Barbenheimer: A Tale of Two Summer Blockbusters

By Behind the Scenes in Hollywood Archives
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One weekend. Two films. One pink. One black and orange. The former a comedic and heartwarming tale of empowerment from Greta Gerwig, the latter a heartbreaking character study of the inventor of the most devastating weapon in history, from Christopher Nolan. While it was expected both films would have some financial success at the box office given the attached casts and directors, no marketing agency, PR department or industry executive could have foreseen audiences treating Barbie and Oppenheimer, the two vastly different films with virtually nothing in common, as a must-see double feature thanks to the viral phenomenon that became known as #Barbenheimer.

Audiences came out in droves to see either or both films last weekend. After just one week, the films have grossed a combined $700 million worldwide, broken several records, including earning the highest-grossing opening weekend for a female-directed film, and creating the fourth-biggest box office weekend in history, and the biggest since the MCU’s multi-billion-dollar Avengers: Endgame in 2019.

You may ask, has a Barbenheimer-level cross-promotion of this kind taken place before? In a way, yes. You may recall in 2008, two of the biggest films of the year were released the same weekend. One being, coincidentally, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight – back when Warner Bros. was still his long-time distribution partner before their falling out due to WB’s move to release all their 2021 films simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters. The other was the hit musical romantic comedy Mamma Mia, which went on to gross $600 million at the box office and was the highest-grossing live-action musical film until it was dethroned by Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018. Social media wasn’t as prevalent back then, so there were no viral marketing campaigns, but similarly, audiences came out in droves to see both films and enjoy repeat viewings thanks to the existing IP behind each film, whether it was Batman or the ABBA catalog, and the mega star power of Christian Bale and Meryl Streep, respectively.

Barbenheimer certainly wasn’t intentional, as each film was distributed by competing studios, not to mention the bad blood between Warner Bros. and Nolan. Reportedly, Nolan has speculated that his former distributor chose to release Barbie out of spite of their broken partnership. Regardless, #Barbenheimer was a lightning-in-a-bottle event that studios will likely try to capture again, as they have attempted in the past. Just look at how many hangout comedies came to fruition with the popularity of Friends, workplace comedies after The Office, or film franchises with “shared universes” once the MCU became a phenomenon.

Many are already speculating about another weekend with polar opposite films becoming hits, though I’m skeptical given how different the films actually are. I’m talking about Saw Patrol, which is the latest entry in the already-done-to-death torture horror film franchise Saw, and the daytime animated children’s series-turned-film Paw Patrol. A more likely double feature will be Marvel’s and Sony’s latest in Kraven the Hunter starring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Martin Scorcese’s Killing of the Flower Moon, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which has already been dubbed Kraven of the Flower Moon. We’ll see if it sticks.

Gen Z and younger Millennials have been especially supportive of both films and were no small part in their financial successes and viral marketing campaigns, whether it was posting their “This Barbie/Ken is…” filters on social media, dressing in their best pink when seeing the film, or taking advantage of the life-size Barbie boxes at movie theatres for photo ops. Under any Barbie-related post on Twitter, you’ll scroll through endless links to Etsy pages and other online stores with people selling Barbenheimer shirts, whether it’s showing Barbie’s silhouette in front of a pink mushroom cloud, or a split profile of the two films’ titular stars Margot Robbie and Cillian Murphy. While their casts weren’t able to complete their usual promotional tours filled with talk show appearances leading up to the respective films’ releases, the tens of millions poured into their marketing campaigns proved effective given their box office receipts for their first week in theaters.

Looking at the post-pandemic box office during the last couple years, superhero fatigue seems to be at an all-time high, and sequels to franchises like Transformers, The Flash, Indiana Jones and even Mission Impossible have performed below expectations. Whether there will be another Barbenheimer -- meticulously concocted or the result of fans and moviegoers hyping it up all over social media -- is still hard to determine. What is certain is that audiences these days are craving originality, fresh storytelling and new perspectives above all else these days. Barbie and Oppenheimer are undeniable proof of that.

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