The success of Barbie and Oppenheimer could mean an exciting new era for the silver screen.
The numbers are in, and they’re insane.
After only a few days in theatres, Barbie and Oppenheimer have become box-office sensations. Led by Aussie superstar Margot Robbie, Barbie has already earned a whopping A$560 million globally – with A$21.5 million coming from Australia alone – the biggest opening weekend in 2023. Not to be left behind, biopic Oppenheimer took home A$58 million around the world, with A$9.36 million earned Down Under.
Starting off as a viral social media meme, ‘Barbenheimer’ has become one of the biggest movie events since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, a one-two-punch that has excited audiences to come out of their homes and into theatres.
Bolstering their commercial success has been the near universal critical acclaim. Pop-feminist sensation Barbie by director Greta Gerwig is a breath of fresh air, pastel rich and a deeply clever take on commercialism, gender, and existentialism unexpected from the toy tie-in-feature. On the other end of the (colour) spectrum is Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s three-hour tour-de-force of sight and sound retelling the tale of Robert J Oppenheimer in his race to build the atomic bomb in World War II. Barbie and Oppenheimer scored 90% and 94% respectively on review aggerate site Rotten Tomatoes, a triumphant feat for both projects.
What makes ‘Barbenheimer’ special, though, is that they are both original films. No sequel, prequel, or spin-off in sight.
In fact, while Barbie and Oppenheimer are the latest examples, they aren’t alone. The newest original Pixar film Elemental, while starting off slow, eventually found an audience and eclipsed the total box office of Toy Story spin-off Lightyear. Dungeons & Dragons: Honour Among Thieves, Asteroid City, and No Hard Feelings all received rave reviews and smashed box office expectations.
On the flip side is the slate of sequels, reboots and ‘cinematic universes’ that have failed to entice many out of their homes. To name just a few, The Flash, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, and Fast X have all underperformed this year.
In some ways this marks the end of an era. Over the past decade, Marvel, Star Wars and other ‘cinematic universes’ have dominated multiplexes and become some of the most successful movies of all time. In turn, every studio has sought a piece of the pie, abandoned unique ‘one-off’ projects and turned their focus towards building global franchises that churn out a slew of new films every year or so.
Yet the recent struggles of Marvel, DC and other franchise fare suggests audiences are hungry for something fresh. And it feels so exciting.
It’s important to note that ‘Barbenheimer’ is a unique phenomenon: Barbie and Oppenheimer are both auteur-driven spectacles featuring huge stars and the backing of some of the largest studios on the planet. Barbie’s marketing campaign alone — rumoured to be over $150 million — dwarfs the GDP of some countries. Not every film is going to get the same treatment, and it remains to be seen whether audience will turn out for films that don’t have the same degree of showmanship.
More worrying for this momentum is the recent writers and actors strike in Hollywood, halting any new film project. Film executives are murmuring the strike could continue until October, as both sides fight over streaming royalties and the use AI in motion pictures. Studios are already starting to reschedule releases, as they fear big projects such as Dune: Part Two will flounder without actors running the promotional tour gamut.
Yet despite the challenges, the playbook for success has now been written. Great films will bring people out to the movies again. And like the chain reaction which ignited the first atomic bomb, the success of Barbie and Oppenheimer could lead to a domino effect that breathe new life into the moviegoing experience.
Now we must wait and see if the success of ‘Barbenheimer’ is ‘kenough’.
Looking for a taste of classic Hollywood? Then start watching The 14 Best Golden Age Hollywood Classic Movies of All Time. And if you’re looking for a quiet night in after watching Barbenheimer, start bingeing through these 10 Oscar-Winning Movies on Netflix Australia Now.