“Barbenheimer” didn’t just work — it spun box office gold. The social media-fuelled fusion of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer brought moviegoers back to the theatres in record numbers this weekend, vastly outperforming projections and giving a glimmer of hope to the lagging exhibition business, amid the sobering backdrop of strikes.
Warner Bros.’ Barbie claimed the top spot with a massive $155 million US in ticket sales from North American theatres from 4,243 locations, surpassing The Super Mario Bros. Movie (as well as every Marvel movie this year) as the biggest opening of the year and breaking the first weekend record for a film directed by a woman.
Universal’s Oppenheimer also soared past expectations, taking in $80.5 million from 3,610 theatres in the U.S. and Canada, marking Nolan’s biggest non-Batman debut and one of the best-ever starts for an R-rated biographical drama.
It’s also the first time that one movie opened to more than $100 million and another movie opened to more than $80 million in the same weekend.
When all is settled, it will likely turn out to be the fourth-biggest box office weekend of all time with more than $300 million industry-wide. And all this in a marketplace that increasingly curved toward intellectual property-driven winner takes all.
The “Barbenheimer” phenomenon may have started out as good-natured competition between two esthetic opposites, but, as many hoped, both movies benefited in the end.
The only real casualty was Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part I, which despite strong reviews and a healthy opening weekend fell 64 per cent in its second weekend. Overshadowed by the “Barbenheimer,” glow as well as the blow of losing its IMAX screens to Oppenheimer, the Tom Cruise vehicle added $19.5 million, bringing its domestic total to $118.8 million.
“Barbenheimer” is not merely counter-programming, either. But while a certain section of enthusiastic moviegoers overlapped, in aggregate the audiences were distinct.
Women drove the historic Barbie opening, making up 65 per cent of the audience, according to PostTrak, and 40 per cent of ticket buyers were under the age of 25 for the PG-13-rated movie.
“It’s just a joyous time in the world. This is history in so many ways,” said Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros.’ president of domestic distribution. “I think this marketing campaign is one for the ages that people will be talking about forever.”
Oppenheimer audiences, meanwhile, were 62 per cent male and 63 per cent over the age of 25, with a somewhat surprising 32 per cent that were between the ages of 18 and 24.
Both Barbie and Oppenheimer scored well with critics, with 90 per cent and 94 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, respectively, and audiences who gave both films an A CinemaScore. Social media has been awash with reactions and “takes” all weekend — good, bad, problematic and everywhere in between — the kind of organic, event cinema, water-cooler debate that no marketing budget can buy.
“The ‘Barbenheimer’ thing was a real boost for both movies,” Goldstein said. “It is a crowning achievement for all of us.”
Comeback weekend for Hollywood
Oppenheimer had the vast majority (80 per cent) of premium large-format screens at its disposal. Some 25 theatres in North America boasted IMAX 70mm screenings (Nolan’s preferred format), most of which were completely sold out all weekend — accounting for two per cent of the total gross. Theatres even scrambled to add more to accommodate the demand, including 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. screenings, which also sold out.
“Nolan’s films are truly cinematic events,” said Jim Orr, Universal’s president of domestic distribution.
IMAX showings alone made up 26 per cent of the domestic gross (or $21.1 million) from only 411 screens and 20 per cent of the global gross, and Oppenheimer will have at least a three-week run on those high-demand screens.
“This is a phenomenon beyond compare,” Rich Gelfond, the CEO of IMAX, said in a statement. “Around the world, we’ve seen sellouts at 4 a.m. shows and people travelling hours across borders to see Oppenheimer in IMAX 70mm.”
This is the comeback weekend Hollywood has been dreaming of since the pandemic. There have been big openings and successes — Spider-Man: No Way Home, Top Gun: Maverick, Avatar: The Way of Water among them — but the fact that two movies are succeeding at the same time is notable.
“It was a truly historic weekend and continues the positive box office momentum of 2023,” said Michael O’Leary, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners. “People recognized that something special was happening and they wanted to be a part of it.”
Studios pushing some movies due to strikes
And yet in the background looms disaster as Hollywood studios continue to squabble with striking actors and writers over a fair contract.
Barbie and Oppenheimer were the last films on the 2023 calendar to get a massive, global press tour. Both went right up to the 11th hour, squeezing in every last moment with their movie stars.
Oppenheimer even pushed up its London premiere by an hour, knowing that Emily Blunt, Matt Damon and Cillian Murphy would have to leave to symbolically join the picket lines by the time the movie began.
Without movie stars to promote their films, studios have started pushing some fall releases, including the high-profile Zendaya tennis drama Challengers.
But for now, it’s simply a positive story that could even continue for weeks to come.
“There could be a sequel next weekend,” said Paul Dergarabedian, the senior media analyst for Comscore. “The FOMO (fear of missing out) factor will rachet up because of this monumental box office event centred around the movie theatre experience.”