Hollywood just rocked the culture like it hadn’t done in ages.
Two new movies brought audiences rushing back to theaters as if the pandemic and dueling union strikes never happened.
Both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” over-performed expectations, with the former putting up numbers worthy of the MCU’s golden years. Social media quickly dubbed the duo “Barbenheimer,” a plucky term for the zeitgeist-grabbing films.
- “Barbie” – $155 million stateside (final figure: $162 million)
- “Oppenheimer” – $80 million stateside (final figure: $82 million)
- (For good measure …)”Sound of Freedom” – $20 million stateside
That contribute to the year’s largest box office weekend and the fourth largest … ever.
Hollywood can be slow to learn from its mistakes and glean insight from hits that don’t fit the industry groupthink. Have we seen any “Top Gun: Maverick” clones greenlit in the last year? Are studio executives scrambling to make their own “Sound of Freedom” given that film’s shocking box office numbers?
The industry can still take solace from the “Barbenheimer” one-two punch, assuming it understands the reasons behind the numbers.
If You Build It, They Will (Still) Come
It’s hard not to recall the 1989 baseball classic “Field of Dreams” and its iconic line this weekend. That film featured an unlikely diamond in the cornfield rough, one that turned a modest film into a piece of Hollywood lore.
The message is simple. If Hollywood builds movies that appeal to the American public they will still scramble to see them come opening weekend, streaming be darned.
The trick? Dissecting why these movies mattered so much to audiences.
It’s Not a Movie, It’s an Event
The marketing mavens get some of the credit here. The “Barbie” advertising campaigns proved wildly effective, delivering a slow but steady drip of clips, stills and social media memes that whetted our appetite for the actual movie.
Did anyone know what “Barbie” was actually about? Not really. They saw beautiful stars, colorful sets and knew it all tied into an iconic toy brand.
Voila! A massive opening-weekend haul.
“Oppenheimer” had a different path to success. His name is Christopher Nolan. Once upon a time, a new Steven Spielberg movie made us woozy with anticipation. The Spielberg of today can’t deliver like he once did. “The Fabelmans” was … fine, nothing more. “West Side Story” retold a tale that didn’t need a makeover.
Does anyone even remember “Bridge of Spies” eight years later?
Nolan movies are an event. He makes a new film every two or three years, so each project feels like an event, something that requires marking your calendar so you won’t miss it. The “Oppenheimer” marketers shrewdly played up his name in the marketing material, and rightly so.
Nolan is one of a kind, a serious storyteller whose films draw blockbuster bucks. An “Oppenheimer” biopic directed by almost anyone else would be lucky to snag a $10 million opening weekend. Maybe less.
We have too many leisure options these days. YouTube. TikTok. Streaming platforms galore. Movies need to be “events” whenever possible, not just titles on a theater marquee.
Bait and Switch Still Works
Marketers may study the “Barbie” effect for years.
Warner Bros. knew Greta Gerwig’s film delivered two hours of clumsy, woke sermons. Studio executives also knew that wouldn’t sell as many tickets as a fun, frilly “Barbie” tribute.
So … they lied. They played up the beauty, laughter and candy-colored sets and buried the film’s anti-men messaging.
The co-stars did their best to spoil the marketing machine, but audiences absorbed the visuals and clips far more than any one promotional interview.
It’s the perfect bait and switch, and it’s likely the film’s box office momentum will override any sizable objections from ticket holders expecting something very different from the film.
Glamour Gal: Margot Robbie Is Back
The Australian star appeared in not one but two mega-bombs last year. Both “Amsterdam” and “Babylon” arrives with plenty of Oscar buzz and quickly disappeared thanks to middling reviews and audience disinterest.
She’s back in a huge way with “Barbie,” a movie that leans into her natural beauty. Audiences still crave movie-star glamour, and it helps that Ryan Gosling is both her co-star and someone who frequently exposes his physique.
Margot Robbie says she bribed Ryan Gosling to play Ken in #Barbie by promising to buy him a gift every day of shooting:
“Everyday there was this pink wrapped present from Barbie to Ken in order to encourage Ken-ergy.”
— Pop Crave (@PopCrave) July 23, 2023
Robbie’s last big film was “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” which also embraced her beauty along with her Oscar-winning co-star, Brad Pitt.
Audiences don’t mind seeing actors get gritty and flex their artistic muscles, but they sometimes crave escapism via glamorous stars. “Barbie” delivered just that.
The modern film trailer reveals way too much. Watch any given teaser and you’ll know the heroes, the villains and the movie’s biggest laughs. Some trailers all but explain the story’s arc from start to finish.
It’s maddening. It also makes audiences less eager to see the movie in question. They may feel they already have.
The “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” trailers take a smarter approach. The “Barbie” teasers shared little about the plot in question. They hid the movie’s hard-Left lectures, of course, but also the story’s basic beats.
Mystery. Intrigue. Curiosity. Who wouldn’t want to see what the real “Barbie” was all about?
The “Oppenheimer” trailer leaned on the sense that Nolan wouldn’t tackle this subject in a traditional fashion. The film’s trailer hinted at the powerful spectacle, the sense of dread behind the scenes and the inscrutable Cillian Murphy in the title role.
We know Oppenheimer cracked the code and created the first atomic bomb. But how, and what were the decisions that led to that historic discovery?
“Oppenheimer” would share it all in a way no history text could match.