Movies are back. Finally. After weeks of feverish speculation about whether the combined forces of Barbie and Oppenheimer could revive the movie theater business, Barbie earned $337 million worldwide and Oppenheimer brought in another $174 million. Together, the movies delivered the biggest weekend at the box office since Avengers: Endgame dropped in April of 2019. Barbie, in particular, has skyrocketed beyond analysts' predictions to land the biggest debut of the year so far. Writer-director Greta Gerwig can now also claim the biggest opening weekend for a female director ever.
But what was so striking about this past weekend wasn't the cash totals at the box office but the throngs of pink-clad fans flocking to movie theaters that have felt all-too-empty since the pandemic. For once, people didn't opt to stay home and watch Netflix. Instead, they went out, met up with friends, and maybe even donned a T-shirt depicting a pink A-bomb explosion to celebrate the two films. Thematically, tonally, even in terms of color, Barbie and Oppenheimer could not be more different. But both offered audiences something they were sorely missing: A good time at the movie theater.
Studio executives are surely already picking apart the Barbenheimer phenomenon for lessons about future film rollouts. Maybe there's something to be gleaned from the double feature mania: More than 200,000 people purchased tickets to see Barbie and Oppenheimer on the same day, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners. But this particular phenomenon may not be replicable. Here's what we learned this weekend.
Read More: How Barbie Came to Life
Barbie and Oppenheimer actually boosted each other's sales
In the lead up to Barbenheimer, much was made of whether Barbie would pull audiences away from the World War II era biopic or vice versa. Given how weak the box office has been so far this year, surely one movie would cannibalize the other. But it turns out that a rising tide lifts all boats. Every time one movie dropped a trailer, the other seemed to always trend on Twitter.
And six percent of people who bought a ticket to Oppenheimer this past weekend did so because their first choice, Barbie, was sold out, according to a poll conducted by The Quorum as reported by Matt Belloni in Puck. That equals about $5 million of Oppenheimer's impressive $80.5 million in domestic ticket sales.
The festive Barbenheimer challenge certainly helped. Individuals who may have been inclined to just see one of the two films may have been cajoled into watching the second by friends, family, or partners who wanted to participate in the double feature. I felt a tinge of FOMO for not watching the movies back-to-back (despite already watching Barbie months ago to report TIME's cover story on the film) and even tried and failed to snag last-minute tickets to the doll movie to add on to my Oppenheimer experience. All but the first rows were sold out at every convenient theater.
Those Oppenheimer numbers were also significantly boosted by the fact that moviegoers sought out expensive IMAX tickets for the film. Premium ticket prices made up nearly half of all ticket sales for the film its opening weekend, according to Variety. The limited number of IMAX screens also created a sense of scarcity around Oppenheimer tickets—a quick look at Manhattan and Brooklyn's theaters on Friday night and Saturday afternoon revealed that no seats remained in any 70 mm showings of the film, let alone IMAX screenings screening, save a few front row spots. Seats are regular screenings of both movies were nearly as rare, no doubt further driving demand. No one wants to show up to happy hour drinks this week and not have an opinion on Barbenheimer.
Read More: Why Barbenheimer Mania Is Unstoppable
Women want to see movies too
As I argued in a recent piece, Barbie is a rarity because it courts a primarily female audience, partially by embracing a hot-pink feminine aesthetic. Most big-budget action movies, from Mission: Impossible to Marvel—even the ones starring women—are mostly marketed toward young men. The few marketed toward women are often way too small in budget and scale to ever court this level of success.
Women want to see big splashy movies made by women, for women. And it turns out if you make those movies for women, they will buy tickets too. I don't know when Hollywood forgot that: Probably around the time they started shoving rom-coms onto streaming services.
That's not to say men didn't run to Barbie too. The audience opening weekend was 65% female, which means that men made up a significant portion of the audience. As Barbie producer David Heyman predicted in an interview for TIME's Barbie cover story in June, Ryan Gosling's performance as Ken resonated with that demographic. “I think Ryan is undeniable and so affecting in the film. People really care for Ken even when he’s misguided,” he said. “I think a lot of boys and men will find there’s a lot to relate to in Ken as they try to find their place in the world. But it’s all done with such a light touch and such generosity, and Ryan is just, I think, extraordinary.”
And then there's there are few current directors who speak directly to women quite like Greta Gerwig does. Her previous films, Lady Bird and Little Women did well at the box office, with the former making $79 million and the latter bringing in $206 million, both impressive numbers given their budgets. But those box office totals are just a fraction of the $337 million Barbie made in her opening weekend. Gerwig's name was surely a draw to regular Letterboxd users, but the Barbie audience wound up being far more expansive than film buffs. Many of the text messages that poured in over the weekend with friends' Barbie reviews cited Gerwig's incredible instincts for truthfully capturing the inner lives of women and the relationships between female characters. "Watch Lady Bird and Little Women next," I urged.
The larger culture's discovery of this particular genius reminds me of the moment after Ryan Coogler's Black Panther became a massive hit, and moviegoers went back to discover Creed and Fruitvale Station. Sometimes it takes a mega blockbuster based on IP for a general audience to discover a creative genius. And sometimes it takes a studio trusting a creative genius to turn its product into art.
