The secret to the huge ‘Barbenheimer’ box office take? FOMO

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An employee adds letters for upcoming film releases “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie” to a marquee at the Colonial Theater on July 16, 2023 in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.
Hannah Beier | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Hollywood’s biggest weekend at the box office in years wasn’t fueled by superheroes, Jedi or the promise of a sequel.

Sure, there were big names — Barbie, the iconic fashion doll; Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb; and, of course, directors Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan.

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But what set “Barbenheimer” weekend apart was fresh storytelling, a fear of missing out on a cultural moment and a desire to experience movies on the biggest screen possible.

“They did a great job of positioning it as a movie that not only needed to be seen in theaters but needed to be seen with your friends in a theater,” said Mike Polydoros, CEO at cinema marketing firm PaperAirplane Media.

‘At a crossroads’

The historic box office combination of Warner Bros.’ “Barbie” and Universal’s “Oppenheimer” arrived a time when even the most dependable franchise movies have failed to lure in audiences.

Marvel and DC movies aren’t pulling in the same ticket sales as they did before the pandemic, nor are new installments in film series such as Mission Impossible, Fast and Furious, Indiana Jones and Transformers.

Movie nostalgia is no longer enough to inspire consumers to leave their couches for cinemas.

“The industry is at a crossroads,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. “The success of ‘Oppenheimer’ and ‘Barbie’ shows why studios need to start thinking more outside the box while allowing creative talent the room to do what they do best. Gone are the days when a brand can simply be slapped onto a product and people be expected to show up in droves just because they have before or because an algorithm suggests they will.”

Together “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” generated $244.5 million during their first three days in theaters — $162 million for “Barbie” and $82.5 million for “Oppenheimer.”

Adding ticket sales from Paramount’s newest “Mission Impossible” film, Sony’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” and Angel Studios’ “The Sound of Freedom,” the weekend box office topped $311 million, the fourth-highest weekend haul in history.

The FOMO effect

“Barbenheimer’s” historic weekend was also fueled by a sense of urgency, which the box office has been lacking in recent months.

“A fear of missing out on such a special moment motivated people to see one or both, perhaps sooner than they ordinarily would have,” Robbins said.

Audiences were drawn to see “Oppenheimer” on the biggest screen possible, or in specialty theaters that showed the exclusive 70mm footage of Nolan’s biopic. Nolan’s films have come to be event cinema, as the director shies away from computer-generated images in favor of practical effects, and is known for creating powerful visuals.

As for “Barbie,” a huge draw for audiences was the communal experience of donning bubblegum pink and going out in large groups. And, of course, Gerwig, who is known for her sharp, witty dialogue and focus on female-driven stories.

Meme-worthy

Another piece of the appeal was the fact that the two films were so drastically different.

“They compounded one another’s success via the Barbenheimer meme, as it organically took over the pop culture consciousness and crossed over into mainstream channels that don’t normally include movies in their casual daily discourse,” Robbins said.

He noted that both films would have been box office hits regardless, but “the mystique of them opening on the same day elevated their profiles to an entirely new level.”

The meme-worthy trend of seeing both in the same day drove hundreds of thousands of people to cinemas over the weekend to see both. Typically, two films arriving on the same weekend from rival studios would lead to cannibalization of ticket sales.

“The fact that is was serendipitous was a salient element,” said Robert Thompson,  a professor at Syracuse University and a pop culture expert. ”That this was not part of a top-down marketing scheme gave it extra voltage.”

And the momentum of “Barbenheimer” isn’t over.

IMAX screens that have the 70mm showings of “Oppenheimer” are sold out for weeks to come and “Barbie” continues to draw in moviegoers even on weekdays.

On Monday, “Barbie” added $26 million to its haul, the biggest Monday in the history of Warner Bros. and the best-ever for a female director. It added another $26 million on Tuesday, extending its domestic box office to $214 million through its first five days in theaters.

“Lest anyone think this was a mere flash in the pan, the upcoming weekend should see tremendous sophomore sessions for both films,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, noting that curiosity and repeat viewings will continue to drive ticket sales.

“Barbenheimer” will face some competition from Disney’s ”Haunted Mansion” this coming weekend, but box office analysts expect word of mouth to fuel ticket sales for both “Barbie” and “Openheimer” in the weeks to come.

“These films aren’t going to face significant competition for the rest of summer either, which means their stellar opening weekends should be followed by robust staying power going into the final weeks of summer and early fall,” Robbins said. “It’s truly a duo that will go down in the annals of movie history.”

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC. NBCUniversal distributed “Oppenheimer.”

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