“Barbenheimer” stormed the box office on opening weekend, showing how the power of Internet memes and enthusiasm for movies can bring people together.
Both «Barbie,» released by Warner Bros. Pictures, and «Oppenheimer,» released by Universal Pictures, topped box office projections. “Barbie” broke records during its opening, grossing $155 million in more than 4,200 locations in the US and Canada. “Oppenheimer” also exceeded predictions, grossing $80.5 million from more than 3,600 locations in the US and Canada. (NBC News and Universal Pictures are units of NBCUniversal.)
The Internet’s humorous discourse on “Barbenheimer” has inspired moviegoers to watch both films back-to-back, even if they originally planned to watch one or none of the films, for fear of missing out on the fun.
Insiders say the organic social media buzz that developed around both films, amplified by their combined star power, created an unprecedented box office event, as well as a cultural moment like no other. The excitement around movies helped make going to the movies an experience again.
“If these two movies were released on the same day on rival streaming platforms, I don’t think the Barbenheimer phenomenon would have taken hold,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore, a company that tracks box office data. “It is because of the cultural impact that movies have in theaters compared to streaming, which has an impact that is no less significant, but very different.
At the historic TCL Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, home to countless movie premieres, the Saturday 6 a.m. screening of Christopher Nolan’s «Oppenheimer» was packed, with hundreds of people walking to Hollywood Boulevard before dawn to see the 70mm film on the IMAX screen.
There, two outdoor coffee stands were set up for attendees to purchase a caffeine pick-me-up before eating breakfast: popcorn, candy, an Icee, or all of the above. Some dressed in black for the movie. Others arrived wearing “Barbenheimer” T-shirts. But many simply got out of bed in their pajamas.
Friends Veronica Lopez, 27, and Caroline Anderson Staub, 26, were among those dressed in black. They said their decision to see the 6 a.m. show was a last-minute call: They bought their tickets Friday at 10 p.m. knowing they would see “Barbie” later that afternoon.
“We got caught up in the hype and said let’s do double feature,” Lopez said, adding that they have brunch, a nap break and an outfit change between the two movies.
“Everyone can come together for that, it’s kind of ridiculous,” Staub said of the “Barbenheimer” craze.
«They [the movies] they are so different and they are released on the same day. There are two types of people but you can also be both types of people… it’s Barbenheimer’s duality, here we are. The theater is full and it is 6 in the morning. I don’t even get up that early to go to work and they pay me for it. I paid for this.
Bronson Aznavorian, 26, wore a pink T-shirt with a sketch of Barbie walking towards a pink atomic bomb, which he found online after seeing other moviegoers sharing T-shirts with similar designs.
Aznavorian, who works in the entertainment industry as a trailer editor, described the mass enthusiasm for «Barbie» and «Oppenheimer» as an «encouraging social phenomenon.»
“Too much streaming can keep people away from the movies and we lose the valuable community experience of going to the movies,” said Aznavorian, who also plans to see “Barbie” on Sunday. «So if it’s something social as big as this, it’s something I want to be a part of.»
Although similar events have occurred in the past, such as when «The Dark Knight» and «Mamma Mia» opened against each other 15 years ago, Dergarabedian, the media analyst, said there was «no adequate comparison» for the way Barbenheimer’s success on social media sowed the seeds of historic audience participation in theaters.
The first viral mentions of the acronym «Barbenheimer» began appearing this year, gathering momentum until it became all but inescapable online, according to the Internet database Know Your Meme.
Is first use in April 2022 he made fun of how both movies seemed to announce new cast members every other day. Matt Neglia, editor-in-chief of the Next Best Picture entertainment awards website, said he didn’t even remember posting the tweet that accidentally coined the term.
“It seemed like all of Hollywood was being recruited to be a part of these big projects that people were excited about, and they both ended up having great casts,” Neglia said. «Statistically it’s great that I can come in first, but I never wanted to start a hashtag or anything like that.»
However, Neglia’s initial tweet didn’t gain as much attention as many that followed. Don Caldwell, editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme, said Barbenheimer’s sustained popularity as a concept was largely due to his ability to evolve over time.
The discourse soon turned into a facetious rivalry between the two films, as the glamorous pink energy of «Barbie» contrasted starkly with the dark and solemn undertones of «Oppenheimer.» Meme formats based on opposing themes are a common formula for virality, Caldwell said..
As release dates approached, Barbenheimer’s pitch turned into a debate over which film to see first in a double feature, implying that the two now complemented rather than compete with each other. It showed a kind of change of environment that Caldwell said he had never seen before in the history of the Internet.
«Memes that are faster don’t change,» Caldwell said. “But the memes that last the longest, or at least stay relevant for the longest time, often go through these periods where the narrative, tone, or point changes, even though the basic premise is the same.”
Dressed in blonde wigs, pink outfits and bedazzled cowboy boots and more themed outfits, moviegoers also came prepared to see Gerwig’s “Barbie” on the big screen.
Loot from theaters, including AMC’s themed popcorn box in the shape of Barbie’s corvette, and tumblers, including Cinemark’s Beach Ball drink holder, became hard to come by as crowds competed for the brand’s merchandise.
Some theaters had life-size Barbie boxes for people to take advantage of the photo opportunities before or after seeing the movie. Many theaters also held «Barbie Blowout» parties on the Wednesday before the film’s general release, handing out free posters and pins to celebrate the film’s arrival.
«Barbie is a feminist icon, even if some people disagree,» Julia Bonadonna, who attended a huge party at Cinema 123 by Angelika on New York City’s Upper East Side, told NBC News. «I think she entered the lives of many girls and created an idea of what we can become.»
Some online who participated in Barbenheimer pointed out that they hadn’t seen theaters feel this way since the midnight showings of «Harry Potter» and «Twilight.»
During a surprise appearance at the Alamo Drafthouse in New York City on Friday, Gerwig called the turnout «f——-extraordinary.»
“I can’t tell you how happy I am that all of you are here,” he told moviegoers, according to a video shared online by writer David Mack. “When we made this movie, we made it with a lot of joy and hope, and we hoped that people would go back to the movies and be together and want to laugh and cry and dance and experience things together. And this is fucking extraordinary.»
Even Nolan has weighed in on the «Barbenheimer» mania.
«I think for those of us who care about movies, we’ve really been waiting to have a crowded market again,» Nolan saying in an interview with IGN. «And now it’s here and that’s fantastic.»
For Neglia and other moviegoers, this blockbuster is worth celebrating. But, she said, it should also serve as a reminder to executives in the Hollywood industry.
“We also need to remember the artists who have worked to create these movies for us, and that there are two strikes going on right now with the WGA and SAG-AFTRA,” Neglia said. «So while this is all great, let’s not forget about those wonderful artists who gave us this.»