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Barbenheimer Was Great But It Won’t Save Cinema

Staff Writer Sam Lord dissects the success of Barbenheimer but questions the viability of that approach to cinema.

The contrasting movie coupling was enough to get people back in cinema seats, but it won’t be enough to keep them there. Studios are inevitably doomed to learn all the wrong lessons from its success, and cinemas will suffer as a result.

The two films’ premiere – Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer”, (colloquially grouped together as ‘Barbenheimer’), has become the most successful movie premiere since “Avengers: Endgame” in 2019. Both films have exceeded box-office expectations; combined they generated a total revenue of $310.8 million on its opening weekend in the US and Canada. This means, combined, it’s now the fourth-largest domestic weekend of all time.

The simultaneous release of two rival productions is known as ‘counterprogramming’. But where studios usually compete against each other at the box office with studios attempting to draw crowds away from their rival’s production and into theirs, Warner Brothers and Universal received an unexpected boost from an active internet culture. Instead of being in competition, as the studios had almost certainly planned for, the two productions now became ‘shipped’ in a sense and ended up contributing to each other’s box-office success. The two films somehow complemented each other. Cinema group Vue International reported one-fifth of people who bought a ticket to Oppenheimer also bought a ticket for Barbie. It was truly a unique event in cinematic history and it’s something Hollywood studios will take note of. 

Already Lionsgate and Paramount Pictures are trying to cash in as “Saw X” and “PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie” (together ‘SawPatrol’) are both set to hit theatres on 29 September – a weak attempt for studios to regain control over their product marketing.

Barbenheimer was an event completely outside the studios’ influence, which is a scary prospect for them despite contributing to its success. Clearly, studios are failing to realise that a phenomenon like Barbenheimer is not something that can be forced onto an audience; there has to be engagement in it to begin with. Barbenheimer didn’t spawn its own hype, audiences were excited, created memes and thus generated more hype. As the CEO of cinema group Ster Kinekor put it: Barbenheimer offered audiences something ‘new and different’ which drove audiences to the theatres. ‘SawPatrol’ will likely still see healthy profit margins, but definitely won’t resonate with audiences the way ‘Barbenheimer’ did, as it doesn’t offer anything new or exciting. And it certainly won’t maintain cinema engagement. If studios want to bring about another Barbenheimer, they will have to do so by making creative movies. 

“Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola expressed his optimism for Barbenheimer to bring about a new ‘golden age of cinema’, and it is a prediction many more have posited. But how likely is this really? While it might be too soon to tell for sure, a look at the state of modern Hollywood doesn’t paint such an optimistic picture. Hollywood is currently seeing a shortage of ambitious and creative writing, which is resulting in more predictable and overall bland productions.

It’s the result of a crisis within Hollywood. Mid-July this year saw the American union SAG-AFTRA, initiating the largest actor/producer strike since the 1960s. It subsequently became the largest film and television disruption in America since the pandemic. This major story starkly contrasted with the hype and success of Barbenheimer. The fact is, it’s now a lot harder for younger, more refreshing and ambitious writers to break into the Hollywood scene. 

The creativity of 20th-century cinema that we’ve grown to love was written by people who could afford to earn a living from it. Like an echo of a long-lost era, we are now left with only their high-budget, low-creativity sequels. Although now it seems the strikes are approaching a tentative resolution, it shouldn’t be a surprise if studios continue looking for ways to pinch pennies out of the writing process, now more on the down-low. 

This is why when studios try to imitate “Barbie” or “Oppenheimer”, they will prefer its more easily reproducible characteristics like their marketability. So, expect movies with similar marketing strategies and budgets, but with less competent directors and writers and in more predictable formats: sequels and extended universes. Mattel, who have already made their plan for a ‘Mattel cinematic universe’, are clearly after the success of Barbie – big-budget productions that will look great in a trailer, but less enthralling on the big screen. This is the route that Hollywood studios are favouring. 

And it seems that cinemas, more than anyone else, will suffer the most from Hollywood’s greed and lack of creativity. The more pessimistic may view Barbenheimer as a last bastion against it’s demise.

Cinemas are becoming an increasingly unattractive medium for studios. Recent high-budget studio productions like Pixar’s “Elemental”, DC’s “The Flash” and “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” have all performed poorly at the box office. One box office analyst has estimated Disney has lost over $890 million on its last eight studio releases, and its most recent Indiana Jones reboot has been deemed a ‘box-office bomb’ by some analysts (the film budgeted around $300 million and has only turned around $357 million). Studios are reading this as a public fatigue of cinemas and its movement away from the big screen and toward streaming services.

Streaming – the future of cinema?

This transition to the medium of streaming is so drastic (streaming became a medium only in the last decade through the success of Netflix) that studios have yet to find it profitable. Yet the prospect of streaming is more attractive to studios than the now increasingly dated cinema. There seems to be no sign of the studios dropping out of the streaming race anytime soon, if anything it seems it’ll be the opposite. And as streaming continues its growth, studios will continue to make productions of low creativity and high profitability, which help to boost a streaming service library whilst cooling cinema seats.

And whilst “Oppenheimer” might look great on the big IMAX screen and it might be fun to dress all in pink to go and watch “Barbie”, during a cost of living crisis what looks more attractive – one film on the big screen, or a month of unlimited entertainment that can be viewed on any device when both are priced the same? For many, due to the costs involved, there isn’t even a choice. And it’s the same crisis that’s enriching an increasingly out-of-touch Hollywood executive class that ultimately decides what movies we get to see. Profit margins favour the predictable. But the predictable doesn’t make for engaging cinema.

Perhaps there is still reason to be optimistic. If anything, Barbenheimer is evidence that Hollywood hasn’t lost its creative edge completely and there are still those fighting to keep cinema alive. In fact, the origin of Barbenheimer stems from Nolan’s protest against Warner Brother’s ‘Project Popcorn’ – a move in which, in the midst of the pandemic, Warner Bros. announced their intentions to release all of its upcoming movies on the streaming service HBO Max. Nolan cut ties with Warner Bros, meeting with multiple studios to negotiate, eventually deciding to release his movie with Universal, who agreed to Nolan’s incredibly high demands. In reaction, Warner Brothers chose to release Barbie on the same day as Oppenheimer as a way to spite Nolan. There aren’t that many producers who could exert that much influence over Hollywood studios, so it remains a good sign that one who can, has been outspoken against harmful studio practices.

And with recent breakthrough negotiations with studios and striking writers, it is possible we might see a new creative boom out of Hollywood – the ‘golden age’ that some so hope Barbenheimer might bring about; it’s likely that Barbenheimer will inspire a new wave of producers. And if the legacy of the SAG-AFTRA strikes is an agreement that allows for the same conditions for cinematic creativity to flourish throughout the 21st century, it should be viewed as a victory. 

We can’t deny that public interest in going to the cinema has been revived, at least temporarily. American cinema group AMC has reported the opening week of Barbenheimer to be their highest-grossing week in its history. It’s all too possible that Barbenheimer might have reinvigorated the desire for cinema-going in many people. Yet if Hollywood continues on its path of mediocrity, then how long can we expect this boost of cinema engagement to last? Bloomberg’s Jonathan Levin even posits that whilst it may appear as a ‘cinema boom’, it’s certainly nothing more than a normalisation after the pandemic disruptions. Considering cinemas were struggling even before the pandemic, it remains an uphill battle for theatres.

Barbenheimer has been an undoubted cinematic success story, yet it might just be a battle won in a losing war. Hollywood needs to galvanize and get creative. Otherwise, cinema as a medium will continue on its downward spiral.  

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