“Barbenheimer” Is the Success Story Hollywood Sorely Needed

2023 has been a tumultuous year for commercial cinema. 

If the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike wasn’t enough, they have since been joined in protest by the Screen Actors Guild, halting countless productions as the groups negotiate with the studios on matters such as residuals and the use of artificial intelligence, though neither side appear close to an agreement, with the chief negotiator for SAG-AFTRA saying that the strikes could run into early 2024.

On top of all that, commercial tentpoles that would have been fairly safe bets just a few years ago have floundered in 2023. DC Studios has had a particularly rough time as it is poised to move into the James Gunn/Peter Safran-era, with Shazam! Fury of the Gods and The Flash flopping hard at the box office. In fact, the latter is now one of the biggest box office bombs of all time, although a confluence of issues has contributed to its colossal failure, not least its years of development hell, the conveyor belt of directors that came and went, and the unending, at times disturbing controversies of its lead, Ezra Miller. However, The Flash failed not by a lack of trying on the part of its marketing team. 

Sadly, the same cannot be said of the other major bomb this year, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Boasting a budget that’s estimated between $300 and $400 million – which makes this one of the most expensive films ever made – it’s not hard to imagine that the inflated costs left little for the marketing budget (which is an elusive number never included in a film’s budget estimate). Or, that at least seems to be the case given how poorly it has been handled. A great measure of a film’s marketing is its saturation, by which I mean how ubiquitous and eye-catching the marketing is, to the point that its presence in advertising seems almost like an inescapable fact of life for a brief period, acting as a frequent reminder of a film’s impending arrival. My partner, for example, had no idea that Indiana Jones, one of the most recognizable intellectual properties in cinematic history, had another entry releasing until I told her last week. The box office numbers reflect as much, with the film already ranking amongst the biggest bombs of all time before it has even finished its theatrical run.

Compare Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, then, to the mass marketing of the Margot Robbie-led Barbie, or the Christopher Nolan biopic Oppenheimer, and one can already see why their simultaneous release, labelled online as “Barbenheimer”, has to come Hollywood’s rescue.

These films could not be more different from one another. Barbie, co-written and directed by the seemingly infallible Greta Gerwig, is a satirical fantasy comedy based on the titular doll. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, is an R-rated biopic on J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is otherwise known as “Father of the Atomic Bomb”. On the surface, it seems that the only things these three features have in common: a release date of July 21st, star-studded casts, and widespread viral marketing, especially Barbie. However, regarding the “Barbenheimer” movement, instead of pitting the films against one another, which have quite different target audiences, internet users and actors, including those who star in these respective films, began billing them as a double feature, where instead of choosing between one or the other, they would simply see both during their theatrical runs. Even Tom Cruise chimed in, whose Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One also has to compete with “Barbenheimer’s” monster, has said he will see both, clearly recognizing the importance of this movement in a year where the box office has struggled mightily so far. 

The studios wisely rolled with it.

While immensely strong reviews for both Barbie and Oppenheimer certainly didn’t hurt, both films have been performing just as Hollywood surely hoped, with Barbie in particular far exceeding expectations, raking in a whopping $155 million on its opening weekend domestically, three times its initial estimates in June. According to The Guardian, Barbie has made an estimated $377 million worldwide during that period, with both these numbers setting a record for the highest-grossing opening weekend ever by a female director.

Oppenheimer has been no slouch either. Being an R-rated feature, the movie was always expected to make less than Barbie, though it still opened to $80.5 million domestically and $174.2 million worldwide, well on its way to turning a big profit and marking yet another resounding success for Christopher Nolan.

All this majorly contributed to what was the fourth-highest box office weekend in US history, which is all the more impressive when considering that it wasn’t some superhero movie at the forefront and could very well be a watershed moment for the post-COVID theatrical release. For it to be so, during blockbuster season Hollywood needs to, at the very least, continue delivering high-quality big-budget cinema such as we’ve seen these past two weeks.

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