In a way, the seismic success of the opening weekend of both Barbie and oppenheimer, two massive studio movies released during massive studio movie season, it’s no surprise. Warner Bros. conducted a relentless marketing campaign for Barbie (which, of course, is based on a very famous toy) that somehow didn’t spend its welcome; the campaign fed off existing audience enthusiasm and created its own ever-increasing number. Universal was a little more restrained in the sale oppenheimer—if you call giant countdown clock billboards “restricted,” but the studio cleverly handpicked the director Christopher Nolanand sold the film as the film of the year. Persuasive advertising like that is often effective.
In many other ways, though, this double-blockbuster event is a welcome jolt. Certainly against the backdrop of 2023, with the theatrical business reeling and, as we’re often told, audience interest firmly entrenched in the ephemerals of TV and the internet. Movies have been declared dead multiple times in recent years, only to have that narrative briefly called into question in the wake of isolated hits like top gun: maverick, avatar: the path of water, and several Spider-Man movies. It was beginning to look as if no non-franchise movie would ever be a blockbuster again. Then a living doll and the inventor of the atomic bomb appeared to prove us wrong.
Well, it would be nice if doomsday predictions about the future of cinema had suddenly been contradicted. In truth, we have no idea what long-term significance the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon might have for a once-cherished hobby (and, of course, a commercial art form). While this triumph is remarkable and signifies something, Two movies can’t solve everything. And there’s a lot to sort out, perhaps most pressingly the growing corporatization of Hollywood, all the Wall Street-friendly vertical integration that has left creatives so far apart that two of the industry’s biggest unions are now on strike at the same time, last happening in 1960.
It’s all intertwined with the issue of streaming, which has lost almost everyone involved; perhaps fatally eroded the linear television and film businesses; and it led, in part, to the sequel and franchise of almost everything. (That trend was already emerging before streaming, of course, because sometime in the late last century, studio executives began to value replayable success and scale over anything as risky as originality.) Barbie and Oppenheimer.
And this success is cause for celebration. Neither movie is a sequel: one is a bizarre mix of comedy and melancholic drama directed by a former indie queen, the other is a long, haunting, dark biopic about a tricky scientist. These aren’t exactly the kind of movies that typically make hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2020s. Barbie is obviously flexing a pretty ubiquitous IP, but the movie found a way to transcend that association into the public consciousness, perhaps because it always heralded an awareness of its cynical origins. oppenheimer equally committed to his part: there was never really any attempt to sell the film as anything more than a dour drama, even if some disappointed audience members expected more explosions.
So maybe this will encourage more movie studios to make bigger swings with semi-untested material, to rethink the parameters of summer movies, to invest in bigger-budget comedies and serious, expensive, “adult” dramas like they used to.
But all that development, if it happens at all, will be delayed by strikes, caused by a handful of egoists demanding more money than they deserve. I mean executives, stockholders, and the like, who rack up profits and invest in costly boondoggles, then blame artists, craftsmen, and technicians (and the public!) for the industry’s pains and supposed hardship. Labor conflicts in Hollywood seem pretty intractable right now, though of course there’s always the possibility of a miraculous release, such as studios gaining a new clarity and realizing they need to harness and repurpose Barbenheimer’s zeitgeist ASAP. “Give the artists what they want, just make me another Barbie!”
Lessons are learned in a strange way in Hollywood: sometimes hastily, other times too slowly. Too often, the completely wrong lesson is learned, no matter the speed. Will the takeaway from this pivotal weekend be productive, in contrast to the disappointing returns from several tired franchise entries this year, pushing the studios into an era of renewed invention? Little in the last 20 years leads me to believe that. But perhaps we are at a serious enough inflection point that the entire model is ready for such a major realignment of priorities and values.
In the pessimistic perspective (perhaps the realistic perspective?), Barbie accelerates the development of more toy-based intellectual property (which has already been in the works), along with a few other fantasy comedies dabbling in the discourse for added edge and social prestige. oppenheimer it ensures that Nolan will get another blank check, and perhaps the biographical genre will deviate from the realm of music, where it is more profitable, and closer to the historical. (Although Steven Spielbergthe 2012 movie, lincoln, which made $275 million at the worldwide box office, didn’t boost much). Those would be, I suppose, modest improvements in an industry where total overhauls are needed.