“Barbenheimer” burst through the box office on opening weekend, showcasing how the might of internet memes and movie buzz can bring people together.
Both “Barbie,” released by Warner Bros. Pictures, and “Oppenheimer,” released by Universal Pictures, blew away box office projections. “Barbie” broke records during its opening run, making $155 million from more than 4,200 locations in the U.S. and Canada. “Oppenheimer” also outperformed predictions and pulled in $80.5 million from more than 3,600 locations in the U.S. and Canada. (NBC News and Universal Pictures are both units of NBCUniversal.)
Comedic internet discourse around “Barbenheimer” has inspired moviegoers to see both back to back — even if they were originally planning to see one or neither of the films — for fear of missing out on the fun.
Experts say the organic social media buzz that developed around both films, amplified by their combined star power, created an unprecedented box office event as well as a cultural moment unlike any other. The excitement around the films helped make moviegoing an experience again.
“If these two movies were opening on the same day on rival platforms on streaming, I don’t think the Barbenheimer phenomenon would have taken hold,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore, a company that tracks box office data. “It’s because of the cultural impact that movies in theaters have as opposed to streaming, which has a not any less significant, but a very different type of impact.
At Los Angeles’ historic TCL Chinese Theatre — home to countless movie premieres — the Saturday 6 a.m. screening of Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” was a packed house, with hundreds of people trekking to Hollywood Boulevard before sunrise to catch the movie in 70mm on the IMAX screen.
There, two coffee stands were set up outside for attendees to purchase a caffeine pick-me-up before grabbing breakfast: popcorn, candy, an Icee — or all of the above. Some dressed in all black for the film. Others came in “Barbenheimer” T-shirts. But many simply rolled out of bed in their pajamas.
Friends Veronica Lopez, 27, and Caroline Anderson Staub, 26, were among those dressed in all black. They said their decision to see the 6 a.m. showing was a last minute call — they purchased their tickets on Friday at 10 p.m. knowing they’d be catching “Barbie” later that afternoon.
“We got caught up in the hype and were like let’s do the double feature,” Lopez said, adding they have a brunch, nap break and outfit change between the two films.
“Everyone can bond over it together, it’s kind of a ridiculous thing,” Staub said of the “Barbenheimer” craze.
“They [the movies] are so different and they are released on the same day. There are two kinds of people but you can also be both kinds of people … it’s the duality of Barbenheimer, here we are. The theater is full and it’s 6 a.m. I don’t even wake up this early to go to work and they pay me for that. I paid for this.”
Bronson Aznavorian, 26, sported a pink shirt with a sketch of Barbie walking toward a pink atomic bomb, which he got online after seeing other film buffs sharing similar designed tees.
Aznavorian, who works in the entertainment industry as a trailer editor, described the mass “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” enthusiasm as an “encouraging social phenomenon.”
“A lot of streaming can lead people away from the cinema and we lose the valuable communal experience of going to the movies,” Aznavorian, who also plans to see “Barbie” on Sunday, said. “So if it’s a big social thing like this, it’s something I do want to be a part of.”
Though similar events have occurred in the past, like when ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Mamma Mia’ opened against each other 15 years ago, Dergarabedian, the media analyst, said there is “no apt comparison” for the way Barbenheimer’s social media success sowed the seeds of historic audience turnout in theaters.
The first viral mentions of the portmanteau “Barbenheimer” began surfacing this year, collecting momentum until it became almost inescapable online, according to the internet database Know Your Meme.
Its first-ever use in April 2022 poked fun at how both movies appeared to be announcing new cast members every other day. Matt Neglia, editor in chief of the entertainment awards website Next Best Picture, said he didn’t even remember posting the tweet that accidentally coined the term.
“It seemed like all of Hollywood were being recruited to be a part of these big projects that people were excited about, and they both ended up having large casts,” Neglia said. “It’s cool statistically that I might show up as the first, but I never meant to start a hashtag or anything like that.”
Neglia’s initial tweet, however, didn’t gain nearly as much traction as many of the ones that came after. Don Caldwell, editor-in-chief of Know Your Meme, said Barbenheimer’s sustained popularity as a concept was largely the result of its capacity to evolve over time.
The discourse soon turned into a facetious rivalry between the two films as “Barbie”’s glamorous pink energy contrasted sharply with “Oppenheimer”’s dark and solemn overtones. Meme formats based on polar-opposite subjects are a common formula for virality, Caldwell said.
As their premiere dates neared, Barbenheimer discourse became a debate about which movie to see first in a double feature, implying the two were complementing rather than competing with each other. It showcased a type of vibe shift Caldwell said he had never quite seen before in internet history.
“Memes that are more flash-in-the-pan don’t change,” Caldwell said. “But memes that stick around for a longer time, or at least maintain relevance for a longer time, often go through these periods where they shift the narrative, they change the tone or they change the point, even though the basic premise is the same.”
Dressed in blond wigs, pink outfits and bedazzled cowboy boots and more themed attire, moviegoers also came prepared to see Gerwig’s “Barbie” on the big screen.
Swag from the theaters, including AMC’s themed popcorn box in the shape of Barbie’s corvette, and cups, including Cinemark’s Beach Ball drink holder, became hard to come by as crowds vied for the branded merch.
Some theaters had life-size Barbie boxes set up for people to take advantage of photo opps before or after seeing the film. Many theaters also held “Barbie Blowout” parties the Wednesday before the movie debuted in wide release, distributing free posters and pins to celebrate the film’s arrival.
“Barbie is a feminist icon — even if some people would disagree,” Julia Bonadonna, who attended a blowout party at Cinema 123 by Angelika on New York City’s Upper East Side, told NBC News. “I think she’s entered the lives of so many young girls and created such an idea of what we can become.”
Some online who participated in Barbenheimer pointed out how they hadn’t seen the theaters feel this way since midnight screenings of “Harry Potter” and “Twilight.”
During a surprise appearance at New York City’s Alamo Drafthouse on Friday, Gerwig called the turnout “f------ extraordinary.”
“I can’t tell you how happy I am that you guys are all here,” she told moviegoers, according to a video shared online by writer David Mack. “When we made this movie we made it with so much joy and hope, and we hoped that people would go back to the movie theater and be together and want to laugh and cry and dance and experience things together. And this is just f------ extraordinary.”
Even Nolan has weighed in on the “Barbenheimer” mania.
“I think for those of us who care about movies, we’ve been really waiting to have a crowded marketplace again,” Nolan said in an interview with IGN. “And now it’s here and that’s terrific.”
To Neglia and other movie buffs, such a major box office success is worth celebrating. But, he said, it also should serve as a reminder to Hollywood industry execs.
“We also need to remember the artists who have put the work in to create these movies for us, and that there are two ongoing strikes at the moment with the WGA and SAG-AFTRA,” Neglia said. “So while this is all great, let’s not forget about those wonderful artists who gave this to us.”