‘Barbenheimer’ frenzy gives sluggish US summer box office a major boost

Production still from Barbie (image courtesy of Warner Brothers).

The much-hyped ‘Barbenheimer' box office battle over the weekend proved to be a win for movie theatres that needed to add some sizzle to their summer.

Ticket sales for the film industry’s biggest season had been disappointing through much of June and July. “The Flash” flopped, a new “Indiana Jones” adventure underwhelmed, and Tom Cruise’s latest “Mission: Impossible” movie opened short of expectations. Hollywood also is grappling with strikes by writers and actors.

Enter “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer”, two polar opposite movies that debuted simultaneously in a matchup dubbed “Barbenheimer”.

“Barbie” stars Margot Robbie in a brightly coloured comedy about the iconic doll, while “Oppenheimer” tells a haunting story about the making of the atomic bomb.

The two titles had cinemas buzzing over the weekend and filled with “Barbie” fans dressed in pink. Domestic ticket sales for all movies topped $300-million in the United States and Canada for just the fourth time in history. “Barbie” hauled in $155-million of that and “Oppenheimer” collected $80.5-million, according to studio estimates on Sunday.

“Everybody was in,” said Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “All demographics showed up for these two films, and it’s exactly what Hollywood needed.”

Cinema-going still lags pre-pandemic levels, prompting nagging questions about whether audiences have grown content to watch movies at home.

Hopes were high going into the summer as Covid-clogged production pipelines cleared and studios scheduled 30% more films than last summer. But through mid-July, 2023 summer box office receipts were running about 7% below last year.


Then, “Barbenheimer” became a cultural moment, sending crowds to AMC Entertainment, Cineplex and other cinema chainsMore than 200,000 people purchased tickets to see “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” on the same day, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Now, summer domestic ticket sales stand roughly 1% ahead of the same point in 2022, research firm Comscore said, while year-to-date totals are up 16% from 2022.

Still, the $5.4-billion total so far this year ranks 19% behind the pre-pandemic times of 2019.

Over the weekend, “Barbie” set records as the biggest opening of 2023 and the highestof any movie directed by a woman in history. It eclipsed the April opening of “The Super Mario Bros. Movie”.

“I’m tickled pink at this historic weekend,” gushed Jeff Goldstein, head of domestic theatrical distribution at Warner Bros, the studio that released “Barbie”. “People are having a great time. The conversation is so upbeat and so positive.”

Barbie maker Mattel had launched an all-out global marketing blitz to stoke the frenzy, lighting London landmarks in pink and partnering on hundreds of products. “Barbie” took in $337-million worldwide.

Not all of the “Barbie” buzz was positive. Some US Republicans objected to a map in the movie that they said was pro-China, which prompted Vietnam to ban the film. Warner Bros said “Barbie” was not making a geopolitical statement.

“Oppenheimer”, from Comcast’s Universal Pictures, took in $174-million globally, a strong start for a three-hour adult drama. The film stars Cillian Murphy as scientist J Robert Oppenheimer, the man who developed the atomic bomb that ended World War 2.

This feels like a (pre-Covid) weekend where a big Marvel movie or a Star Wars movie or a big Disney movie came out, but this didn’t involve any of those things,” said Box Office Pro senior analyst Shawn Robbins. “With the right content out there, people want to go see it on the big screen.”

While Hollywood celebrated the bustling weekend, cinemas face a thinning slate ahead. The next big action movie on the schedule is November’s “Dune – Part 2”.

Plus, the ongoing work stoppages could delay some upcoming titles, and the industry still faces the reality that many 2023 movie releases fell flat.

“A lot of these blockbusters just didn’t go over well,” Bock said. “That’s a problem for Hollywood because most of us expected the industry to blow away the summer of 2022.”

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Nick Zieminski and Chris Reese.)


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