Barbenheimer and the Return to Cinemas

We all love the memes, but what does this massive box office summer really mean for the film industry?

Gwen Pemberton (she/her) // Arts & Culture Editor
Andy Poystila (he/him) // Illustrator

Technically breathtaking existential dread and bubblegum pink comedy-satire may not be the likeliest pair, but they have come to define the summer of 2023. At least when it comes to movies. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer both slammed onto the big screen on July 21, and they’ve shown no signs of slowing down. The fact that these two diametrically opposed films were slated for release on the same day did not escape the notice of the viewing public, and the internet did what it does best: it ran with it.

Viewers flocked to screens for the double feature of the year, dressed to the nines in hot pink and cowboy hats. What started as a social media in-joke has had a massive financial and cultural impact. As of August 13, 2023, Barbie has grossed over $1.18 billion worldwide, making it the highest grossing film ever made by a female director. Barbie is also currently the second-highest grossing film of 2023, only losing the top spot to The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which was released in April this year.

Oppenheimer has also managed to crack the top ten. Currently, it sits at the number six spot worldwide, just behind Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Its worldwide gross of nearly $650 million is very impressive for a nearly three hour historical biopic. In fact, it is Christopher Nolan’s third highest opening weekend ever, only beaten by his two Batman sequels, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. 

Along with the critical hype surrounding these two films, what sets them apart is the way that they have driven viewers back to physical movie theaters. Oppenheimer in particular has made a massive effort to market the film as a must-see theater experience, with its 70mm IMAX presentation. Not to discount Barbie which, as anyone who has seen it will tell you, draws theaters full of excited viewers dressed in their best Barbie gear.

2023 in general has been a big year at the box office. Aside from those already mentioned, it has also seen the releases of juggernauts like Fast X, Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3 and Mission Impossible – Dead Reckoning: Part One. The theater industry took a big hit in 2020, and has been slow to return to its pre-pandemic numbers, but this July marked a 20 per cent increase in gross from the same period last year, with August on track to deliver a similar feat.

Though the return to cinemas is certainly a welcome sight for many, amid the ongoing SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes it is slightly bittersweet. As writers and performers call for fair wages and residuals, as well as protections against the incorporation of AI in the film industry, the massive numbers being brought in by studios this summer may help to keep the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) away from the bargaining table. 

Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav reported that the company has saved more than $100 million in Q2. Notably, Warner Bros. is the distributor behind Barbie. Zaslav also stated that the company expects an end to the strikes and a return to production in early September, but members of both unions are holding strong in their demands. On Aug. 4, negotiators for the WGA and AMPTP met for the first time since the beginning of the writers strike on May 1. Both gave no indication that they were prepared to alter demands or proposals. Though negotiations on that date were unproductive, as the writer’s strike passes its one hundredth day negotiators from both sides are set to meet on Aug. 15, with hopes of a more cooperative discussion.

Amid industry turmoil, the receipts from the summer indicate an eagerness to return to cinemas, as numbers continue to trend upwards from their 2020 lows. Whether or not the studios will see this as a push to negotiate or to remain staunch in their rejection of SAG-AFTRA and WGA demands remains to be seen. As the strikes continue, their impact on the film industry and its release schedule may not be felt immediately, especially by the public. Even so, a shrinking number of new releases is inevitable, unless an agreement is met between the studio and the unions. The supercharged response to Barbie and Oppenheimer indicates that the demand from audiences, particularly for the theater experience, is strong. 2023 is certainly the biggest summer for cinemas since 2020, but what is to come in 2024 is still up in the air.

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