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Much of Hollywood may now be on strike, but the year’s biggest movie weekend is still plowing forward. And it’s got its own catchy moniker.
Friday, July 21 was long ago dubbed “Barbenheimer” by cinephiles on social media due to the fact that arguably the two buzziest movies of the summer, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, were sharing a release date.
Ever since, the term has been a regularly trending topic, T-shirts have been made and sold, mashups have been produced and, apparently, tens of thousands of tickets have been reserved for what may be one of the oddest, most unexpected double features of all time. There’s some tasty industry tea to spill behind it, too.
Read on for everything you need to know about Barbenheimer.
Why has “Barbenheimer” become such a thing?
Like many fads on social media, Barbenheimer began as a joke. There’s just something inherently amusing about two star-studded, hotly anticipated blockbusters that could not be more different landing in theaters on the same day.
There’s Barbie, a seemingly frothy fish-out-of-water comedy a la Elf based about a living, breathing fantasyland manifestation of the popular Mattel doll (Margot Robbie) who ventures into the real world, along with Ken (Ryan Gosling) of course, amid an existential crisis. (We say seemingly because in actuality Barbie is far weightier and sociopolitical than its marketing is letting on.) Still, the movie’s been hyped as a candy-colored popcorn movie full of “Ken-ergy,” disco, pop star cameos, bleach-blond hair and tans.
And then there’s Oppenheimer, Nolan’s dark, tense, three-hour opus about… the man (Cillian Murphy as Robert J. Oppenheimer) who built the atomic bomb. While Barbie was filmed primarily on a bright pink, instantly iconic soundstage (with an occasional detour to Venice Beach), Oppenheimer — which will be unveiled in both IMAX and 70 mm — did not include a single CGI shot in its $100 million budget, and is partly in black-and-white.
As Variety put it, it’s the battle of the bomb and the bombshell — or doom vs. gloom — at the box office. Add a pithy “Bennifer”-esque hybrid nickname, and a phenomenon was born.
A THREAD of Barbenheimer posters pic.twitter.com/X7E5BtNKlo
— Shadow Knight (@shadowknightdk) July 15, 2023
How come neither movie changed release dates?
Both movies have mega-hype and major followings, and as disparate as they are, certainly still have plenty of overlap. Nolan and Gerwig are currently two of the most revered and celebrated filmmakers in the business, and only five years ago, were competing for the same Best Director statue at the Oscars (Nolan for Dunkirk, Gerwig for Ladybird) though both ultimately lost to The Shape of Water director Guillermo del Toro.
So as long as a deep segment of social media users have been obsessed with their shared release date, they’ve also speculated as to whether one of the studios releasing them, Warner Bros. (Barbie) or Universal (Oppenheimer) would ultimately bow out in what’s essentially been a game of release date chicken. And that’s especially considering that as profitable as the summer movie season is, it’s highly rare for two releases this high-profile to go head-to-head, and moreso post-COVID and in a streaming era when studios are generally releasing less tentpoles into theaters.
Oppenheimer, for instance, would’ve had less competition for screens releasing July 7 (when the only major release was Joy Ride), while either could’ve easily ruled the weekend of July 28 (Haunted Mansion) or really any weekend in August.
— paul atreides (@thomashelby_obe) July 9, 2023
There may have been some ego and drama (what, in Hollywood? never!) behind Barbenheimer’s release date standoff, too. Nolan, remember, has partnered primarily with Warner Bros. since 2002’s Insomnia, with the studio releasing eight of his last nine movies (2006’s The Prestige was a co-release with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures while Paramount handled Interstellar in 2014.). But Nolan’s relationship with WB soured mid-pandemic as the studio (or at least its parent company, WarnerMedia) released their 2021 slate simultaneously in theaters and on their fledgling streaming service HBO Max. Nolan, ever the champion of the theatrical big screen experience, did not hide his discontent, so it was no surprise when he subsequently jumped ship to Universal for Oppenheimer.
Nolan has long preferred the mid-July release weekend ever since 2008’s The Dark Knight, even for counter programming Oscar fare like Dunkirk. That’s led, ahem, insiders like Insider’s Jason Guerrasio to speculate that Warner Bros. could even be “enacting some form of payback” on Nolan by slotting Barbie on the Oppenheimer filmmaker’s favorite release weekend. Nolan was diplomatic when asked by Guerrasio about Barbenheimer, but multiple sources told the journalist that, privately, Nolan is upset with WB’s decision to crash his customary weekend.
Has the hullabaloo over Barbenheimer actually translated into box office sales?
While Nolan may have (just) fears about Barbie and Oppenheimer cannibalizing each other at the box office, their unexpected Voltroning into Barbenheimer is actually motivating fans to go see both movies back-to-back this weekend. In fact, last week AMC Theatres announced that more than 20,000 moviegoers had already booked tickets for a Barbenheimer double feature — with that number growing to 40,000 this week and sure to increase even more in the next few days.
“That more than 20,000 moviegoers have already made plans and purchased tickets to see Barbie and Oppenheimer on the same day is a great sign that the growing online conversation around seeing both of these incredible films is turning into ticket sales,” Elizabeth Frank, executive VP of worldwide programming and chief content officer at AMC Theatres, said in a statement.
As for what order to see them in? We put that question out to a few Barbie co-stars.
“I say see Oppenheimer, get all that out of your system, then go see Barbie and just pour back into it,” Issa Rae tells us.
“Yeah, the other way around might be a downer,” Michael Cera astutely points out.
HAPPY BARBENHEIMER RELEASE WEEK pic.twitter.com/9rMbMPvr62
— Film Updates (@FilmUpdates) July 17, 2023
Of course, this is Hollywood, and there has to be a winner. That'll easily be Barbie, which is currently tracking for a $100 million debut, while Oppenheimer is predicted to open around a still very noble $50 million.
The winners, though, when it comes to Barbenheimer? Moviegoers.
Barbie and Oppenheimer, aka Barbenheimer, premiere in theaters Friday, July 21.