Why Did Barbieheimer Work?

A "Why Does Hollywood?" Post by Logan Gion

On the weekend of July 21st, 2023, the United States box office experienced the fourth-highest-grossing frame of all time, led by the dual performance of Barbie and Oppenheimer, a double-feature known as “Barbieheimer.” As of this writing, Barbie has passed $800 million at the global box office. Oppenheimer has reached $400 million. While Barbie is clearly the financial victor, Oppenheimer–a three-hour historical drama–is performing miles above initial expectations. Additionally, Barbie‘s audience, while largely female, attracted a broader age and gender spread than expected.

In a summer where big swings from studios have led to underwhelming results (Looking at you, Transformers, Indiana Jones, and The Flash), Barbieheimer is a godsend. Only in the couple of weeks before release, however, did studios and theaters begin purposefully marketing the double bill. Before that, the idea was a grassroots Internet idea. So how did it start? Why did it work? Was it actually a good experience? This article will attempt to answer those questions below.

Update 8/1/23: Images featured in this post are used to highlight the box-office phenomenon and ironic pairing of these two disparate films. Oblogatory does not trivialize the events of WWII.


How Did Barbieheimer Start?

The first time I mentioned the idea of Barbieheimer was while I was seated next to my cousin in the theater for Avatar: The Way of Water. We were there for an extended-family event and were seated together because we were the snobbiest when it came to movies. (My uncle, for context, was aghast earlier that day when I told him that I didn’t like The Searchers.) The trailers started, and both Barbie and Oppenheimer announced a July 21st release date. I quipped that I’d probably see both on the same day, and my cousin chuckled.

Two months later, my friends and I saw both trailers AGAIN during the Super Bowl. I made the same joke to them that I did to my cousin, but no one laughed. Instead, they mulled it over with some seriousness. One of my friends (the one who watched Batman Ninja with me), expressed genuine interest. I told her I’d get the tickets come July.

Every couple of weeks after that, I’d see a post on Reddit or Instagram that would basically say, “Lol, did you know these two movies are coming out on the same day?” As more trailers dropped for each movie, however, interest in both films grew. Barbie looked genuinely funny while Oppenheimer seemed like it could be director Christopher Nolan’s most ambitious work yet.

Then came the memes. Though Barbieheimer contained two disparate works, they ironically held moments of commonality. Thus began a fertile age of Internet history in which Barbie gazed upon a pink mushroom cloud and Oppenheimer would level his dour stare across a plastic, dream-house-laden hellscape.

In the weeks leading up to release, more Internet posts detailed family members or couples who bartered with one another (“I’m seeing Barbie with my sisters so that they see Oppenheimer with me.” “We’re having a mother-daughter day. My daughters get to learn about history, then we’ll have fun at Barbie.”). Think pieces came out on YouTube, and fake trailers littered TikTok. Finally, with the SAG/WGA double strike looming, Universal and Warner Bros. decided to use their cast (while they still had them) to promote the phenomenon. Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig posted their tickets for Oppenheimer while Cilian Murphey and Christopher Nolan did the same for Barbie. The critic scores came in–both films scored in the 90s on Rotten Tomatoes and in the 80s on Metacritc–so viewers knew they were getting a top-tier experience. Friday hit, and movie theaters breathed a collective sigh of relief. Barbieheimer saved the box office.


My Experience with Barbieheimer

My friend and I saw Oppenheimer on Tuesday morning at 11am because we got a rewards discount and figured that no one would be there that early. We were wrong. The showing was almost sold out, and the crowd was older and well-dressed. From a cursory view, the gender split was about equal, perhaps leaning female. The movie got out at 2:15pm, and I’d bought tickets for Barbie at 3, so we had 45mins to digest the first movie (as well as our concessions).

Entering Barbie was markedly different than Oppenheimer. The audience was largely female, but the age spread was the same as Oppenheimer. In fact, the biggest fan there (wearing a dream-house pink, official Barbie shirt) was likely in her 70s. We weren’t the only ones there for both movies either. As my friend and I were leaving, we saw a large group of co-eds, all in pink shirts, trying to coordinate movie times for that afternoon and evening.

The experience was wonderful. The different tones of the movies meant that neither my friend nor I got tired. The two films also intrigued in a different style–Oppenheimer’s political-thriller aspect got my heart racing while Barbie’s wry humor got my gut busting. Though the whole experience was almost six hours, my friend and I thought the whole thing flew by. Her observation as we left was thought-provoking: “I wonder if studios will team up to do this more often now that they know it can work…”


Barbieheimer Compare and Contrast

At first glance, the enormous gap in tone is appealing because it’s both humorous and mixes up the day’s experience. Oppenheimer was a good first outing because it was longer and had a more serious tone. Much like how Broadway musicals have shorter content post-intermission, Barbie felt great as the second movie due to its reasonable runtime and largely comedic tone. Other surprising differences and similarities are listed below:

  • Barbie made many in the audience cry while Oppenheimer made many in the audience laugh. Barbie’s conversation with her maker rang sincere without too much tearjerking–paradoxically making it tearjerking. Oppenheimer’s plea to consider smaller Japanese targets, by contrast, is subject to the whims of the Secretary of War’s honeymoon memories.
  • While not exactly heavy on female characters, one woman in Oppenheimer gets quite the quip in response to her male colleagues. Barbie, meanwhile, has surprising empathy for Ken towards the end of her film in a scene that I interpreted to be directed at the incel movement, a community of toxic males who desperately need help yet don’t deserve the kindness that Barbie shows.
  • Both Barbie and Oppenheimer feature Presidents who drastically reshape the future of their world. Additionally, both protagonists (every woman is Barbie in Barbieland) receive cabinet appointments.
  • Both movies feature members of the opposite gender feeling left out and abandoned because their voices aren’t being heard–though Ryan Gosling’s character turns outwardly destructive while Florence Pugh’s character turns inwardly destructive.
  • Both Barbie and Oppenheimer, through their inflated egos, believe that they have done the world a service–only to have their notions brutally shattered. Barbie isn’t quite the feminist symbol she thinks she is, while Oppenheimer has elevated war with his invention, not ended it. 

Most Importantly

  • Both movies were directed by masterful auteurs who innovatively elevated the stories they wanted to tell. Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan are two of the best filmmakers of our time, and the Barbieheimer phenomenon may help both achieve notable accomplishments. Barbie is the highest-grossing movie directed by a woman (thankfully ousting Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked), a record likely to hold for some time. Nolan, meanwhile, may finally get his long-deserved directing Oscar. …That is, if Barbie doesn’t box it up.
Hey, that means this week's post fits July's "Mr. President" theme!

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