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I’ll admit it: I thought Barbie was bad and I haven’t seen Oppenheimer. Doesn’t stop me having my opinions though, does it?
For some time I, as someone who’s always loved the experience of going to the cinema and seeing films on the big screen, have despaired for the future of theatrical distribution. Where I live, here in the UK, our biggest cinema chain, Cineworld (our AMC, so to speak), is in administration, as is one of its few competitors, Empire. Theatrical distribution has felt like it’s in terminal decline, with box office receipts dwindling pre-covid and decimated by a recalibration of the viewing public’s mind in the post-pandemic world. “At-home”, it seems, is now the default way of watching new releases.
But the back-to-back launches, to critical acclaim and great commercial riches, of Barbie and Oppenheimer have been heralded as a great moment. Just as it was written — over-written, as it turned out — that Top Gun: Maverick was precisely the tonic required by the beleaguered industry when it lifted-off in May 2022, so too has Barbenheimer, the portmanteau name by which the July duo have come to be known, been labelled as the saviour of cinema. “Barbenheimer is cinema’s most seismic moment in a decade,” came the verdict of Robbie Collin, one of Britain’s most respected film critics, in the Telegraph. For the first time in ages, he argues, theatrically released films are the watercooler topic du jour.
Unfortunately, I am a real Eeyore and am quite sceptical about the ability of Barbenheimer to arrest the decline of the cinema. And here are some key points that I think are under-reported in our conversations about the “success” of these two films:
- Marketing spend. Barbie was made for a reported budget of $150m-odd and Oppenheimer for around $100m. Putting aside that these are VERY EXPENSIVE movies, that figure tends not to include marketing spend, and these films have had two of the most lavish marketing campaigns of all time. That’s before we even get to the lightning-in-a-bottle viral quality of the Barbenheimer meme. To combine a marketing campaign that features everything from tie-in products, music videos by the biggest pop stars on the planet, appearances on every talk show under the sun, *and*, after all that, mimetic marketing is a once in a decade experience.
- But it’s necessary. It’s necessary because, unfortunately, the Intellectual Property (IP) isn’t strong enough without it. Sure, people know what Barbie is — but the film wanted to adjust people’s expectations, so that it wouldn’t just be a movie that appealed to 8-year-old girls. And so they had to build the new IP essentially from scratch, remaking it as a proto-feminist, adult-oriented, meta-comedy. Similarly, Oppenheimer has the Christopher Nolan brand to piggyback on, but needed to sell the idea and context of an historical epic (something that, if you look at, say, Titanic or Gladiator perform strongly at the Box Office). This is a consideration that Marvel movies or Star Wars movies or Fast and Furiouses don’t have to make, but it was necessary from a branding perspective.
- Equally, for Barbie, Box Office wasn’t everything. Barbie might’ve felt like a gamble, but remember that Mattel doesn’t just want to sell theater tickets. Every Barbie advert, every billboard in every city in the world, is not just advertising a Margot Robbie film: it’s also marketing their dolls. Plenty of kids who are too young to go to the movies or enjoy Barbie will see those posters, see the pink, sparkly letters and the blonde hair, white teeth and kitten heels and they will tug on mommy’s hand and insist they go to Toys’R’Us. Barbie, Barbie, Barbie: as a brand reinfocement exercise, the film has always had an intangible second life.
- And don’t forget: the modern film industry is built on toys. Marvel, who have been the dominant Box Office force of the last decade, are, in their modern form, essentially a toy company. When Isaac Perlmutter and Avi Arad took over the Marvel Group following its bankruptcy in 1996, they did so because they saw it as a compliment to their toy business. And for years, Marvel was a toy company essentially — milking its historic IP to sell action figures. It was this success that led to it making its own movies, which, again, were originally subsidised by a belief that they would not only sell tickets but, longer term, shift product. Just as Inter Miami can write-off some of Lionel Messi’s wages from the amount of Messi10 shirts they’ll sell, so too were Marvel able to become a monolith thanks to their unusual ability to hedge their financial risk.
- Barbenheimer’s openings were great, but not pre-pandemic great. Barbie opened to $162m domestically, which is great; Oppenheimer opened to $82m. This has been heralded as a great recovery, given the disappointing-ish openings of Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One ($54m) and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny ($60m). It places Barbie as the 20th biggest opening weekend of all time, and Oppenheimer as the 111th. But it’s still miles off the heights of Avengers: Endgame ($357m), Spider-Man: No Way Home ($260) or Star Wars: The Force Awakens ($247m). And yet despite the fact that these franchise openings were staggeringly bigger, Barbenheimer is being written up, to some extent, as a repudiation of superhero and space opera culture. And remember: 2023 at the movies can’t just be judged by its successes. Lots of very expensive movies have taken a Box Office bath, and those failures are just as meaningful as the successes.
- Cinema schedules are strangled. Nobody dared to counter-programme against Avengers: Endgame (though Marvel’s Captain Marvel and DC’s Shazam were both still in theaters at the time). Similarly, Spider-Man and Star Wars were absent any real competition at the Box Office, meaning that many commentators have remarked upon how unusual it is to have two such high-performing movies launching on the same weekend. It is unusual: but the fact is that cinematic distribution has become radically unadventurous in recent years. The two cinemas near me, which notionally showcase indie cinema, are just showing Barbie, Oppenheimer and morning screenings of Elemental. The reality is that they know, with current economic pressures, that they cannot afford to waste screen space broadcasting anything other than those two films. Any screen that shows some foreign language documentary to 5 octogenarians is a screen that’s not showing Barbie to a screaming audience of soda-fuelled teenagers. My local cinema is showing Barbie nine (9) times tomorrow (10:00, 12:30, 12:50, 15:15, 15:40, 18:00, 18:20, 20:45, 21:10; in case you’re interested).
