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Lessons from a Barbenheimer summer

What we can learn from July’s record-breaking movie month.

Photo illustration of a tub of popcorn in the foreground and movie posters for Oppenheimer and Barbie in the background.
Barbie and Oppenheimer led July 2023, the second biggest month at the movies on record.
Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

For a few years, every summer movie season has felt like the weirdest one. There was the year when blockbusters started to balloon far beyond the margins of “summer.” There was the pandemic summer, when there were no blockbusters at all. The summer of 2021, with its in-between state and slowly reopening theaters, was headlined by a lot of really strange films. And last year’s off-kilter maximalism was so extra, even for spectacle blockbuster season, that I called it the “summer of swirly, googly, bombastic, over-the-top movies.”

The summer blockbuster season of 2023 seems on paper like the first normalish one in a long while. All of the elements are there. There have been franchise installments (Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Fast X), superhero installments (Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, The Flash), and long-tail nostalgia sequels (Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny). Alongside them are heavily marketed monster hits (the Barbenheimer juggernaut), a couple of low-budget specialty breakouts (Sound of Freedom and Talk to Me), respectable art-house releases (Past Lives), and a few scattered family movies raking in solid bucks (Elemental and, if you squint, Super Mario Bros too).

And after years of paltry returns, this summer’s been a whopper: July 2023 is the second-biggest month in box office returns in history. (The crown still belongs to July 2011, when the final Harry Potter movie was released.)

Yet the lines haven’t fallen in the usual places. Mission: Impossible, Fast X, and Indiana Jones didn’t do nearly as well as some of their predecessors, an unexpected occurrence. All three opened well below the previous film in the series (in Indy’s case, $40 million below) and have been slower to earn as well. Meanwhile, Elemental, while raking in decent money, still struggled in comparison to its older Pixar siblings, and The Flash was an unqualified flop.

Not long ago, franchise films, superheroes, and Pixar releases were the backbone of summer blockbuster season; even last year, the No. 1 movie was Top Gun: Maverick. True to form, this summer did start (in April, because what is time anymore) with Super Mario Bros, which became a monster worldwide hit. Perhaps that was predictable, given the popularity of Mario and his buddies around the world.

But other hits have been less predictable. Sound of Freedom, for instance, a movie about child sex trafficking, was propelled along by deploying the “movie THEY don’t want you to see” culture war marketing playbook at a conservative audience. The movie’s unusual ticket sales model guarantees seats sold, if not butts in those seats, but money’s what matters, and Sound of Freedom has made bank, grossing more than $150 million in its US-based release. (That’s about $10 million more than what M:I - Dead Reckoning Part One has made in the US, though when you add the latter’s worldwide sales it comes out to nearly $450 million.)

That number has built some buzz around Sound of Freedom, which isn’t exactly the kind of spectacle- and effects-driven movie you go to in order to turn off your brain and enjoy your popcorn. But neither is Oppenheimer. Christopher Nolan remains one of the few reliably commercial blockbuster directors whose work is also genuinely challenging, and his three-hour biopic about the father of the atomic bomb — a movie which is almost entirely just men in rooms, talking about physics and politics — grossed $180 million in the US alone before its second week was over.

Jim Caviezel in Sound of Freedom
Sound of Freedom was among the films that propelled a major box office bump this summer.
Angel Studios

That is astonishing on its own, but part of the reason Oppenheimer did so well, as anyone paying half an iota of attention realizes, is, hilariously, Barbie, which got linked with Oppenheimer in a clever portmanteau, spawned a meme with real-life box office consequences, and ended up grossing over twice what Oppenheimer did just in the US in its first two weeks. (It stands to reason that the female-coded Barbie also got an Oppenheimer bump from men who felt the Barbieheimer phenomenon gave them an excuse to see a movie they’d otherwise feel weird about. Thanks, society!)

On the surface, the two couldn’t be more different. Below the skin, they’re practically siblings, both wrestling with power, apocalypse, and existential dread. But that’s not why people went to see Barbie and Oppenheimer. It’s not why they saw Sound of Freedom, either, if we want to get real about it.

