‘Barbie’ Opens to Record $155M, ‘Oppenheimer’ Shatters Expectations with $80M Launch

“Barbenheimer” is more than just a meme. It’s a real box office phenomenon.

Over the weekend, moviegoers turned out in full force for Greta Gerwig’s fantasy comedy “Barbie,” which shattered expectations with $155 million to land the biggest debut of the year. But they also showed up to see Christopher Nolan’s R-rated historical drama “Oppenheimer,” which raked in a remarkable $80.5 million in its opening weekend.

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Hundreds of thousands of ticket buyers refused to choose between the seemingly different blockbusters with twin release dates. So they opted to attend same-day screenings of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” turning the box office battle into a double-feature for the ages.

“It’s unequivocally a great weekend to go to the movies,” says David A. Gross, who runs movie consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research. “‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ complement each other at the box office, without depriving themselves of an audience.”

The cultural craze known as “Barbenheimer” helped fuel the biggest collective box office weekend of the pandemic era, as well as the fourth biggest weekend in history. It’s worth noting that the top three weekends were led by sequel debuts in massive franchises, “Avengers: Endgame,” “Avengers: Infinity War,” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

“The studios have given audiences two unique, different, clever and original stories for the big screen,” said Michael O’Leary, president and CEO of the National Association of Theater Owners, the industry’s trade body. “People recognized that something special was happening and they wanted to be part of it.”

In the end, though, it wasn’t a competition as “Barbie” held high on the box office charts, thanks to a compelling marketing campaign, as well as quality to match the stratospheric hype. The $145 million movie, backed by Warner Bros. and Mattel, dominated the zeitgeist in the weeks leading up to its debut (even causing a shortage of the color pink) to a degree rare for the original fare. (Yes, Barbie may be the most famous doll in the world, but the movie isn’t a sequel or part of a pre-existing franchise.)

Audiences and critics alike digged the film, which nabbed an “A” CinemaScore and 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. The initial crowds were 65% female (which, duh…), but that’s remarkable because it’s almost always the opposite for any film that makes over $100 million in its debut.

Among its many records, “Barbie” also marked the biggest opening weekend ever for a film directed by a woman. “Captain Marvel,” which was co-directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, previously held the title with $153 million in 2019. Filmmaker Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman,” held the record for a female-only film with $103 million in 2017.

Gerwig, who previously directed “Lady Bird” and “Little Women,” co-wrote the screenplay with longtime partner Noah Baumbach. Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling play stereotypical versions of Barbie and Ken, who leave the Dreamhouse in search of real-world self-discovery. The cast also includes Issa Rae, Dua Lipa, Simu Liu, Michael Cera, Helen Mirren, John Cena and Will Ferrell.

‘Oppenheimer’ can settle for second place – not that Universal or Nolan are complaining. Backed by stellar reviews and high-end big-format, the biopic about the so-called “father of the atomic bomb” far exceeds expectations for a three-hour piece with little action and lots of talk.

Heading into the weekend, analysts were predicting a $50 million debut, which would have already been notable given the film’s subject matter and style. With a bigger-than-expected debut, Nolan only solidified his status as a box office draw, regardless of genre. And his appeal as a filmmaker spans continents. At the international box office, “Oppenheimer” added $93.7 million for a worldwide tally of $174 million.

“It’s a vintage piece from the 1940s,” says Universal’s president of national distribution, Jim Orr. “That says a lot about Nolan’s appeal and his prowess as a filmmaker. He has an incredible reputation for storytelling in the largest format possible.

Nolan, the hit director of ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Inception,’ is known for evangelizing Imax — and moviegoers have taken notice. Premium large formats (PLF, as they’re known in the industry) contributed 47% to the film’s national tally. Imax contributed $35 million to worldwide ticket sales.

“All over the world we’ve seen sold-out shows at 4 a.m. and people traveling for hours across borders to see ‘Oppenheimer’ in 70mm Imax,” said Imax CEO Rich Gelfond. “It’s an incomparable phenomenon in Imax, and we’re just getting started.”

“Oppenheimer,” which cost $100 million, marks the first time in Nolan’s career that he hasn’t worked with Warner Bros. (Yes, the “Barbie” backers.) He parted ways with the studio following its unfortunate decision to simultaneously put its entire slate of 2021 movies on HBO Max.

Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “American Prometheus,” “Oppenheimer” is a star-studded character study of theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Cillian Murphy plays the man who led the action at Los Alamos, alongside an ensemble cast of Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Florence Pugh and Alden Ehrenreich.

With “Barbenheimer” taking up most of the oxygen in multiplexes, other films playing in theaters had to fight for scraps.

Tom Cruise’s big-budget sequel “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” took third place, dropping 64% to $19.5 million in its second weekend of release. It didn’t help that “Oppenheimer” practically monopolized the country’s PLF footprint, where tickets are more expensive than 2D screens.

The seventh installment in Paramount and Skydance’s global action franchise has grossed $118.7 million in North America and $370 million worldwide to date. However, it cost $291 million pre-market, so it’ll have to hold its own against “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” to justify that price.

In fourth place, independent box office juggernaut “Sound of Freedom” added $18.8 million from 3,285 theaters in its fourth weekend of release. The low-budget child sex trafficking film has grossed $124 million to date, making it the 14th highest-grossing domestic release of the year.

Disney’s “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Fate” rounded out the top five, grossing $6.7 million from 2,885 sites. After four weeks on the big screen, Harrison Ford’s action-adventure film has grossed $159 million domestically and $335 million worldwide. The only problem ? It cost $300 million (and remember, theater owners get a cut of those ticket sales), which means Indiana Jones is still in the red.

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