Two months ago when I wrote up my summer movie preview, I identified two weekends that would feature a clash of blockbusters. One was in June with Elemental opening against The Flash, and that turned out to be a great big nothing burger, as both the popcorn audiences and critics like me reacted lukewarmly to both films. However, even back in May I was hearing about people marking July 21 on their calendar for Barbie and Oppenheimer and internet memes packing the two titles together into “Barbenheimer.”
After gathering momentum for the entire season, the meme has now turned into the fourth-biggest box-office weekend in history as well as the highest-grossing opening ever for a film directed by a woman. Theater chains reported hundreds of thousands of moviegoers buying tickets for both films on the same day, and Oppenheimer even gathered an estimated $5 million of spillover business from people who couldn’t get tickets to sold-out screenings of Barbie. For an industry that’s dealing with two major unions on strike and the underwhelming performances of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, the news couldn’t come at a more welcome time.
Almost everyone chalked up the success to the disparate halves of Barbenheimer: Christopher Nolan’s biopic promised and delivered a brooding, carefully researched, panoramic meditation on the birth of the Atomic Age, while Greta Gerwig’s take on Mattel’s doll series portended and supplied a dash of existential angst to go with its dance numbers and pink paint. I don’t deny that this contrast of hot and cool worked to both movies’ benefit. It also allowed the studios behind both to cross-promote, perhaps sensing that the theatrical industry needed the boost. Thus, Matt Damon (who played Gen. Leslie Groves in Oppenheimer) announced that he and his daughters would be seeing Barbie during its opening weekend, while Gerwig and her star Margot Robbie posted photos of themselves with tickets to Oppenheimer and other Hollywood tentpoles.
I would also point out that both movies were directed by filmmakers who have considerable followings among critics and ordinary fans. Gerwig was coming off the success of Little Women, and the idea of her moving from a prestigious literary adaptation to providing a backstory for one of the world’s most iconic children’s toys was weird enough to draw attention. And both movies are stuffed with supporting actors who are recognizable to many people — the non-Margot Robbie Barbies are played by a formidable group that includes Issa Rae, Emma Mackey, Beanie Feldstein, Alexandra Shipp, and Nicola Coughlan. All this contributed to lots of people, both wearing pink and not, flooding the theaters.
Some experts are saying the success of these two films are evidence that moviegoers are tired of franchises. I’m not so sure, and I’ve got the last 12-plus years of box-office returns to back me up. Rather, I think that the crowds are responding to the originality of the telling. Nolan’s dual framing devices are an ingenious steel trap that snaps shut in the last hour or so of Oppenheimer. Meanwhile, Barbie dolls were created without a backstory because their creator didn’t want to constrict little girls’ imaginations, and this freed Gerwig to build a story about what would happen if Barbie suddenly became self-aware.
A Barbenheimer pairing won’t work for any two blockbusters, but it’s instructive how the meeting of these two particular films created something that Hollywood is forever pursuing: a moviegoing event. Fans and certain corners of the film blogosphere and social media had a hand in its creation, but it was all due to the fortuitous coincidence of these movies’ release dates. This doesn’t have to be unique.
Every year movie studios shy away from releasing anything opposite the latest franchise installment. The whole idea of counterprogramming has seemingly gone by the boards, when a clever countermove might very well make Barbenheimer into a semi-regular occurrence. The studios, the theaters, the talent, and the people buying the tickets would undoubtedly greet that with open arms.