Put on your time-travel hat and sail back to 1975 for a moment, and then flick on a TV. There’s almost certainly a shark on it. Universal Pictures spent about $1.8 million marketing Jaws — a bit over $11 million in 2023 dollars. Set against the estimated $150 million spent marketing Barbie, that’s a tiny sum. But in the mid-70s, it was unheard of. A staggering $800,000 of it went toward TV ads, including 24 30-second commercials that aired in primetime on each major network in the two days before the film’s release. If you hadn’t read the novel it was based on, you might not know what it was about, but what you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was that you had to go see Jaws.

Jaws set the rules in 1975: A blockbuster is not just an evening out or a random choice you make at the ticket counter. A blockbuster is defined by a huge theatrical rollout, preceded by advertising blanketed so thickly that people kind of get sick of it, copious tie-in merchandise, and a sense of urgency. (Independence Day outdid itself in that department.)

For a blockbuster to really hit it big, the audience has to be convinced that this is the best thing for them to do with their time, money, and friends. You’ve got to go see it or you’ll be left out. It’s an event. From the start, these kinds of films have tapped into a very particular kind of marketing: the kind that appeals to our human need to belong.

That’s what Barbenheimer somehow recaptured, and why people showed up in elaborate costumes to see the movies. The Sound of Freedom audience felt the same urgency through a campaign largely conducted through word of mouth: Your friends saw this movie, they posted about it, they want you to see it too, and it’s your moral duty to do so — plus, you want to talk about it.

There’s a lesson in this story for an industry that has been fixated on platform-agnostic “content” for so long. You know what’s not (or at least rarely) an event? A movie that’s spat out onto a streaming platform that you can watch whenever you want, wherever you want, probably by yourself. That’s true for movies or for TV, and the industry used to know this. (Remember “Must-See TV”?) We still occasionally recapture the magic, as the excitement around the final season of Succession or bigger shows like House of the Dragon demonstrate.

Believe it or not, people actually like to have their lives interrupted by the art they find entertaining. People don’t feel urgency around entertainment that they can get to whenever they want; if anecdotal experience is any indication, they’ll just never get around to it. The things that excite us, that cause us to spend money (which is, in the end, the point for the distributors) are happenings. We plan and save and post about Taylor Swift concerts and Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom drops, and we rearrange our schedules to make sure we can engage with them when everyone else is. Movies aren’t different, and movie theaters, done right, are the perfect venue for event-izing screen-based entertainment — which, when we get down to it, is still just about the cheapest night-out activity there is.

The fact that the summer of Barbie is also the summer of strikes should tell us something. Most of what the writers and actors are striking about has to do with changes wrought by the propulsive, weirdly death-wish-style push toward content sent down tubes at consumers’ convenience. The most likely use of AI in that context is just to generate more of it more cheaply. But will anyone be watching?

The Barbieheimer weekend was for me, a film critic, one of the most heartening things I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t mind if people liked or hated the movies, what was exciting was watching people get excited to see them, and then, even more importantly, to talk about them. Yes, the “discourse” (especially on social media) sometimes made me want to bang my head on the counter, but that’s part of what’s great about giant communal forms of entertainment, and in the end, I loved it.

That weekend also revealed that there’s a long way to go if the theatrical experience will be saved. I’ve spoken with many people who say they avoid theaters largely because their local multiplexes are shoddy big-box operations that are dirty or loud or disruptive and that films are often projected poorly or in the wrong format. During screenings of Oppenheimer in particular, widespread issues made it clear that the art of great projection is in danger of going extinct, in part because nearly all movies are shot and projected digitally now, and in part because movie theaters are understaffed.

But despite what it has going against it, the movie industry isn’t dead yet, and movies don’t have to die. Recapturing the art of creating an event out of a movie might be an uphill climb for an industry that has been fixated on other matters, but if Hollywood wants to keep itself from the brink, it’s a lesson they’re going to have to agree, finally, to re-learn.

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