‘Barbenheimer’ shatters expectations — and box office records

If there was any doubt that Hollywood was suffering from franchise fatigue, moviegoers this weekend voted with their wallets for original films instead. “Barbenheimer,” the portmanteau for the zeitgeist-conjoined new releases “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” has evolved from meme to market force.

As of Sunday, the term also became shorthand for what paced the biggest box office ever for an overall weekend not led by a massive franchise, according to the trades.

At this rate, Barbie might soon hold down as many box office records as she does careers.

The cleverly inventive confection from writer-director Greta Gerwig and co-writer Noah Baumbach made history by earning $155 million in its domestic debut over the weekend — the biggest North American opening for a movie directed by a woman. The previous records, superhero outings both, were 2019’s “Captain Marvel,” co-directed by Anna Boden, at $153 million, and 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” solo-directed by Patty Jenkins, at $103 million.

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The other half of the internet phenomenon, Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” — the three-hour period biopic centered on the “father of the atomic bomb” — also flew past analyst projections, grossing $80.5 million domestically.

The twin blockbusters of “Barbenheimer” represent the first time a three-day weekend has had one film open with more than $100 million in ticket sales and another with more than $50 million, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

This also marks Hollywood’s biggest three-day weekend since the pandemic began and the fourth-biggest weekend ever, not adjusting for inflation. Variety notes that the top three weekends were led by franchise sequels: 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” 2018’s “Avengers: Infinity War” and 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

“Barbie,” the PG-13 doll-based comedy-drama starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling that could perhaps spawn a Mattel Cinematic Universe, has a 90 percent “fresh” critical rating and a 90 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The R-rated “Oppenheimer,” starring Cillian Murphy, Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, has critical and audience ratings of 94 percent on the review-aggregation site, and Washington Post chief critic Ann Hornaday called it a “supersize masterpiece.”

The “Barbenheimer” online phenomenon embraced the belief that there was room enough at the multiplex for two big releases on the same weekend — and became a Hollywood marketer’s dream. Each rippling with commentary on ideas born out of mid-century America, “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” seemed to help propel each other by becoming twinned in the public consciousness.

And that “Barbenheimer” fever has gone global: “Barbie” has already grossed $337 million worldwide on a reported $145 million production budget; “Oppenheimer,” buoyed immensely by the box office from Imax and other large-format screenings, has grossed $174 million worldwide on a reported $100 million budget.

The big weekend also can be interpreted as a percussive statement on audience hunger for original stand-alone stories, as years of interconnected films have spawned a creeping weariness with huge franchises.

Among non-animated movies, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” is one of the few blockbuster sequels to meet box office expectations this year. The latest big-budget releases from such franchises as Indiana Jones, Mission: Impossible, Fast & Furious, Justice League and Ant-Man have all underperformed domestically.

Hollywood, though, might have a relatively short window to bask in the “Barbenheimer” box office. The ongoing strikes by the actors and writers unions prohibit member appearances at film premieres and prohibit most promotion, which could partially decrease audience awareness.

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