Barbenheimer Gave Movie Theaters a Jolt — What Does That Mean for Their Futures?

It’s impossible to overstate the significance of Barbenheimer weekend to the domestic box office. The July 21-23, 2023 frame where Barbie and Oppenheimer each debuted to way bigger than expected weekends generated, across the ten biggest movies in the marketplace, a combined $310.8 million, the fourth-biggest single weekend haul in history. Barbie’s $162 million debut was the third-biggest in history for Warner Bros. while Oppenheimer was only the 12th R-rated movie in history to exceed $80 million on opening weekend (it was only the 8th history to cross that threshold without being based on a comic book). After years of Hollywood being terrified of ever opening a major movie the same day as a new Marvel Studios or Fast & Furious movie, Barbie and Oppenheimer showed how counterprogramming can inspire a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Even the most seemingly minor pieces of trivia about the simultaneous opening weekends of Barbie and Oppenheimer reflect just how unprecedented of a weekend this was. In 2020, people wondered aloud whether movie theaters would ever open again, let alone be packed, as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the planet. Now, Barbie and Oppenheimer have shown people coming out in droves for wildly different movies that reflect such distinct creative visions and, in their own ways, comment on the world around us. For anyone invested in the future of theatrical exhibition, the weekend of Barbenheimer has been a reason to celebrate. However, even as we savor the spoils of the present, it’s important to look to the future. What does the future of theatrical moviegoing look like now in the wake of Barbenheimer?

RELATED: Barbenheimer 2023: Should You See ‘Barbie’ or ‘Oppenheimer’ First?

What Is Threatening Theatrical Moviegoing?

Margot Robbie as Barbie singing her car with Ryan Gosling as Ken behind her in Greta Gerwig's Barbie
Image via Warner Bros

For years, the biggest perceived threat to theatrical moviegoing was streaming. Specifically, the idea was that audiences would choose streaming over going to the local AMC or Cinemark. The age of Netflix movies and premium streaming programs seemed to give people limitless reasons to stay at home and not go to the movies. The weekend of Barbenheimer, though, seems to have been the final nail in the coffin of the idea that streaming could ever replace theatrical moviegoing. Netflix and other streamers pride themselves on minimal marketing campaigns for their original movies that rarely last more than a few weeks. They likely would never execute the lengthy promotional campaigns for Barbie and Oppenheimer (the latter of which dropped a teaser a year before its debut) that turned these projects into events. Plus, the very act of going out of the house with friends and the scarcity of showtimes (rather than just being able to watch these films whenever you want on Hulu) informed the exciting event nature of experiencing Barbie and Oppenheimer. You had to plan to see these movies, you had to put in effort and anticipation for the big Barbenheimer weekend.

Watching movies at home can be a valid experience, it’s just clearly not a replacement for the idiosyncratic joys of watching Oppenheimer in IMAX 70mm or getting swept up in an enthusiastic crowd gobbling up Barbie. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean threats don’t exist against theatrical moviegoing. In fact, “the calls are coming from inside the house” when it comes to elements jeopardizing modern theatrical moviegoing. Major movie studios like Disney, Warner Bros., and Universal are now refusing to cooperate with the Writer’s Guild and the Screen Actor’s Guild of America on giving their employees livable wages. In the process, the pipeline of upcoming movies has ground to a halt. Nobody can work on realizing upcoming movies that could become as important to the general public as Barbie and Oppenheimer because they have to strike against the studios in response to unfair labor conditions.

Several major motion pictures that could’ve been perfect candidates to ride the wave of renewed interest in theatrical moviegoing in the wake of Barbenheimer, like Challengers, have been delayed by months and into 2024 solely so studios can delay resolving the strike. Movie theaters packed with moviegoers right now will undoubtedly become much emptier in the fall of 2023 as they navigate a dearth of programming inspired by major studios. The unwillingness of corporations like Disney and WarnerDiscovery to cooperate with workers (in the writing, acting, and theatrical exhibition industries) has become a grave threat to moviegoing even as Barbenheimer reaffirmed the very specific joys of theatrical experiences.

Part of why legacy movie studios are prolonging the strike is, unfortunately, matters related to streaming. Striking writers and actors want more transparency on viewership for streaming projects, a matter that companies ranging from Netflix to Disney refuse to budge on. Meanwhile, as other entertainment outlets have pointed out, many modern movie studios are informed by the business practices of Silicon Valley, a jurisdiction dogged by allegations of anti-union practices for over a decade now. Even classic studios like Warner Bros. are now owned by people who are mimicking business leaders who view unions as a problem, not a group of human beings to cooperate with. These issues with corporation leadership will prolong these strikes, emphasize the importance of the demands of striking artists, and underscore the long-term dangers threatening movie theaters. If the existence of big multiplexes is threatened even after the success of Barbenheimer, it won’t be because of artists demanding basic income. It’ll be because of the short-sighted maneuvers of corporations.

Which Movies Are Coming Out in Theaters Next?

Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer in 'Oppenheimer' 
Image via Universal Pictures

The disheartening response from corporations to striking artists is the greatest threat facing the theatrical exhibition industry right now. However, it’s not the only hurdle big screen moviegoing faces in a post-Barbenheimer world. Part of why this weekend proved so successful is that it offered something for everyone. Barbie and Oppenheimer both were movies that Hollywood doesn’t offer every day. The former title was a wacky color comedy with influences ranging from Jacques Demy to Jacques Tati to D.E.B.S. The latter feature was a dialogue-heavy historical epic with no action sequences rooted largely in empty deserts and senate hearings. It’s easy to imagine a timeline where audiences rejected these titles as “too weird” and “too boring,” respectively. Instead, people flocked to Barbie and Oppenheimer because of their unique qualities, not in spite of them. These were films molded by great directors totally confident in the distinctive personalities and ambitions of their projects. That resulted in a pair of must-see films that were like nothing else on the summer 2023 docket.

