The cultural phenomenon known as Barbenheimer hit theaters last weekend like a box office tidal wave, leading to the fourth-highest-grossing domestic weekend the industry has ever seen. The question is, does the joint success of Barbie and Oppenheimer indicate a healthy industry, or is it a false flag?
With $162 million, Greta Gerwig‘s Barbie became the year’s biggest opener in addition to the biggest-ever opening for a live-action comedy, and perhaps more importantly, the biggest opening weekend ever posted by a movie that was directed by a woman, besting Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden‘s Captain Marvel. It found another place in the record books, beating out a different comic book movie, but I’ll save that for the kicker of this story.
Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan‘s Oppenheimer, a three-hour biopic about J. Robert Oppenheimer, a man most people had likely never heard of before, grossed a remarkable $82.4 million, proving correct the old adage that “if you build it — it being original movies for adults, apparently — they will come.” That’s despite the fact that, due to its three-hour runtime, there were likely fewer showings of Oppenheimer, though it did have the added benefit of IMAX screens.
That both films tripled their early tracking estimates only proves the limited value of those services, which are used by studios so that marketing departments can see which demos they need to target in the run-up to release. Alas, Warner Bros. needed no such help with Barbie, as not only did the movie strike a chord with young women and teenage girls, but it also resonated with adult women, as Above the Line critic Kim Voynar noted in her review.
Though Barbie makes men the butt of many of its jokes, the irony is that the movie would never have made history without the male audience, which showed up in surprising numbers for this film. Though Barbie was never aimed at male audiences, it’s the kind of date movie that became palatable to men, some of whom opted to see Barbie as part of a doubleheader with Oppenheimer with their significant others — a compromise between the genders, if you will. Date movies are so often weighted toward men, but this one was for the girls, many of whom also went with large groups of their friends, just as they did more than a decade ago for the Sex and the City movie (2008) and Magic Mike (2012).
So what lessons should studios take away from this?
For starters, there’s no replacing the power of social media — and I’m not talking about paid TikTok influencers. I’m talking about organic conversation between people from all backgrounds, from women who grew up playing with Barbie dolls to drag queens who grew up wanting to be Barbie, to conservative oddity Ben Shapiro, who decried the Barbie movie as “woke” propaganda. The point is that the curiosity factor was through the roof on both sides of the political aisle, as “controversy” (i.e. anything that works people into a frenzy online) sells, no matter how absurd it is. The sleeper hit Sound of Freedom is no doubt enjoying the reverse, with liberals quietly visiting theaters to see what all the fuss is about.
Perhaps that comparison is a stretch, but clearly, these are two different sides of the same culture war that is playing out over social media, which is what really propelled Barbenheimer. After all, it’s not like some executive at Universal or Warner Bros. created that term. It developed organically, and it was the best possible thing that could’ve happened to both movies, as it made people want to be a part of the conversation. After all, 40,000 people reportedly bought advance tickets for a Barbie–Oppenheimer doubleheader, and while that surely cuts both ways — people primarily interested in one movie who went to see the other — it ultimately benefits both. So while Universal may have initially been pissed at Warner Bros. for choosing to release Barbie on the same day as Oppenheimer after Nolan had already planted his flag on that day, the fact is that Oppenheimer drafted on ticket sales for Barbie, and Nolan should probably send Warners a fruit basket for driving up interest.
While Barbie has certainly been around since long before Indiana Jones, Mission: Impossible‘s Ethan Hunt, and Fast & Furious family man Dom Toretto, Warner Bros. found a way to present the blonde bombshell doll in a new way, and as someone whose father worked in retail, I know that it’s all about packaging. If Mattel had forced Warner Bros. to make a “safe” Barbie movie — the kind that fans of the animated direct-to-video movies might expect — I wouldn’t be writing this piece right now. It would’ve been seen as another piece of disposable corporate IP, which its haters will still accuse it of being. The Barbie movie will never be able to escape the cynicism surrounding its entire existence. But it was a sly and subversive satire of corporate IP, one that played with nostalgia while examing very real gender issues in our society in a humorous way.
