“Barbenheimer” fueled the fourth-biggest box office weekend in history – By Rebecca Rubin
“Barbenheimer” is more than just a meme. It’s a full-fledged box office phenomenon.
Over the weekend, moviegoers turned out in force for Greta Gerwig’s neon-coated fantasy comedy “Barbie,” which smashed expectations with $155 million to land the biggest debut of the year. But they also showed up to see Christopher Nolan’s R-rated historical drama “Oppenheimer,” which collected a remarkable $80.5 million in its opening weekend.
Hundreds of thousands of ticket buyers refused to choose between the two seemingly different auter-driven blockbusters with sprawling casts and twin release dates. So they opted to attend same-day viewings of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” turning the box office battle into a double feature for the ages.
“This is an unequivocally great weekend for moviegoing,” says David A. Gross, who runs the movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ are complementing each other at the box office, not taking the audience from each other.”
The cultural craze known as “Barbenheimer” worked to fuel the biggest collective box office weekend of the pandemic era, as well as the fourth-biggest overall weekend in history. It’s worth noting the top three weekends of all time were led by the debuts of sequels in massive franchises (“Avengers: Endgame,” “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”).
“Studios gave audiences two uniquely different, smart, and original stories that were meant for the big screen, says Michael O’Leary, president, and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, the industry’s trade organization. “People recognized that something special was happening, and they wanted to be a part of it.”
In the end, though, it wasn’t a competition as “Barbie” loomed large over box office charts, thanks to an inescapable marketing campaign, as well as quality to match the stratospheric hype. At the international box office, the film added $182 million for a stunning global tally of $337 million.
The $145 million-budgeted movie, backed by Warner Bros. and Mattel, dominated the zeitgeist in the weeks leading up to its debut (even reportedly causing a shortage of the color pink) to a degree that’s rare for original fare. (Yes, Barbie is perhaps the world’s most famous doll, but the movie isn’t a sequel or part of a pre-existing film franchise.)
“We have a pink unicorn here,” says Jeff Goldstein, the president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros. “We thought it would be $75 million for the opening weekend. Nobody saw $155 million coming. This doll has long legs.”
Audiences and critics dug the PG-13 film, which landed an “A” CinemaScore and 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. Initial crowds were 65% female (which, duh…), but that’s notable because it’s almost always the inverse for any movie that generates over $100 million in its debut.
Among its many records, “Barbie” also scored the biggest opening weekend ever for a film directed by a woman. “Captain Marvel,” which was co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, previously held the title with $153 million in 2019. “Wonder Woman,” from filmmaker Patty Jenkins, stood as the record-holder for a movie solely directed by a woman with $103 million in 2017.
Gerwig, the Oscar-nominated director of “Lady Bird” and “Little Women,” co-wrote the screenplay with her partner Noah Baumbach. Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling star as the stereotypical versions of Barbie and Ken, who leave behind the Dreamhouse on a quest for self-discovery in the real world. The cast also includes Issa Rae, Dua Lipa, Simu Liu, Michael Cera, Helen Mirren, John Cena, and Will Ferrell.
“Oppenheimer” may be settling for second place — not that Universal or Nolan is complaining. Buoyed by stellar reviews and premium large formats, the biopic about the so-called “father of the atomic bomb” is wildly outperforming expectations for a three-hour-long period piece with little action and lots of talking.
Heading into the weekend, analysts were anticipating a $50 million start, which already would have been notable given the grim film’s subject matter and style. With the bigger-than-projected debut, Nolan has only solidified his status as a box office draw, no matter the genre. And his appeal as a filmmaker spans continents. At the international box office, “Oppenheimer” added $93.7 million for a global tally of $174 million.
“This is a 1940s period piece,” says Universal’s president of domestic distribution Jim Orr. “That speaks volumes to the appeal of Nolan and his prowess as a filmmaker. He has an amazing reputation for storytelling in the biggest format possible.”
Nolan, the blockbuster director of “The Dark Knight” and “Inception,” is known to evangelize about Imax — and moviegoers have taken note. Premium large formats (PLFs, as they are known in the industry) contributed a massive 47% of the film’s domestic tally. Imax alone accounted for $35 million of global ticket sales.
“Around the world, we’ve seen sellouts at 4 a.m. shows and people traveling hours across borders to see ‘Oppenheimer’ in Imax 70mm,” says Imax CEO Rich Gelfond. “This is a phenomenon beyond compare in Imax, and we’re just getting started.”
“Oppenheimer,” which cost $100 million, marks the first time in more than two decades that Nolan isn’t working with Warner Bros. (Yes, the backers of “Barbie.”) He parted ways with the studio over its ill-fated decision to put its entire 2021 movie slate simultaneously on HBO Max.
Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “American Prometheus,” “Oppenheimer” is a star-studded character study about theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Cillian Murphy plays the man who led the action at Los Alamos, alongside an ensemble of Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh, and Alden Ehrenreich.
With “Barbenheimer” taking up most of the oxygen at multiplexes, the other movies that were playing in theaters had to fight for scraps.
Tom Cruise’s big-budget sequel “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” took third place, tumbling by 64% with $19.5 million in its second weekend of release. It didn’t help that “Oppenheimer” is all but monopolizing the country’s PLF footprint, where tickets are pricier than standard screens.
The seventh installment in Paramount and Skydance’s globe-trotting action franchise has generated $118.7 million in North America and $370 million globally to date. However, it cost a mammoth $291 million before marketing, so it’ll need to hold its own against “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” to justify that price tag.
In fourth place, the independent juggernaut “Sound of Freedom” added $18.8 million from 3,285 theaters in its fourth weekend of release. The thriller about child sex trafficking has generated $124 million to date, making it the 14th-highest-grossing domestic release of the year.
Disney’s “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” rounded out the top five, bringing in $6.7 million from 2,885 venues. After four weeks on the big screen, Harrison Ford’s action-adventure movie has grossed $159 million domestically and $335 million worldwide. The only trouble? It cost $300 million (and remember, theater owners get a share of ticket sales), meaning Indiana Jones is still deep in the red.