help myself.” Or like popping a pimple: “I know I shouldn’t squeeze but I’m gonna.” 

That’s a great analogy. 

ROBBIE: I wish I could think of a prettier one. But she does that. And I think there’s something intentionally disgusting and satisfying about where you get to in “Saltburn.” Like, I think she wanted you to be equally as disgusted as you are titillated, and equally as shocked as you are by finding that depravity in yourself. She gets in your brain and she kind of taps into the most depraved parts of it, so that you’re complicit in the story. That’s the watercooler moment — the thing that people are talking about two weeks afterwards. 

MCNAMARA: At the Telluride premiere, I grabbed Tom’s knee when the bathtub scene was coming.

ACKERLEY: That’s one of the greatest things about making movies is you sit in the theater and you know that scene’s coming. And you’re like, “What are the differences in reactions that we’re going to feel here?” For “Barbie,” the fascist line is always a great reaction and the bathtub scene is such a collective gasp. We had some in “I, Tonya” — in the preview, we had people walking out, and we had people like having the best time of their lives.  

We’re not like, “Oh, we just want to make provocative cinema.” But that’s the joy of seeing how people react to situations. 

MCNAMARA: It’s what’s going to get people out there. When they think, “I can’t just sit at home and watch this; I have to experience it with a bunch of people I’ve never met before.”

Josey McNamara Victoria Stevens for Variety

LuckyChap also produced “Boston Strangler” and “Borderline” in 2022. How did you pull off making five movies in one year? 

ROBBIE: It’s not ideal, but movies are like babies — they’re just like, “Well, I’m ready to go.” 

MCNAMARA: Our responsibility to our filmmakers is to be there from day one to the finish, which is why doing five movies is tough. It wasn’t efficient for us because it killed us. We shot “Barbie” and “Saltburn” at the same time, so Margot had two weeks off [after “Barbie”] and then came to the set. I don’t think many other people do that.

ACKERLEY: Our superpower is, frankly, your work ethic. [He looks at Robbie] We always say unless the actor and director want to work as hard as the rest of the executives, it’s not gonna happen. And she works harder than everyone. 

ROBBIE: It’s also because the three of us are so close. I don’t know how you would do it if your producing partners were just business associates or colleagues. It’d be really tricky if there wasn’t friendship at the core.

George Clooney recently told Variety that he’s excited about your planned “Ocean’s Eleven” prequel. He said It makes sense that you’re playing his character Danny Ocean’s mother and Ryan Gosling is portraying his dad.  

ROBBIE: Honestly, I’m so chuffed to hear that. That is extremely high praise. Wow, how exciting! 

ACKERLEY: That wasn’t a plot point that we’ve confirmed or denied. We’re still working on the script. 

ROBBIE: So I don’t know who his parents will ultimately be or not be …  

ACKERLEY: Or if their parents are even in the movie. 

MCNAMARA: I wish I could be on the gossip channels all this information comes from. We hear it in the office. 

ROBBIE: I also read so much stuff that’s not true. “Margot Robbie’s doing that!” And I’m like, “I’m 100% not and I’ve never even heard that.” I know people do that just to whip up a buying frenzy. I mean, we should take it as a compliment.  

Tom Ackerley Victoria Stevens for Variety

How do you decide what projects to take on?  

MCNAMARA: It’s as important to know what to say no to as it is to say yes to. I don’t think we’re interested in pumping out 100 movies as quick as we can. It’s more, “Who are the people we love working with, and let’s build long-term relationships with them and help support their careers.” Repeat business is key.

ROBBIE: We have to be really clear about why we started the company and what our North Star is always going to be. Because any opportunity is exciting. We set out to break barriers with and for female talent, and if it isn’t a project that could potentially do that, then it’s not a project for us. 

ACKERLEY: We obviously have people we would die to work with, but we’re as excited about breaking new talent as we are working with the best of the best filmmakers, like the Gretas and the Emeralds of the world. We want to look back in 10 years’ time and be proud that we fostered and broke a generation of filmmakers.  

LuckyChap has announced that it will be making Olivia Wilde’s next film, “Naughty,” with Universal. The project is on target to begin shooting early this year. What interested you in it?  

ROBBIE: We have a penchant for actress-turned-writer-directors, between Olivia, Greta, Emerald and Megan. It’s our sweet spot. 

Margot, you’ve mentioned that you want to direct one day. What’s the timeline on that?   

ROBBIE: I don’t know. The tricky thing is, as much as I say I’m strict about saying no as a producer, I also get so excited with all the things that I could produce that it ends up taking up all my time. And as an actor, I get to work with so many brilliant directors and watch them do it — it’s like having a front-row seat to the best master class in the world. So it’s really tempting to keep doing that. But directing is a dear ambition of mine. 

Margot, you played Harley Quinn in three films (2016’s “Suicide Squad,” 2020’s “Birds of Prey,” which LuckyChap produced, and 2021’s “The Suicide Squad”). Are you hanging up Harley’s bat now that Lady Gaga is playing the character in the upcoming “Joker: Folie à Deux”? 

ROBBIE: I always wanted Harley to be a character that would get passed on to other actresses to play, the way there are so many iconic male characters. That was always the dream for her. 

Harley’s so fun and can go in so many different directions. You put her in someone else’s hands, and it’s like, “What are they going to do with her?” The options are endless. 

And what about a return to “Barbie”? There’s been a lot of speculation about plans for a sequel or a Ken spinoff.  

ROBBIE: It’s funny, that knee-jerk reaction in this day and age for everyone to immediately ask about a sequel. I don’t think it was like that 20 years ago. This wasn’t designed to be a trilogy. 

ACKERLEY: We’re still washing the pink off our hands. And the truth is, we still work on “Barbie” every day. We can definitively say we haven’t planned a sequel; we’re still focused on this movie. 

ROBBIE: Everything went into “Barbie” — and that’s how Greta works. She finishes every movie on empty, feeling like she could never make another movie because she put everything she had into that one. So I don’t know what it would take to fill that cup up again for her. Or for us. I think Warners would also agree. I don’t know what more could even look like. We want to make more films that have the effect that “Barbie” has. I don’t know if it has to be “Barbie 2.” Why can’t it be another big, original, bold idea where we get an amazing filmmaker, a big budget to play with, and the trust of a huge conglomerate behind them to go and really play? I want to do that

MCNAMARA: We’d have to get you back from the gynecologist.   

Additional reporting by Kate Aurthur and Caroline Brew 


Margot Robbie: Styling: Andrew Mukamal/Streeters; Makeup: Pati Dubroff/Forward Artists; Hair: Bryce Scarlett/The Wall Group; Manicure: Betina Goldstein/ The Wall Group; Look 1 (solo): Dress and earrings: Bottega Veneta; Rings: Anito Ko; Look 2 (group): Jacket, shirt, jeans and shoes: Bottega Veneta; Rings: Anita Ko

Styling (Tom Ackerley and Josey McNamara): Lauren Jeworski/The Wall Group; Tom Ackerley (solo): Sweater: Dries Van Noten; Pants: Brunello Cucinelli; Shoes: Jack Erwin; Josey McNamara (solo): Shirt: Thom Sweeney; Pants and belt: Brunello Cucinelli; Shoes: Crocket and Jones 

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