Unfortunately, the immediate films being sent to theaters after Barbie and Oppenheimer don’t seem to be as risky or distinctive. Sequels like The Meg 2: The Trench and The Equalizer 3 are on the horizon, ditto features like Gran Turismo and Blue Beetle clearly molded after the success of other recent action blockbusters. Worse, few of these projects seem like they’re aimed at women, an under-served demographic in the summer 2023 moviegoing landscape that came out in massive numbers for Barbie. Meanwhile, Oppenheimer showed that audiences will be more than happy to sit for three hours and watch something devoid of fistfights if the storytelling is compelling. Naturally, then, August 2023 is packed with exploding cars, leaping sharks, and superheroes in CG metal suits punching each other.

This isn’t to say that action movies are innately bad nor that any of the proposed films for August 2023 are inherently “evil” or destined to be all-time duds. However, from afar, the marketing materials for these projects seem to be offering more of the same when Barbie and Oppenheimer excelled because they gave audiences a taste of something unique. Worse, Hollywood is cramming a lot of action-heavy tentpoles in just three weeks of August, with minimal variety on display (save for the R-rated comedy Strays). It’s doubtful all these blockbusters aiming for similar moviegoers and aesthetics can excel at once, which seems to ensure that August 2023 won’t have the plethora of hits that the fateful Barbenheimer weekend had.

It takes a long time to make a movie, so the ripple effects of Barbenheimer won’t be felt in Hollywood’s decision-making for another two years at least. Still, this historic box office frame needs to be viewed as a come-to-Jesus moment for studios to invest in all kinds of features. Don’t even just make more films in the mold of Barbie and Oppenheimer. Find other overlooked genres and styles of filmmaking that individual artists are passionate about and finance those titles. The enormous box office success of these two movies broke so many rules for what’s “supposed” to be big at the summertime box office. Hollywood shouldn’t go back to rigidly following the rules of remakes and sequels in the wake of such revenue.

What Hollywood Can Learn from Barbenheimer

Margot Robbie as Barbie dancing at a party in Barbie.
Image via Warner Bros.

It’s remarkable how much Christopher Nolan’s name likely helped Oppenheimer become as big of a phenomenon as it was. One of the few directors out there with clear name recognition with mainstream audiences, Nolan should be seen as a model for how other studios should treat auteurs. The default treatment from major film operations when it comes to distinctive indie filmmakers is to immediately absorb them into a live-action Disney remake or an adaptation of a Hasbro toy. Nolan did a trio of Batman movies, sure, but he also had room in between those films to do original titles like Inception, which solidified him as a must-see filmmaker. Oppenheimer shows the result of giving directors room to carve out names for themselves with original works rather than just being guns-for-hire on tentpole fare. Studios need to take a cue from this director’s career by nurturing a new generation of promising directorial talent long-term. The results of giving these artists room to make fresh original works can be deeply lucrative.

It’s also important to underscore how meaningful it was for Barbie and Oppenheimer to feel like movie events that belong to this generation. The summer of 2023 has been dominated by films like Fast X that revolve around fan service to movies from 2011 or titles like The Flash and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, both of which provide lengthy homages to blockbuster icons of the 1980s. By contrast, Barbie and Oppenheimer both belonged to the moviegoers of the here and now. Yes, Barbie dolls have existed for decades and J. Robert Oppenheimer is a historical figure rooted in the early 1940s.

However, the world had never seen a live-action Barbie movie before writer/director Greta Gerwig’s bold cinematic triumph and Oppenheimer was not a remake of an earlier film about “the father of atomic energy” (it was an adaptation of the 2005 book American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin). That’s partially why the Barbenheimer meme spread like wildfire; it was a term and phenomenon that belonged to the younger demographics of today. They didn’t have to share it with prior generations of moviegoers nor were they getting iconography of 1980s/1990s blockbusters repacked to them as something “new.” Barbenheimer and the two movies that Meme focuses on are rooted in the world of 2023. That kind of ownership and uniqueness isn’t something you can manufacture every day, but it is something that could only come about when studios take a risk on non-sequels.

The future of theatrical moviegoing should seem more promising than ever given how well visionary projects like Barbie and Oppenheimer did. Unfortunately, the current mechanics of Hollywood executives, as seen by the disinterest in major studios in cooperating with striking writers and actors, seems poised to squander all the potential for theatrical moviegoing suggested by the weekend of Barbenheimer. If Hollywood studios can recognize the value of ongoing risk-taking and, most importantly, paying their employees a livable wage, maybe Barbenheimer can be the start of a new golden age for theatrical moviegoing rather than a last hoorah for the communal wonders of big-screen experiences.

The Big Picture

  • The success of Barbie and Oppenheimer at the box office showed that counterprogramming can inspire a rising tide that lifts all boats.
  • The weekend of Barbenheimer marked a significant turning point for theatrical moviegoing, proving that streaming can never replace the unique experience of watching films in theaters.
  • Hollywood should invest in a variety of films, not just sequels and remakes, and support unique creative visions to ensure the future success of theatrical moviegoing.

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