Barbenheimer: Why Are ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ Battling at the Box Office?

What started the “Barbenheimer,” and how will it end?
by Alyssa Miller on July 16, 2023

One of the most highly anticipated dates of the 2023’s calendar year is July 21, 2023, otherwise known as the day that both Barbie and Oppenheimer hit all theaters across the United States.  The release of both films on the same day created an internet phenomenon known as Barbenheimer. While the two films are drastically different in tone, themes, and color pallets, it's hard to wonder why Barbie and Oppenheimer are battling for dominance at the box office. 

What started this madness, and is there already a clear winner? Let’s get into it. 

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Barbenheimer Why Are Barbie and Oppenheimer Battling at the Box Office

Twin Films Happen All the Time… So Why is Barbenheimer Different?

Twin films are not a new phenomenon. They typically happen when two studios invest in similar scripts at a similar time and are racing to get their film in theaters first. 

However, two completely different movies becoming twin movies are rare. The only example that comes to mind is in 2008 when Mamma Mia! and The Dark Knight were released on the same date. 

When we look at the cast and crew of both Barbie and Oppenheimer, we see industry-beloved, Oscar-nominated writers/directors creating projects with a highly awarded and praised crew and an all-star cast. These movies are more similar than we realize when we look at the posters. 

While they couldn’t be more different in aesthetics, tone, and style, Barbie and Oppenheimer have similarities. They were both created by auteurs. Case in point when Barbie's director Greta Gerwig captured the attention of the male-dominated cinephile world, who would have never been willing to give the Barbie movie a minute of their day, by referencing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with the first Barbie trailer.  

Read More: Screenwriting Advice from Lady Bird Writer/Director Greta Gerwig

The marketing of Barbie is trying to convince a male audience who isn’t comfortable with their masculinity that this movie is also for them through careful marketing and highlighting the level of craft that went into each and every frame. 

Oppenheimer's director Christopher Nolan, however, doesn’t have to prove that he is making a movie for a specific audience. He is a filmmaker that has established himself by taking risks and crafting visually compelling narratives as an auteur that film bros. and cinephiles everywhere adore. He is a filmmaker who also cares about the details of each frame, which makes audiences care about the story he is telling us. 

At this point, both films and filmmakers have told audiences everywhere that their movies are for people who love movies. Neither film is targeting a specific audience, but they are rather opening the doors for original stories that have the potential to perform well at the box office. 

Read More: Screenwriting Wisdom from Christopher Nolan

Barbenheimer Why Are Barbie and Oppenheimer Battling at the Box Office

Why Are ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ Releasing on the Same Day?

While it is not fully transparent why Barbie and Oppenheimer are being released on the same day, there are some excellent theories behind the strategic move. 

After Warner Bros. Discovery decided to dump its entire 2021 theatrical slate on HBO Max during the COVID-19 pandemic, Nolan, who had a 20-year relationship with the studio, packed his bags and went to Universal. 

"Some of our industry's biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service," Nolan told THR in December 2020.

When Deadline reported that Nolan would be making his next movie, Oppenheimer, at Universal, Warner Bros. saw the opportunity to release a major film on the same day to compete. 

As theatrical-release dates began to fill the 2023 calendar, Oppenheimer was slated for July. 21, which studios, theaters, and movie fans know is the prime blockbuster season and Nolan’s preferred-release week since 2008’s The Dark Knight (four out of his last six movies have been released in mid- to late-July). Rather than going for an adult drama that would ultimately not perform well at the box office, Warner Bros. decided to swing in the opposite direction and slate Barbie, a light-hearted comedy from Oscar-nominated writer/director Greta Gerwig. 

Sources familiar with the issue tell Insider that Nolan was upset with Warner Bros. scheduling Barbie on the same weekend as Oppenheimer. There was even an attempt by the movie-theater community to convince Warner Bros. to change the release date of Barbie. However, the studio didn’t budge or comment on why they wouldn’t change the date. 

While Nolan has avoided answering interview questions about this theory, he does state that “those who care about the theatrical experience, we’ve been longing for a crowded marketplace with a lot of different movies. That’s what theaters have now, and those of us who care about  movies are thrilled about that.” 

Despite the possible efforts from Warner Bros. to sabotage their ex-filmmaker, the plan may have backfired as audiences are eager to watch both films for one of the strangest double features to date.

Read More: How Oppenheimer Created a CGI-Free Atomic Blast

Barbenheimer Why Are Barbie and Oppenheimer Battling at the Box Office

Who is Winning “Barbenheimer”?

It seems that almost everyone excited for Barbenheimer has already gotten their hands on tickets for the opening weekend of both films. 

Cillian Murphy and Tom Cruise have both stated that they will be watching both films in theaters on Jul. 21, with Murphy saying in an interview, “I think it’s just great for the industry and for audiences that we have two amazing films by amazing filmmakers coming out on the same day. Yeah, you get to spend a whole day in the cinema. What’s better than that?” 

Currently, Barbie is projected to gross $80-$100 million on opening weekend, while Oppenheimer is estimated to gross $50 million. Two weeks before their release, AMC Theaters released a press statement that over 20,000 AMC Stubs members had already pre-booked tickets to both films on the same day, seeing a 33 percent increase in people buying double feature tickets from Jul. 7 to Jul. 10. 

While Oppenheimer might be the more critically-acclaimed film of the two, it’s clear that Barbie has a larger appeal to the general public. 

Read More: America Ferrera's Glorious 'Barbie' Monologue Explained

Unfortunately, Oppenheimer is a mature drama, and adult dramas have notoriously not done well in the theaters in our post-pandemic world. Sure, the three-hour-long biopic will be stunning to see in theaters as we watch the first black and white IMAX footage ever shot shine on the silver screen, but Barbie is barely an hour and a half long and is telling the story of an American icon and cultural phenomenon. 

While Barbie will more than likely come out on top, further drawing a divide in Nolan and Warner Bros. strained relationship, it will be wonderful to spend a day at the cinema watching two great films made by writers/directors who care about the longevity of cinema and the moviegoing experience.


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