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‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ Set a New Box Office High

The movie business lives!

Greta Gerwig’s gender wars “Barbie” and Christopher Nolan’s nuclear war “Oppenheimer” blew past already-stratospheric prerelease expectations at the weekend box office to collect a combined $235.5 million in the United States and Canada, an astounding total that sent a clear message to Hollywood: If you want to commandeer the culture, you must give moviegoers something new — not just the same old threadbare franchises.

“Original storytelling executed in the right way has broken out in a really remarkable way,” said Richard L. Gelfond, the chief executive of IMAX, which accounted for 26 percent of the “Oppenheimer” turnout in North America, selling out even 4 a.m. screenings. “These movies weren’t sequels that looked the same as the last sequel in a long-running franchise. You might say people noticed.”

The blockbuster turnout signaled that Hollywood has finally bounced back from the pandemic. All told, North American multiplexes had their biggest weekend since “Avengers: Endgame” arrived in April 2019. “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” powered the domestic box office to about $302 million in total weekend ticket sales, with films like “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One” and “Sound of Freedom” contributing to the balance.

“Barbie,” a feminist manifesto wrapped in hot pink bubble gum, sold an estimated $155 million in tickets at domestic theaters, according to Comscore, which compiles box office data. The PG-13 comedy collected an additional $182 million overseas. “Barbie” was released by Warner Bros. and cost $145 million to make, not including marketing expenses, which were considerable.

Box office analysts, using complex formulas to forecast ticket sales, had expected “Barbie” to collect about $110 million in the United States and Canada. Worried that the movie might underperform expectations, as several big-budget releases have recently, including “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One,” Warner Bros. predicted a conservative $75 million.

It ended up as the biggest opening of Gerwig’s career, by a moonshot, cementing her status as one of Hollywood’s young “name” filmmakers — directors who mainstream ticket buyers recognize as delivering singular work. (Jordan Peele is another, along with more established cohorts like Nolan and J.J. Abrams.) Gerwig, who wrote the comedic “Barbie” script with her partner, Noah Baumbach, previously directed “Little Women” (2019) and “Lady Bird” (2017). She has been nominated for three Oscars.

It was also the biggest opening on record for a female director, surpassing “Captain Marvel,” which was co-directed by Anna Boden and had $153.4 million in initial ticket sales in 2019.

“This is a record-shattering opening,” said David A. Gross, a film consultant who publishes a newsletter on box office numbers. “No comedic film of any kind has opened higher than $85.9 million over a three-day weekend.”

“Barbie” arrived as a full-blown cultural event, with thousands of moviegoers draping themselves in pink for screenings, doll memes flooding social media and marketers scrambling (sometimes awkwardly) to glom onto the moment. The audience was 65 percent female. “For a film this pink, you would have expected the audience to be closer to 90 percent female — we got a ton of guys,” said Jeff Goldstein, president of domestic distribution at Warner Bros. “It exploded everywhere: large markets, small markets, coast to coast.”

Harrison Hood, 24, arrived at the AMC Kips Bay theater in Manhattan wearing “Barbie” regalia.Credit…Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times

Some theaters seemed to be caught off guard, including in the New York area, where locations ran out of menu items, and in at least one case, ice.

“Oppenheimer” helped fuel “Barbie” and vice versa, with their simultaneous release nicknamed Barbenheimer and movie fans captivated by their wild incongruity. Nolan’s film, which cost Universal Pictures at least $100 million to make, not including a megawatt marketing campaign, is a three-hour period drama about Robert Oppenheimer, the man known as “the father of the atomic bomb.” AMC Entertainment, the world’s largest theater chain, said that more than 60,000 people had purchased tickets to see “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” as a double feature.

Universal said the R-rated “Oppenheimer” collected an estimated $80.5 million in the United States and Canada — about 60 percent more than analysts had predicted before release — and an additional $94 million overseas. The domestic audience was 62 percent male. Some IMAX locations playing “Oppenheimer” are sold out for the coming weeks, in particular venues playing the film in 70-millimeter.

“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” received euphoric reviews from critics. Ticket buyers gave each film an A grade in CinemaScore exit polls.

Hollywood urgently needed a weekend that exceeded — or even met — expectations. This was the year when moviegoing was finally supposed to bounce back from the pandemic, which closed many theaters for months on end and sped the growth of streaming services in homes. Until now, however, the box office has been mostly notable for disappointing turnout for franchise sequels.

Blips of hope, including “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” have been blotted out by underwhelming results, especially in the United States, for expensive franchise films like “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania,” “Shazam! Fury of the Gods,” “The Flash” and “Fast X.”

What is succeeding? Characters that have not been onscreen in recent memory (“The Super Mario Bros. Movie”), vivid new animation styles (“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”), new chapters in series that are not as well worn (“Creed III”) and movies that cater to audiences ignored by Hollywood (“Sound of Freedom,” which has been promoted by the right).

For all of her world domination, Barbie has never before had her own big-budget movie. “Oppenheimer” is based on the 2005 biography “American Prometheus” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

The stronger-than-expected turnout for “Barbie” reflected, in part, a campaign by David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, to use the company’s cross-promotional power in a new way. In the past, the conglomerate has remained stubbornly siloed, even as Disney and NBCUniversal have leveraged their empires to promote new movies.

Warner Bros. Discovery promoted “Barbie” on its television networks, for instance, with HGTV featuring a Dreamhouse competition series and Food Network incorporating Barbie into a “summer baking championship.” More than 15 of the company’s networks featured pink logos and other on-air promos.

The question now is whether Hollywood can keep the momentum going. Studio executives have long pointed out that moviegoing begets moviegoing — that the habit of watching movies in theaters is crucial. Coming up, however,

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Mohammad SHiblu

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