- Oppenheimer is too long. This is not really a dampener to its success, but Oppenheimer is too long for true, profound commercial success. Put simply, the same cinema that’s showing Barbie 9 times tomorrow is showing Oppenheimer just 3 times. Tickets cost the same. So yes, Barbie has won the Box Office war with Oppenheimer — but the true nuclear option was releasing a 100-minute film.
- New becomes old. The great loser in the Barbenheimer dominance is Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One (I refuse to keep typing all that out) which has been squeezed almost entirely out of cinemas, probably a couple of weeks before it would have in a normal cycle. Barbenheimer’s excellent opening receipts are holding up nicely, and will do great business this weekend. And they’ll probably still do good business the weekend after. But my local cinemas have nothing else programmed until well into August. This is simply too long to rely on a smash hit. One week of total domination, a second week of word-of-mouth success, and then, in the third week, a transition to competing with a new title so that, by the end of a month’s run, the cinema is no longer relying on selling tickets to a show that most people have probably already seen. But increasingly it looks like cinemas are going to spend most of the summer months hoping that Barbenheimer keeps making money and lures people back into the cinema.
- Event movies are not helping cinema. We’ve arrived at my most important point (thanks for sticking with it). The success of Barbenheimer has been attributed, at least in part, to a fatigue with superhero movies. In the US, Ant-Man 3 massively under-performed, while Guardians of the Galaxy 3 did middling business. Franchise fatigue is real, but it also speaks to the fact that Disney — who own basically all these franchises — have bet heavily against theatrical distribution in the way they’ve built their Disney+ streaming service. Marvel has suffered from a post Endgame lag, where the first phase of the studio’s development built to a climax that broke Box Office records, but also reduced the stakes for subsequent outings. Both Marvel and Star Wars have over-saturated the small-screen market too, making theatrical projects feel less special, when endless TV shows feature the same characters. But fundamentally, these billion dollar movies created a generation of people who saw cinema as an event experience. They went to watch midnight screenings and maybe bought half a dozen tickets to see the same film, and studios and theater chains bought into that compromise. But they never engendered a habit. Marvel fans and Star Wars obsessives didn’t become twice-a-month habitual cinema-goers. They became people who waited, eagerly, for the films they knew they wanted to see to come out. They didn’t make discoveries at the multiplex. And so, as a response, cinemas narrowed their focus, programmed franchise IP against franchise IP, and waited for the next blockbuster to temporarily alleviate the despair.
- Barbenheimer is a superhero movie by any other name. Barbenheimer is straight out of the Marvel playbook. The marketing and release has been all about getting as many people into the cinemas on opening weekend as possible, and then hoping that a few weeks of good ticket sales will mitigate the diminution of the industry. And there are plenty of earnest (and credulous) cheerleaders who’ll be thankful that these films are not superhero movies, and they’ll want to champion them because of it. But Barbie is a superhero, and Bobby Oppenheimer is a superhero. These are short-term solutions to the problem of empty seats in cinemas, not long term solutions to the fact that watching movies on the big screen has been eroded as a habit for Western audiences. A sticking plaster, perhaps, or a chance for some good publicity at last — but for the beleaguered cinema industry, Barbenheimer is unlikely to move the dial.
This is all well and good, but what can be done? If the biggest films of the summer — and their over-performance against analyst predictions — don’t speak to a second life for theatrical distribution, then what does? Are we just in a death spiral from which there is no escape?
Cinema, if it wants a life beyond the next few years (and beyond a niche pursuit), needs to restore the habitual nature of viewing. With the cost of taking your family to the pictures now regularly exceeding $100, it’s hard to see how that can happen. We need the average American to go to the movies a couple of times a month, not just for the 2 or 3 big releases a year. But that means that the industry has to produce and market 24 films, a year, that Joe America thinks are worth seeing. And right now they seem to be colluding in the idea that the are run-of-the-mill-ordinary-movies-that-you-don’t-really-need-to-see-to-be-honest and MEGA-SUPER-SMASHHIT-GAME-CHANGING-BOX-OFFICE-BEHEMOTHS! In order to get Barbie the 20th biggest opening weekend of all-time, it has to be presented as the film of the summer, the saviour of cinema, and not just a “film that’s on”.
Ultimately, there will always be some cinemas: too much of the studio system is predicated on the notion of box office receipts for it to entirely undermine that. But the reality is that major chains could very easily collapse. And those that are saved from disaster by administrators are going to be forced into the most brutal, creatively vapid process. They will only show Barbie and Oppenheimer and Spider-Man and Star Wars on a loop, because capitalism is cynical and there’s no room for romance. It will be a brutal form of programming by algorithm, spurred on by the fact that, for some reason, a toy manufacturer needed to make half a billion dollars off of its $150m advert. If that’s the future that Barbenheimer helps spur on, I really can’t join in with the celebrations.