‘Barbenheimer’ delivers biggest opening weekend of year at N American box office

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Barbie and Oppenheimer delivered the strongest opening weekend at the box office this year as fans rushed to experience the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon, boosting cinemas after what has been a lacklustre summer season.

Barbie’s estimated $155mn opening in North America was the highest of the year, following a marketing blitz from toymaker Mattel and Warner Bros. Oppenheimer, a three-hour film about the “father of the atomic bomb”, took in an estimated $80.5mn in North America, well above estimates of $50mn.

The performances were especially strong for films not based on proven Hollywood franchises such as Star Wars or The Avengers, analysts and cinema executives said.

“These films don’t fit the summer blockbuster mould,” said Mike Sampson, director of field marketing for the Alamo Drafthouse cinema chain. “It’s great to attract a different crowd instead of the same action-adventure group.”

Directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, Barbie grossed an estimated $182mn outside the US. Oppenheimer, directed by Christopher Nolan and released by Universal, took in $93.7mn outside the US, according to Comscore.

Sampson said he thought that both movies had “legs” and would continue to perform well in the coming weeks. “These are two really good movies, not just two movies doing well. People can’t stop talking about them.”

The strong performances are a boost to cinemas, many of which are still struggling from the effects of Covid-induced shutdowns and production delays. Cinemas have enjoyed their first full slate of summer films since 2019, but ticket sales have lagged below the levels reached that year.

“People recognised that something special was happening and they wanted to be a part of it,” said Michael O’Leary, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners. 

But the meme-driven buzz that played off the opening weekend competition between the light-hearted Barbie and Nolan’s film about the dawn of the nuclear age has driven fan interest beyond expectations. Going into the weekend, more than 200,000 fans had bought tickets to see both films on the same day in North America, according to the US cinema industry trade group.

Paul Dergarabedian, senior analyst at research group Comscore, said the weekend could be the second highest grossing in box office history once the final numbers are released. He added that it comes as Hollywood actors and writers have gone on strike.

“This is the ultimate box office weekend, particularly coming at a tumultuous time in Hollywood with the actors and writers strike,” he said.

Strike rules prevent stars from promoting their films, though the studios’ marketing machinery had already gone into effect for these films before actors took to the picket lines this month. Still, Oppenheimer’s cast walked out during the film’s London debut, and its New York premiere was cancelled.

The box office results are almost double the original projections, thanks to the studios’ marketing and the online buzz, he said. “They didn’t immediately scream out ‘summer blockbuster’,” he said. “It goes to show that audiences want to be challenged.”

Cinema owners have been pushing Barbie-themed concessions and other promotions, and some reported selling out all of their inventory.

Sampson said audiences have been having Barbie slumber parties, which have helped sell themed cocktails and merchandise.

“The Barbie lunchbox with Thermos has already sold out, and the Barbie sunglasses have already sold out,” he said. “It’s all really selling well.”

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