The Film Authority on the true meaning of Barbenheimer…

We always knew that we had the power do unleash Barbenheimer, but did we really have the right? Were we justified in creating such an explosive, volatile cross-cultural cocktail, and if we wanted to, could we, should we, do it all again? These are some of the random click-bait questions asked in the wake of a genuine moment of cinematic history, with Greta Gerwig’s acerbic comedy Barbie taking a quarter of a billion worldwide in less than 10 days, and Christopher Nolan’s stern history-lesson Oppenheimer not far behind, with an astounding $400 million take to date.

But let’s be clear exactly what we’re talking about here first; the rather crass term Barbenheimer is a conflation of two competing movies, both deadly serious in their own way. Nolan’s Oppenheimer deals with a historical event in which many thousands of men, women and children died, the atomic bomb did not discriminate. There are many powerful films about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Grave of the Fireflies for one, and although Nolan’s film doesn’t attempt to view this from any POV other than Oppenheimer’s, the term Barbenheimer might be termed as insensitive to those who know their history. It should only be applied to the specific cinematic meme, one that ultimately will draw needed attention to events which are still raw for many. Images like the one above are everywhere on social media, but the target of such memes is making fun of Hollywood’s crassness rather than exploiting or addressing victims of a real-life tragedy.

With many cinemas going the way of local swimming pools, leisure clubs, restaurants, shops and other vital amenities that can’t afford to gild the record profits of energy companies, things had been looking bleak for the flicks, but the Barbenheimer effect will send many gnomic bean-counters back to their adding machines to try and figure out exactly what happened and why. Of course, it could just be put down to releasing two popular movies on the same day; back in pre-pandemic 2019, the same-day release of A Star is Born and Venom created a similar competition which social media was quick to amplify. Or was it that the subject matter clicked? (I don’t remember the world being similarly enthralled by the potential of a double-bill between 2019’s Ugly Dolls movie or 1989’s long-forgotten Fat Man and Little Boy account of the genesis of nuclear fusion.) Or maybe the Barbenheimer effect was due to lovable older men Rob Brydon and Tom Conti appearing in films out the same day? Nobody knows exactly why all this worked, yet it surely did.

But before we expect similarly boffo results from the forthcoming same-day release of a Paw Patrol and a Saw sequel later this year, it’s worth reflecting that this unique swelling of the coffers and the public imagination is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. Neither Barbie or Oppenheimer are cheap movies, and both took years to develop; they’re also auteur driven, and hard to replicate on a creative or marketing level. If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that there’s no reason for a summer blockbuster to follow the sainted action movie tenets of the past; it feels like we’re bored rigid with men in tights saving the universe, and when radical, alternate programming comes along, it’s a champagne problem to solve.

Respectable, but unexceptional financial results for Indiana Jones, Mission Impossible, Spider Man, Guardians of the Galaxy and other pre-packaged summer hits look rather tame compared to Barbenheimer’s ticket-selling spike, which will take years to filter a sizable bump through to domestic and home entertainment. With both actors and writers currently and justifiably on strike, there’s another potential dearth of content coming up that will make last year’s three month lull look puny in comparison. We still need cinema, tv and streaming, but we also need event films that have, whether you liked Barbie and Oppenheimer or not, character, soul and social relevance. The old algorithm-based movie-going models are out-dated, and no penny-pinching recourse AI is going to ace this kind of human problem. Cinema is back, with a sensational freak result financially and artistically; it’s up to obtuse studio-heads to climb down, get on with their one job and get back to chasing audiences again…


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  1. This used to go under the name of counterprogramming, but social media can redub any old Hollywood cliche. Back in the day of course you had nothing but counterprogramming before action pictures and comic books took over. I’m pretty impressed though that enough of the people who went to see Barbie would think of doubling it up the same day with Oppenheimer. Tells us a lot about the young audience. Maybe the days of Marvel are numbered.

    • Still a place for comic-book movies, I’m sure, but if that’s all we have, large sections of the audience stay away…

      • Be interesting if Barbie more than Oppie is a genuine turning point and Hollywood discovers that young audiences have a 70s vibe of seeking out new and interesting work rather than same old same old.

