Over the course of the summer of 2023, the internet was enraptured with a certain pair of movie releases. Oppenheimer, a serious biopic about the inventor of the atomic bomb and its consequences, was going to be released the same day as the bright pink, lighthearted Barbie. While this started out as a funny coincidence of two stylistically opposed movies releasing on the same day, it grew to a height nobody could predict. Suddenly, people started photoshopping the main leads into each other’s movie, remaking the trailers in the style of the opposite movie and even getting suits and costumes to wear to the premiers. All this excitement begs the question, “Why did these two movies become so popular?”
It all started back in 2020, when Warner announced “Project Popcorn,” its plan to release all of their movies exclusively on their streaming service HBO Max. Christopher Nolan, who had worked with the company since 2002’s Insomnia, heavily criticized the move. In an article by The Hollywood Reporter, the director called HBO Max “the worst streaming service” and after his film Tenet released, left the studio.
After meeting with rival studios, Nolan decided to have his next film Oppenhiemer distributed by Universal Pictures. When Universal announced the July 21st release date in September 2021, Warner Bros announced in April of 2022 that the long-in-development Barbie would be released on the same date. An anonymous source that spoke to Insider magazine said that Nolan “was upset that Warner Bros scheduled ‘Barbie’ for release on the same weekend as ‘Oppenheimer,’ especially since mid-July has been known in the movie business as ‘Nolan’s weekend’ for years.” When pressed, Nolan refused to answer the question, saying that he enjoyed theaters having a “crowded marketplace” again.
Barbenhiemer’s release is an instance known in marketing as counterprogramming. Counterprogramming refers to a strategy in film marketing where a tonally different film is released on the same day as a major film to appeal to an underrepresented group. There are many instances of this strategy being successful, such as when Universal released the dramedy About a Boy alongside Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. The former had a total opening gross of $130 million dollars, the highest opening for a British film that year. This is also seen in other media including games, like in March 2020 when Animal Crossing: New Horizons released the same day as Doom Eternal, both of which were big successes.
The general film industry, though at first confused, eventually came around on the phenomenon. Although Tom Cruise heavily promoted his film Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part I (MI) in order to try and erode Oppenhiemer’s three week IMAX exclusivity at first, he eventually started referring to both movies as a double feature. Cruise and MI director Christopher McQuarrie posted pictures of tickets to both movies. Following this trend, Barbie director Greta Gerwig and star Margot Robbie also bought tickets for Oppenhiemer as well as for MI. At the premiere of the movie Air, Matt Damon told Vanity Fair that audiences are “allowed to see two movies in a weekend.” Oppenheimer star Cillian Murphy endorsed the double feature, saying that if the movies are good “then that’s cinema’s gain.” Francis Ford Coppola, director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, has called the box office success of both films “a victory for cinema.”
What originally started out as a competition for box office sales quickly spiraled into its own movement on the internet. And in a year where many blockbuster releases have been abysmal flops, no less. EuroNews reported that 2023 has been a “blockbuster graveyard,” with Barbie and Oppenhiemer being some of few films able to make a sizable profit during the summer season. These two movies have outperformed the likes of The Flash, Indiana Jones, Fast and Furious, Shazam!, Transformers, The Little Mermaid, and even the MCU’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantummania. In a post-pandemic world, theaters are struggling. However, internet phenomenons like Barbienhiemer show not only that recovery is on the way, but also how effective new age media is. This movie event showed that new age media can get more people, particularly the younger generation, excited for something they would never have been interested in before.
Rocco Lippi is a first-year film major who made sure they were first in line for the Barbienheimer double feature. They can be reached at [email protected]