Barbie, Oppenheimer, and The History of Same-Day Mega-Movie Premieres
"Barbenheimer" and cinema's history of dueling big-budget movie releases.
Intro: The Barbenheimer Phenomenon
After months of hype, Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig's Barbie will be released this Friday. That's right—two highly anticipated movies are premiering on the same day (🙉🙈🙊)! And somehow, the union of Robert J. Oppenheimer ("Death, the destroyer of worlds") and Barbie (a plastic doll often criticized for its unrealistic proportions) has created the most highly anticipated cinematic event of the post-COVID era.
In a remarkable (or accidental) act of counter-programming, two films with absolutely nothing in common have been inextricably linked via an onslaught of meme-ification. The result of this heightened internet curiosity is "Barbenheimer."
As of last week, 40,000 advance tickets had been purchased to see both films on the same day—and that number will likely grow as we approach Friday’s duel release.
Unsurprisingly, Barbenheimer has been embraced by mainstream media outlets, leading to a spike in news coverage fueled by this unlikely marriage. As of this week, almost half of all media mentions for Oppenheimer and Barbie reference the films in tandem.
But this isn't the first time two prominent studio films were released on the same day. While the Barbenheimer phenomenon is unique, the film industry has a lengthy record of dueling mega-movie premieres. So today, we'll explore cinema's history of big-budget co-premieres and the industry quirks that shape Hollywood's release calendar.
Hollywood's History of Same-Day Premieres
There are 397 instances where two films with budgets over $50M (inflation-adjusted) were released on the same day. Unsurprisingly, most of Hollywood's largest co-premieres consist of franchise movies of differing genres, often targeting divergent age demographics.
Consider Night at the Museum 2 vs. Terminator Salvation. One movie is a family-friendly comedy that brings history to life, while the latter film was given a PG-13 rating for "intense sequences of sci-fi violence." There is also American Gangster vs. Bee Movie—one film has 15 on-screen murders, while Jerry Seinfeld's insect extravaganza has zero murders (for all species involved).
In fact, 87% of co-premieres in our dataset differ in genre. When we look at these top genre pairings, we frequently find comedies, animated movies, and action films serving as fodder for counter-programming.
Indeed, there is precedent for two thematically different films premiering the same weekend, yet none of these offbeat pairings provoked popular imagination like Barbie and Oppenheimer.
That said, counter-programming is merely one input to Hollywood's content calendar. Major motion picture debuts are seasonal as the industry releases its best movies during times people traditionally go to theaters (mindblowing, I know). As such, we find the highest concentration of dueling big-budget film premieres in December, around the holiday season, and during the summer months.
True to form, Barbenheimer is a dueling July premiere between a meta-comedy and a historical drama (or thriller, or war movie, or action flick, or whatever Oppenheimer is supposed to be). And while there is a lengthy history of same-day big-budget movie releases, the phenomenon is becoming increasingly rare.
Big-budget co-premieres peaked in the late-90s, fueled by an ever-expanding global box office. And then, the 2008 recession happened, followed by the introduction of streaming, the rise of television, and, of course, the pandemic. In response, studios began concentrating their resources into a smaller set of tentpole films (mainly franchise movies of the superhero genre), and executives went to great lengths to avoid same-day competition.
This makes the Barbie and Oppenheimer co-premiere an anomaly, at least for today's film industry. The two movies combine for a total production budget of ~$325M, making Barbenheimer the 25th largest co-premiere ever.
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Final Thoughts: Do We Want a Barbenheimer Sequel?
If you told a layperson from the 1950s that the most hyped movie event of 2023 was an unplanned marketing crossover between an Oppenheimer biopic and an existential satire of Barbie's sterile commercial existence, this 1950s person would probably shrug their shoulders and say, "That makes no sense. The future sounds weird."
And this person would be right. The extent of the Barbenheimer phenomenon doesn't make sense—but that's what makes it special. A corporate scheduling decision gave way to internet memes, which turned into viral marketing buzz, which eventually manifested in more people going to movie theaters.
Every once in a while, an unexpected and uplifting internet phenomenon like Barbenheimer crosses into the zeitgeist. There was the Gamestop surge, the picture of "The Dress," and helicopter footage of escaped llamas galvanting around a highway in Arizona. These were widespread whimsical distractions delivered to us by the internet, distinct spectacles so novel that we can't help but watch and discuss.
But what if Barbenheimer sets a new precedent for Hollywood marketing? The entertainment industry often grows via imitation. If people pay money for something once, Hollywood tends to copy that thing mercilessly.
Soon we may see a cinematic adaptation of American Girl Doll cross-promoted with a Genghis Khan biopic or Rubik's Cube: The Movie co-released with a Julius Caesar epic. By contrived mega-hyped co-premiere number thirty, we'll wish Barbie and Oppenheimer never met.
So let's hope there will be no Barbenheimer sequels. And maybe (just maybe) a special thing will be allowed to stay special.
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