Skip to content

Looking back at ‘Barbenheimer’

How did ‘Barbenheimer’ capture the attention of young people on such a large scale and bring back the notion of going to the cinema?

By Sofia Webster, Film & TV Co-Deputy Editor

Barbie and Oppenheimer, known collectively as ‘Barbenheimer’, were both released on 21st July. They have had a huge impact on the film business as well as the public – one that is unlike anything experienced over the last few years.

They are two strikingly different blockbusters going head to head and instead of one’s popularity reducing the other’s total box office score, fans of each film have been encouraged to watch the other, thus bolstering box office scores and ticket sales across the board. A wet July didn’t hurt either!

Starting with Barbie, this film had received enormous levels of hype well ahead of its release. I for one was most definitely excited for the film because of  its popular and well-casted lineup of Barbies and Kens, its accompanying Mark Ronson-produced album with popular artists like Billie Eilish contributing, the extraordinary look of the film, as well as a genuine nostalgia that many films struggled to tap into.

Barbie (2023) // Courtesy of IMDb

It was also clear that Greta Gerwig as writer-director was going to bring something more quirky and credible to the project. Since the teaser trailer was rolled out in summer 2022, it became an instant hot topic of conversation since the concept was so unlike anything that had ever been made before. Yes, there had been The Lego Movie, about a well-loved toy franchise as well as a previous Barbie: Life in the Dreamhouse television series but this was different and everyone knew it.

Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s biopic centred around physicist Robert Oppenheimer, convincingly portrayed by Cillian Murphy, was another brilliant watch based on his journey to developing the first nuclear bomb on behalf of the United States used infamously as part of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic attacks towards the end of WW2.

Due to the dark historical event on which Oppenheimer is based, there is no denying that there would have been a much smaller and more concentrated audience on its opening weekend compared to Barbie.

Courtesy of IMDb

The concept is simply nowhere near as ‘mainstream’ as Barbie which has a plot that caters to teenagers, adults and older people alike through its association with an iconic multi-generational toy.  Despite this (and a 3 hour running time), Oppenheimer performed fantastically at the box office grossing over $722 million globally according to Box Office Mojo.

Barbie was an even greater success generating an astonishing $1.2 billion worldwide leading it to become the single highest grossing film at the box office by a female director.

It seems likely that Oppenheimer owes much of its success to its association with Barbie on social media, as people were encouraged to watch the two as a (rather unprecedented) double bill, with the playful nature and lightness of Barbie being juxtaposed with the darkness and significance of Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer (2023) // Courtesy of IMDb

No films have been as successful as Barbie and Oppenheimer as a blockbuster duo for a considerable length of time, and even in a bumper summer season filled with hits like Mission Impossible, The Meg 2, Joy Ride and others; both Barbie and Oppenheimer will still have a plentiful backlog of cinema screenings up their sleeves, leading many to question where this demand has come from.

Since the pandemic, I had failed to see a fully packed cinema screen and experienced this for both Barbie and Oppenheimer respectively, where there was not an empty seat in sight. According to CNN, Timothy Richards, chief executive of Vue International said ‘Barbenheimer''s opening weekend was its biggest weekend in four years in terms of ticket sales.

Looking back at this summer film season, I cannot help but link the surge in cinema-goers to young people (who made up the majority of the audiences when I watched these films) who want to see these films on the big screen as a result of Barbie’s extensive branding campaigns that aimed to revolutionise film marketing by sowing the seeds early on across social media with teasers as well as working in collaboration with countless well-loved brands.

Courtesy of IMDb

The success of Barbie and Oppenheimer this summer could potentially signal a resurgence in cinema and a return to pre-pandemic levels. In the past few years, cinema culture took a turn for the worst with younger people getting used to watching films on laptops or phones as entertainment was made so readily available on streaming platforms. However, it is possible that this surge in ticket sales could be the start of a new normal for ticket sales at the cinema.

After seeing the astronomical success of these two projects, I don’t think we can underestimate the excellent and extensive marketing work done to drive these successes. Seeing a film created so lovingly and by so many women, who for so long were given roles off the screen so sparingly has made many people (especially women) want to support the film in any way possible, hence its success.

A factor behind Barbie’s success was its notable marketing campaign, tapping into social media as well as more traditional forms of marketing to inspire an audience of all ages to watch the comedy in cinemas.

Courtesy of IMDb

The Barbie brand has further collaborated with countless brands to attract attention to the film, with practically every well-known high street clothing brand having some sort of relationship with Mattel and the Barbie franchise. Gap, Zara, Primark, you name it and this summer it is quite likely that they will sell or have sold Barbie merchandise of some kind.

It will also be interesting to see how Barbie changes Hollywood as this was a film created by women and with women primarily in mind and this seems to be a massive reason for Barbie’s success. It is not about the toys, it is seeing a film lovingly created and produced by so many women, who for so long were not given these kinds of opportunities.

Courtesy of IMDb

Barbie and Oppenheimer have been joined together at the hip from the moment their opening weekends were announced to be the same, and there is a strong argument to be made that Oppenheimer would not have been as much of a blockbuster hit if it wasn’t for the explosion of the ‘Barbenheimer’ meme on social media which as a result encouraged Gen Z kids, millennials and older adults alike to watch the two films as a double bill which in effect enabled Oppenheimer to ride on the coat tails of Barbie’s hype and incredible success.

Across all this, there is no denying that Barbie and Oppenheimer have achieved a level of success that is incredibly unique.

Featured Image: Unsplash: Bellkaa Photographer

How much of Oppenheimer's success was a result of hype pushed over from Barbie?