“Barbie” brought the crowds back to movie theaters. Will they stay?

What does it take to turn people away from streaming and back them into long-vacant movie seats? Turns out bubble gum pink nostalgia, dozens of retail collaborations, and ubiquitous marketing will do the trick.

During the opening weekend of “Barbie,” the highly anticipated film directed by Greta Gerwig made $162 million. It’s the highest-grossing opening weekend of all time for a film directed by a woman and the 20th Highest-Grossing Film Opening Weekend of all time, according to Box Office Mojo by IMDB Pro, a site that tracks box office revenue.

In recent years, the theatrical experience seemed kaput. The decline in attendance was largely due to a combination of pandemic closures and the proliferation of streaming services delivering more cinematic entertainment than you could consume in your lifetime. The drop in box office led to closures: 2,165 screens in the United States were closed from 2019 to 2022, or about 5.3%, according to a March report from the Cinema Foundation.

Theaters have been working to make the movie experience appealing again through renovations and expanding dining and alcohol options. Still, revenue remained lower than before the pandemic: $7.4 billion total gross in 2022, down from $11.4 billion in 2019, according to Box Office Mojo.

The dire state of theater attendance is what makes “Barbie” so remarkable. Compared to the all-time best opening weekends for summer movies, “Barbie” came in at No. 10, according to Box Office Mojo. For context, while “Barbie” grossed $162 million, the highest-grossing opening weekend of all time was for “Jurassic World” (2015), with $208.8 million. “Barbie” topped franchise follow-ups “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” and “Jurassic World Dominion,” as well as “Dark Knight” and “Spider-Man” films.

The hype machine fueled Barbie’s success

“Barbie” tells the story of Barbie, played by Margot Robbie, who lives in Barbie Land with many other Barbies and Kens. An existential crisis leads him and Ken, played by Ryan Gosling, to travel the real world in search of purpose.

Unlike typical doll audiences, “Barbie” isn’t aimed at little kids — and neither is the marketing. Collaborations for “Barbie” became ubiquitous in the weeks leading up to the film’s release, thanks to Barbie clothing, Barbie home decor, Barbie pool floats, Barbie candles, Barbie jewelry, Barbie cosmetics, Barbie dog clothes, Barbie hair products, Barbie fast food and more.

Meanwhile, the star PR tour included Robbie giving a tour of Barbie’s dream home for Architectural Digest magazine and recreating classic Barbie looks on the red carpet. Gosling has shown affection for Ken (nicknamed “Kenergy”) in interviews. The rest of the PR tour was interrupted by the SAG-AFTRA Strikewhich has practically paralyzed Hollywood productions.

The release of “Barbie” was well chosen for very online consumers. The film’s July 21 opening landed the same day as the release of Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” – a biographical thriller about J. Robert Oppenheimer’s work on the Manhattan Project that led to the first nuclear bombs. The bizarre juxtaposition of two very different films from critically acclaimed directors quickly led to a social media phenomenon: Barbenheimer.

The Barbenheimer sensation fueled cinematic discourse for months before the films were released, sparking counterfeit merchandise and birth memes mixing the plastic blonde bombshell with Oppenheimer, portrayed in Cillian Murphy’s film, and a mushroom cloud. A popular meme is the most notorious quote from the real Oppenheimer, originally from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita, “Now I have become death, destroyer of worlds,” but stylized in the Barbie typeface and a hot pink hue.

The social media fervor enticed moviegoers to see the two films back-to-back, prompting theaters to market dual-purpose ticket packages. Theater giant AMC reported that 87,000 members of its AMC Stubs loyalty program reserved tickets see both films on the same day.

“Oppenheimer” also profited from Barbenheimer, grossing $80.5 million in its opening weekend, according to Box Office Mojo. It’s the first time two films have raised $80 million or more in the same opening weekend, and it was the fourth-highest-grossing weekend at the box office of all time, according to multiple reports.

Can the success of “Barbie” be replicated?

A summer of blockbusters might remind people of what they’re missing as they parade home. In addition to “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer”, the action movie “Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, Part One” was released on July 12 and set a five-day opening record for the franchise with $80 million.

There are more opportunities ahead to attract audiences: 40% more wide movie releases are expected in 2023 compared to 2022, according to the National Cinema Foundation.

It’s possible that “Barbie” could start a trend among studios to spend a lot of money on marketing in order to keep bringing people back to theaters. Again, a big budget doesn’t necessarily work if the film isn’t well received in the end. Another Gosling-directed film, “Blade Runner 2049,” released in 2017, had an estimated marketing budget of $130 million but still flopped at the box office.

Mattel is banking on Barbie’s earnings as a signal that consumers want more nostalgic toy-related content. The company launched a film division in 2018 and has plans for an entire Mattel Cinematic Universe, including 45 films in development based on other classic toys like American Girl, Polly Pocket, Hot Wheels, Masters of the Universe, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, the Uno card game and even the Magic 8 Ball.

Will any of these films be as successful as “Barbie”? To quote that Magic 8 Ball: ask again later.

(Top photo by James Gourley/Getty Images News via Getty Image)

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