  2. “You saved Hollywood’s ass and you might have saved theatrical distribution,” Spielberg said to Cruise.
    Nolan and Gerwig ~ “Hold my drink!”

    • That’s pretty much how I feel about it. The meme is crass, but it seems to work like a charm.

  3. It will be interesting to see what the fall-out of the writers’ strike will amount to. I see it as just part of the larger, very rapid change in the movie business as it goes from cinemas to home theatres and now to streaming. I was watching a couple of podcasts about it last week and it basically comes down to the fact that streaming is now the ONLY game in town. The charts are jaw-dropping. Meanwhile, writers have been devalued for so long now I don’t know what the future is for them.

    As for Barbenheimer, I think I might watch them when they come out on DVD and are in stock at the library. Neither sounds that interesting, or particularly original to me. I know I haven’t seen either, but from the little I’ve listened to on the subject, one is a flashy, ironic refashioning of a toy that’s been given the usual female empowerment line (nothing wrong with that, but nothing remotely new either), while the other is a big-budget biopic with a political message (again, nothing wrong with that, but it’s the formula for pretty much every biopic going back to the 1970s). This all seems very much in the box to me.

    Meanwhile, today I watched Drive My Car as part of my Chekhov-on-film series and was both impressed and moved by it. It’s the sort of movie where you just appreciate everything about it, from the performances to the writing to the photography, and say to yourself “This is great filmmaking” and “Can Hollywood, assuming they even wanted to, do something this unconventional and this good anymore?”

    • I’ll check out Drive My Car on your recommend, liked Cannonball Run and Smokey and the Bandit, so hopefully more of the same.

      Having seen them, I can totally imagine how both the Barbenheimer movies could have flipped. Barbie splits between being of kids and adults, and Oppenheimer is long and grim. Neither are summer blockbusters by any normal metric. Yet somehow audiences are crazy for them. Despite my efforts, it’s an inexplicable phenomena. Get them booked at your local library.

      I think streaming would just be tv if it didn’t have cinema. Cinema wouldn’t have survived without tv or video, ancillary markets are always part of the picture. But Barbenheimer prices that the summer blockbuster lives, just not the rote sequels and remakes of the past. And for the sake of needing a reason to leave the house, that’s a good thing. Let’s re-invent the wheel, the old model is done…existential blockbusters for adults is the way to go.

    • Both strikes are interesting conundrums. Where else would you have people who are unemployed going on strike and where on earth do the 160,000 members of the actors guild expect to find regular work. It was pointed out years ago that in order for the big stars to take even more money out of the pot, when their movies did not necessarily make colossal amounts, the only way was to trim the pay packets of the supporting stars, some of who you would consider pretty solid box office attractions in their own right. Rejuvenating old actors didn’t work wonders for the Scorsese picture or the latest Indy so I can’t see AI making much headway though it does conjure up headlines. Actors took the Netflix coin knowing it could spell the death knell of cinema and since streaming doesn’t operate on the TV repeat system I can’t see how you can complain. That may sound a bit harsh – actually it does sound harsh – to thousands of actors on the breadline but this is quite different to the 1960s strike when what was being argued over was much clearer.

  4. I think you’ve hit the crux of it right here:

    “Neither Barbie or Oppenheimer are cheap movies, and both took years to develop; they’re also auteur driven, and hard to replicate on a creative or marketing level.”

    Give the public something they haven’t seen 1,000 times before and doesn’t feel like a commerical to sell toys (a particularly impressive feat for Barbie) and they will come!

    My message to the studios would be this: don’t try to make the next Barbie or Oppenheimer. Find a good director/writer/actor with a big idea they’re passionate about (almost regardless of what it is) and give them the money & time to make the film they want to make. Then spend the money to market the heck out of it.

    • Agreed. It’s all about the vision of film-makers who think outside the box and take risks. Both of these films could have flipped, but this unexpected juggernaut success shows that audiences will flock to cinemas for the right product.

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