Barbie wisely knew its audience and played to its strengths, eliciting cheers in my theater following an emotional monologue recited by America Ferrera. Warner Bros. was richly rewarded for taking that creative risk, just as male audiences were rewarded for going to see a movie called Barbie, as there was something in it for everyone.
Of course, Oppenheimer was an even bigger risk than Barbie. Though it features a who’s who of Hollywood stars — Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Robert Downey Jr. — it’s a talky $100 million drama led by Cillian Murphy, who is certainly recognizable, but hardly a household name. Instead, it was sold on the name of one man, the Steven Speilberg of our day: Christopher Nolan.
Nolan has, much like Barbie, become a brand unto himself — brainy, calculating, and always visually dazzling. It should come as no surprise that the filmmaker he most reveres is Stanley Kubrick, as Nolan is nearly as exacting. It’s not easy to make a summer moviegoing event out of a biopic about the father of the atomic bomb, but the film — again, like Barbie — received an ‘A’ CinemaScore from audiences. I was worried that the film might be a little bit too dense for the general public, but clearly, people are hungry for thought-provoking narratives that challenge their perspectives.
Many awards pundits thought Universal was crazy for releasing what was clearly a fall movie in the middle of the summer, but surprise, surprise… Oppenheimer played like gangbusters. If anything, one of the lessons studios should learn from this one is that you can release high-minded dramas and other Oscar contenders in the middle of summer, as that appetite doesn’t simply disappear for nine months of the year.
While the marketing behind both films was absolutely brilliant, both studios left themselves a gender flip to pivot to as The Big Release Date neared. For example, Barbie leaned hard into Ryan Gosling‘s Ken in the run-up to release in an effort to draw more men into the theater, while Oppenheimer placed greater emphasis on the women in Oppie’s life, played by Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh, in an effort to recruit female audiences into this male-dominated story.
Universal was also smart to start marketing Oppenheimer early, but it’s just as important to leave yourself something to pivot to in order to avoid hammering home the same message for months on end. Likewise, Barbie also got the ball rolling early as Gerwig embraced on-location filming that allowed stars Margot Robbie and Gosling to be seen rollerblading in costume together in Santa Monica. That’s really when the Barbie hype train began. The lesson? Start early, and don’t be afraid of social media, which is usually an ally.
Another lesson? Movie stars are worth their salaries. Barbie does not gross $162 million with Amy Schumer in the title role. That’s a different movie. But Margot Robbie proved worth her weight in gold, as she’s a great ambassador for the Barbie brand, in addition to being one of the few genuine movie stars out there. Likewise, who would’ve thought that Gosling would be earning legit Oscar buzz for his work as Ken? I’ll leave it to the Academy to decide whether that’s a leading man turn or a supporting performance, but what’s hard to dispute is Gosling’s utter commitment to the himbo role. To say he understood the assignment would be a severe understatement.
And though, as noted above, Cillian Murphy may not be a movie star by name, it was smart of Nolan to surround him with half of Hollywood, including both the big-name co-stars noted above, and rising stars such as Florence Pugh, Rami Malek, and Jack Quaid.
And finally, the last lesson that studios should learn is one that comedian David Spade taught me when I was in high school, which is that “pink draws the eye.” Pink was everywhere in honor of Barbie, and having that eye-popping visual representation allowed Warner Bros. to get even more creative with its marketing. Don’t be surprised if more studios embrace the catchy color.
Studios should continue to support visionary filmmakers and their creative visions, so if they’re going to mine old IP, they have to do it in a fresh way. They can’t just reap the rewards of these two movies and learn the wrong lessons, such as greenlighting an Albert Einstein movie or a Niels Bohr biopic, or perhaps ordering multiple spinoffs from Barbie, which lends itself to an entire universe, as helpfully noted by one clever Twitter user.
So no, Paramount and Lionsgate shouldn’t start thinking they can get away with selling the joint release of Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie and Saw X as “Saw Patrol.” It just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
By the way, the $162 million opening weekend for Barbie was the 20th-highest opening weekend of all time. #21 and #22 are Nolan’s Batman sequels The Dark Knight Rises and The Dark Knight.