“Barbenheimer” Has a Lesson to Teach Hollywood. Is Anyone Listening?

In some ways, the seismic opening-weekend success of both Barbie and Oppenheimer, two massive studio films released during massive-studio-film season, is not a surprise. Warner Bros. ran a relentless marketing blitz for Barbie (which is, of course, based on a very famous toy) that somehow didn’t wear out its welcome; the campaign both fed off existing audience enthusiasm and created its own ever-swelling amount of it. Universal was a bit more restrained in selling Oppenheimer—if you call giant countdown-clock billboards “restrained”—but the studio smartly drafted off of director Christopher Nolan’s brand name and sold the film as the movie of the year. Persuasive advertising like that is often effective. 

In lots of other ways, though, this twin-blockbuster event is a welcome jolt. Certainly in the context of 2023, with the theatrical business flailing and—we’re so often told—audience interest firmly rooted in television and internet ephemera. Movies have been declared dead a number of times in recent years, only to have that narrative briefly challenged in the wake of isolated hits like Top Gun: Maverick, Avatar: The Way of Water, and various Spider-Man films. It was beginning to seem that no nonfranchise movie would ever be a blockbuster again. Then along came a living doll and the inventor of the atomic bomb to prove us wrong. 

Well, it would be nice if the doomsday predictions about the future of moviegoing had all suddenly been contradicted. In truth, we have no idea what longer-term significance the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon might have for a once cherished pastime (and, of course, a commercial art form). While this triumph is notable, and does mean something, two movies can’t solve everything. And there is a lot to solve, perhaps most pressingly the increasing corporatization of Hollywood, all the Wall Street–pleasing vertical integration that has left creatives so far out in the cold that two of the industry’s major unions are now striking at the same time—something that last happened in 1960. 

It’s all intertwined with the issue of streaming, which has lost money for pretty much everyone involved; perhaps fatally eroded the theatrical-movie and linear-TV businesses; and led, in part, to the sequelization and franchising of just about everything. (That trend was already emergent before streaming, of course, because at some point at the end of the last century, studio executives started prizing reproducible success and scale over anything so risky as originality.) It’s a pretty steep nosedive to climb out of, which is why movie fans are eager to grab on to the good news of Barbie and Oppenheimer. 

And this success is reason to celebrate. Neither film is a sequel: One is a strange mash of comedy and wistful drama directed by a former indie queen, the other a dark and long and brooding biopic about a complicated scientist. These are not exactly the sorts of movies that typically make hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2020s. Barbie is, obviously, flexing some pretty ubiquitous IP, but the movie found a way to transcend that association in the public consciousness—perhaps because it always advertised an awareness of its cynical origins. Oppenheimer similarly committed to its bit: There were never really any attempts to peddle the movie as anything but a dour drama, even if some disappointed audience members were expecting more explosions. 

So perhaps this will encourage more film studios to take bigger swings with semi-untested material, to rethink the parameters of summer cinema, to invest in higher-budget comedies and serious, expensive, “grown-up” dramas like they used to. 

But all that development, if it is to happen at all, will be delayed by the strikes, caused by a bunch of selfish people demanding more money than they deserve. By which I mean executives and shareholders and the like, who are hoarding profits and investing in costly boondoggles, then blaming artists and craftspeople and technicians (and audiences!) for the pains and supposed penury of the industry. The labor conflicts in Hollywood appear pretty intractable at the moment, though of course there is always the possibility of some miraculous deliverance—like, say, studios snapping into new clarity and realizing they need to harness and repurpose the Barbenheimer zeitgeist as soon as possible. “Give the artists whatever they want, just make me another Barbie!”

Lessons are learned strangely in Hollywood: sometimes rashly, other times too slowly. Far too often, the completely wrong lesson is learned, no matter the speed. Will the takeaway from this watershed weekend—contrasted with disappointing returns for several tired franchise entries this year—be productive, pushing studios toward an age of renewed invention? Little in the past 20 years leads me to believe that. But maybe we are at a dire-enough inflection point that the whole model is ready for such a major realignment of priorities and values. 

In the pessimistic outlook (maybe the realistic outlook?), Barbie hastens the development of more toy-based IP (which has already been in the works), along with a few other fantasy comedies that dabble in discourse for some added edge and social cachet. Oppenheimer ensures that Nolan will get yet another blank check, and maybe the biopic genre will take a detour out of the realm of music—where it is most profitable—and into the historical. (Though Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film, Lincoln, which made $275 million at the worldwide box office, didn’t jump-start much.) Those would be, I suppose, modest improvements in an industry where total overhauls are needed. 

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