Trust good directors to make good movies based on original ideas
Studios and the media are rushing to draw conclusions about the state of film. Movies like Fast X, The Flash, and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania underperformed at the box office earlier this year. Does the success of Barbie and Oppenheimer suggest that audiences are hungry for new ideas rather than old IP? Maybe. Superhero fatigue is real. But it's not that simple.
When trying to dissect why movies like Fast X, The Flash, and Ant-Man failed, I can't help but recall how those films left me feeling utterly exhausted. It's not just that I had to expend energy trying to remember what happened in the many other installments. Or that I had to figure out which plot points I needed to retain to enjoy future entries in the Fast & Furious, Marvel, and, DC universes. These entries just weren't very good movies.
A brief glance at Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic confirms that I'm not alone in feeling depleted by sequels. I have specific complaints about those movies, like an over-reliance on poorly-rendered CGI. (Both Barbie and Oppenheimer are beautifully shot and incredibly tactile, a respite from the muddy space landscapes of recent superhero films.) But 10, 15, and 32 movies into these franchises, respectively, it also feels as if their creators are running out of ideas.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-verse is also a superhero film, and a sequel. It's currently the No. 2 movie at the domestic box office this year. Why? Because it's actually a good movie. We've seen countless Spider-Man films over the years. We should be sick of this character too. But the animation is innovative and gorgeous. The ideas turn superhero tropes on their heads.
Barbie and Oppenheimer are actually good. I realize that's a qualitative statement, not a quantitative one. And while most of the reviews for both films have been rather rapturous there are exceptions. (TIME's own Stephanie Zacharek wasn't a huge fan of Barbie.) Neither film is perfect. But both are ambitious and engaging. The filmmakers clearly felt passionate about the material and it shows onscreen.
Read More: Why It Took 64 Years to Make a Barbie Movie
Does making a good movie guarantee box office success? Of course not. Plenty of great movies have failed at the box office over the years. Some have become cult classics or found a second life on DVD or on streaming. I will never get over a terrific thriller like Widows faltering at the box office. Blame audiences for simply not turning off Netflix and leaving their houses enough. But it happens all the time. But word-of-mouth buzz can boost a movie significantly. Moviegoers are certainly more likely to want to see a film their friends say is good than one their friends say is bad.
And can good directors totally muck up a big IP project? Definitely. The Eternals and Thor: Love and Thunder faltered even though Chloe Zhao and Taika Waititi are some of the best directors working today. I would argue those films were bogged down with so much internal superhero lore and fan service that their failings can be attributed as much to Marvel as the individual directors.
Nolan and Gerwig seemed to operate largely free from studio machinations in the creation of these films, however unlikely that may sound. Nolan has had a blank check to make almost whatever he wants since The Dark Knight. No other director could get away with shooting a biopic like it was a thriller, hopping across multiple timelines. And in TIME's Barbie cover story I reported extensively on how, even though executives at Mattel may have had differing ideas of what Barbie should be, ultimately Gerwig says she was allowed to make the movie she envisioned. The results speak for themselves.
This may be a once-in-a-decade phenomenon
So what can Hollywood learn from the success of Barbenheimer? Perhaps not much. While a good deal of the Barbie marketing was orchestrated by Warner Bros. and Mattel—as one Mattel executive reminded me in an interview, Barbiecore "didn't just happen"—which movies become social media sensations and which ones falter is a puzzle that will likely never be completely solved.
The people behind Barbie certainly weren't trying to boost Oppeneheimer's ticket sales along with their own. Barbenheimer T-shirts featuring both the doll and the physicist were all generated by fans. And remember the #GentleMinions trend last year? That was unexpectedly born from Gen Zers nostalgic for a movie series from their childhood, not by some genius executive.
Studio attempts to control such narratives often fail. When the Spider-Man villain film Morbius released last year, fans seized onto the catchphrase "It's Morbin' Time" (never actually uttered in the film) to poke fun at the poorly reviewed movie. Sony tried and failed to capitalize on the viral moment by re-releasing the film, which then bombed at the box office for a second time.
The marketing for Barbie was inescapable and yet for some reason, we didn't resent it. The absurdity of its ubiquity maybe won us over. Or we were happy to just share a laugh over the same joke about just how many products companies could turn pink.
We need communal culture again
If there's one lesson to be learned here, it's that we as a society are desperate for communal experiences. To state the obvious, we all really needed a fun weekend at the movies. It's been a rough few years. The pandemic separated us. So do streaming services that keep us at home, and the increasing stratification of cultural experiences that preclude water cooler moments in the culture.
These movies performed well because audiences remembered for the first time in years why we go to theaters: To enjoy movies with other people. You take photos with your friends. You plan to meet for cocktails between the two legs of your double feature. You laugh when everyone else in the theater laughs, and your seat shakes when every other seat in the theater shakes.
Not since millions of people across the world decided to host Game of Thrones watch parties has a cultural phenomenon felt quite so inescapable. It's fun to talk to your friends about a movie or TV show you've all seen instead of the increasingly fraught topics of politics and pandemic fears and job anxieties. Oppenheimer isn't exactly a laugh riot. (Neither, for that matter, was Game of Thrones.) But it was a thought-provoking movie we could discuss online and in person—and contrasting it with Barbie was delightful. Maybe the big takeaway should be: Make moviegoing fun again.
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