Shortly after she took over DC Comics six years ago, Diane Nelson noticed a glaring problem at the company owned by film and TV studio Warner Bros.
DC's vast library boasted some of the most popular female superheroes and super villains in the industry dating back to the 1940s — including Amazon princess Wonder Woman, Kryptonian heroine Supergirl and Batman nemesis Poison Ivy. But comic book characters had been targeted almost exclusively at boys and men.
"We realized there's this untapped opportunity," said Nelson, whose large office door in Burbank is covered in an image of Wonder Woman. "There's clearly demand in the marketplace to serve the young girl market."
Now Nelson, 48, is trying to zero in on that audience with the launch of a new superhero franchise aimed at girls six to 12.
The company's DC Super Hero Girls — a youthful, feminine twist on popular characters — is hitting store shelves for the first time this year with a trove of new action figures, dolls, costumes and other products. The ambitious rollout starts next month with a limited release in Target stores and followed by a global launch in July. The initiative re-imagines popular heroes like Wonder Woman and Batgirl — plus more obscure characters such as Bumblebee and Katana — as high-schoolers.
And it's not just toys. Burbank-based Warner Bros. hopes the franchise will also generate revenue across its film and television businesses.
The push comes at an important juncture for the studio. Warner Bros. Chief Executive Kevin Tsujihara has bet big on its stable of DC superheroes to drive box-office sales and television ratings. The studio is hoping upcoming movies like "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," "Suicide Squad" and "Justice League Part 1" can help reverse its box-office fortunes after suffering several flops last year. DC has seen success with Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" films, but the unit has lagged behind Disney's Marvel Studios, which dominates the superhero market.
Nelson, who also runs Warner Bros.'s consumer products business, has overseen major licensing brands such as Harry Potter and The Hobbit. She says young girls have been mostly excluded from the superhero action. American consumers spent $7.4 billion on girls' toys last year for kids aged six to 12, according to research firm NPD Group, and a third of those sales were dolls.
"I think this is one of the most important things that DC will do," said Geoff Johns, DC's chief creative officer. "It's changing the culture of what superheroes are."
The studio has already unveiled a series of short online videos, and will soon premiere a 44-minute animated TV special on Turner Broadcasting's Boomerang network. Boomerang will also air the girls' video shorts and music videos. Warner Bros. and Turner are both owned by Time Warner Inc.
The TV special and animated shorts, which will be promoted by Cartoon Network, play off the personalities and abilities of the young heroes, who are still learning their powers and place in the world. Wonder Woman is an overachiever, but still a vulnerable teenager. Supergirl can fly, but she's socially awkward. Harley Quinn is mischievous, though not yet the murderous villain she later becomes in the comics.
The Super Hero Girls program spans a wide range of products, including Batgirl and Supergirl costumes, a Wonder Woman shield that fires plastic projectiles, and books. DC plans to release a smartphone and tablet app in March, which will include videos, games and character bios.
If successful, Warner Bros., may develop a movie based on the characters, said Nelson, a veteran Warner Bros. executive who played a key role in shepherding the Harry Potter franchise.
Analysts applaud Warner's efforts to make superheroes relevant to young girls.
"Superheroes at DC Comics traditionally have been targeted toward men and boys, so targeting girls is the smart economic thing to do," said Laura Martin, senior entertainment analyst at Needham & Co. "That DC Comics is focusing on the less well-served target market is smart business."
The company has already reached into its vault of female characters, unleashing the CBS prime time series "Supergirl" last year. The show, which was picked up for a full 20-episode season, is averaging about 10 million viewers a week, according to Nielsen.
And then there's the "Wonder Woman" movie, set to debut theaters in 2017. Wonder Woman, played by Gal Gadot, will make the first live-action feature film appearance in next month's "Batman v Superman." Wonder Woman last commanded a mass audience when Lynda Carter played her on TV in the late 1970s.
"I think [girls] have been ignored for a long time," said Deborah Snyder, who is producing "Wonder Woman," "Justice League" and other films for Warner Bros. "Girls like action. It's important for girls to see themselves as the hero."
Investors also have been pressing Warner Bros. to do more with their female heroes. At a 2014 shareholder meeting, executives were questioned about why the studio was not doing more with those characters from its library. At the time, Nelson told investors that the company was working on projects that would appeal to young girls.
"This is not a flash in the pan opportunity for us," said Nelson, President of DC Entertainment, in a recent interview. "We believe this is a big, big business."
Warner Bros.'s consumer products business remains relatively small compared to rival Disney's, which generated more than $45 billion in retail sales for in 2014, according to License Global magazine. Meanwhile, merchandise based on Warner Bros. brands generates $6 billion in annual retail sales.
DC is hoping to find the kind of success with female superheroes that Disney has enjoyed with its lucrative line of princess toys and costumes, fueled by the popularity of the hit animated movie "Frozen."
"I'm bullish on it," said Juli Lennett, NPD Group's toy industry analyst, said of the DC Super Hero Girls products. "I think that girls are into it, and will embrace an action doll."
To design the Super Hero Girls toy line, DC teamed with El Segundo-based manufacturing giant Mattel Inc., maker of Barbie and Monster High.
The characters had to have realistic and appropriate figures for high school students, while looking athletic and powerful.
Executives took pains to ensure they remained true the graphic novels, eschewing the pinks, teals and pastel hues typical of most girls toys. Cumbersome dresses were out. A pink jumpsuit in an early version of Catwoman didn't pass muster. Neither did a necklace for Wonder Woman or high heels for Poison Ivy, said Tanya Missad, director of consumer insights for Mattel.
"She has to look strong and cute," Missad said. "But first and foremost she has to be a superhero."