five reasons why
Five Reasons Why... Barbenheimer (Or Oppenbarbie, Depending On Your Mood This Weekend)Matters
What the Barbie and Oppenheimer mash-up says about this summer's big cultural moment
17 July 2023
On Friday two of 2023’s biggest movies kick off their opening weekend and culture-setting cinemagoers are planning to watch the very different films back-to-back in a phenomenon that has already been dubbed Barbenheimer.
The movies couldn’t be more different. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, is a sugar-pink comedy; Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, starring Cillian Murphy, is a three hour long exploration of the theoretical physicist’s role in developing nuclear weapons. But together they represent an important cultural and commercial moment.
The decision to launch on the same weekend lay in the hands of the Warner Bros studio; Universal Pictures, which made Oppenheimer, announced its launch date last autumn, Warner Bros decided this Spring to pitch its Barbie head-to-head the same launch weekend. The backdrop here is that Nolan had been a Warner Bros director right up until the studio decided to launch some of its movies - including Nolan's Tenet - simultaneously in cinemas and on home streaming following the pandemic. Nolan is said to have quit Warner Bros in protest.
Anyway, whatever the reason for two of the year's biggest movie openings sharing the same launch weekend, cinema-goers have embraced the event and helped create one of the biggest movie marketing moments of recent years.
Five Reasons Why Barbenheimer Matters
Cinema audiences are still below their pre-Covid levels. Admissions were 120 million in 2022 with £229.3 million spend on cinema advertising, compared to 190 million admissions and £299.1 million adspend in 2019. The hype around both movies added to the meme-led Barbenheimer moment is likely to lead to major box-office and commercial success for the film studios and cinema houses. Vue has said that around 20 per cent of cinemagoers that have booked for Oppenheimer have also booked for Barbie; “We’ve put on as many screenings as possible of both films to accommodate high demand.” Rob Lea, head of screen content for UK & Ireland at Vue, said. And two weeks prior to their release, America’s AMC Theatres announced that over 20,000 AMC Stubs members had already pre-booked tickets to both films on the same day, a 33 per cent increase of people buying double feature tickets from July 7 to July 10.
Film studios have been experimenting with simultaneous cinema/home streaming releases, which has dampened the big opening weekend moment for many movies over the last couple of years. The simultaneous cinema release of Barbie and Oppenheimer is a timely reminder of the cultural and commercial impact that a big-screen debut can affect. That’s good news for brands looking to capitalise on a cultural moment and the power of the shared experience.
The imminent Barbie release has been fuelling endless viral memes around themes such as Barbiecore fashion and “She’s Everything. He’s Just Ken” for months. Meanwhile in recent weeks memes linking the two movies have taken off. This type of user-generated marketing has hardly been left to chance (Mattel has used the outline of its logo in the backdrop of its selfie creator, allowing fans to Barbie-fy themselves) and it certainly works: United Talent Agency’s IQ found that two-thirds of the millennials and Gen Z who said Barbie memes were the main reason they were interested in seeing the movie. The Barbenheimer memes feel fresh and genuine, giving the UGC phenomenon an added power.
Apparently we're all suffering from declining attention spans. Dr. Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, says: “In 2004, we measured the average attention on a screen to be 2½ minutes. Some years later, we found attention spans to be about 75 seconds. Now we find people can only pay attention to one screen for an average of 47 seconds.” But this summer’s appetite for movie marathons suggests this decline in attention might have more to do with the proliferation of low quality and snackable content than a fundamental cognitive shift. If it's good enough, we'll watch - for hours and hours.
Barbenheimer holds within it an appetite for both frothy joy and hard-hitting drama, but in the box office battle between the two movies Barbie is almost certain to take the most money (Barbie is projected to gross $80–100 million, Oppenheimer is projected to gross $50 million in its opening weekend). Consumers’ search for fun and joy amidst the still gloomy economic situation is unabashed and a clear invitation for more humour in advertising and marketing generally.