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Barbenheimer Brings Back Pre-Pandemic Box Office Glory — But There's Trouble To Come

The joint releases of "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" brought in not only the biggest post-COVID box office weekend haul but the biggest since 2019. With a staggering collective cume of over $308 million since Friday, "Barbenheimer" is the fourth highest-grossing weekend for the domestic box office, coming behind the weekends of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," "Avengers: Infinity War," and "Avengers: Endgame."

"Oppenheimer," the second World War II-era historical epic by Christopher Nolan, destroyed projections and raked in $80.5 million domestically. While impressive, it fell just $3 million short of breaking the top 10 R-rated domestic openings, ironically edged out by "Passion of the Christ" (Jim Caviezel's new film "Sound of Freedom" was handily knocked down to fourth place this week, despite Angel Studios attempting to claim otherwise).

Meanwhile, Greta Gerwig's "Barbie" posted a tremendous $155 million debut, the best opening ever for a female director and the best overall for 2023 so far. According to EntTelligence (a box office analytics company that began monitoring audience attendance in cinemas during the pandemic), "Barbie” also has the third-highest foot traffic of any film they've tracked since its founding, behind "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness" and "Spider-Man: No Way Home."

The success of "Barbenheimer" has some hailing a return to form for theaters, while others wonder if the double feature is a social-media-induced fluke. Either way, theaters are in for a rude awakening as the Hollywood shutdown affects late-2023 releases.

Was Barbenheimer a one-time event?

It wasn't too long ago while promoting his second award-winning box office bomb, legendary director Steven Spielberg pined for the days when films like "The Fabelmans" and 2021's "West Side Story" could compete financially alongside franchise blockbusters. "I think it will come back," he said of the pre-COVID box office to Deadline earlier this year, "but it's coming back slowly, especially for dramas." Further down, he offered optimistically, "Eventually, we'll see more adult films doing decent numbers in movie theaters." For those sharing Spielberg's ache for adult dramas to make a comeback, "Oppenheimer" especially might seem like the harbinger of great things to come — the future, however, seems far more complicated.

In his analysis for Deadline, journalist Anthony D'Alessandro deftly remarked that moviegoers seemed to be treating Nolan's "Oppenheimer" like a superhero studio tentpole rather than an adult drama, which may be due in large part to the unprecedented and seemingly grassroots social media campaign that was "Barbenheimer." As Puck News Hollywood-whisperer Matthew Belloni notes, sharing a release date wound up helping both "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" in ways that can't really be replicated or relied on by studios in the future (try as they certainly might). Supporting this apparent cinematic cross-pollination in part is a Quorum poll sourced by Belloni, which found that 58% of "Barbenheimer" attendees saw Nolan's feature first — meanwhile, 6% of those seeing "Oppenheimer" only did so because "Barbie" was sold out.

Even if "Barbenheimer" were a genuine indicator that, apropos of absolutely nothing, pre-pandemic box office numbers were making a comeback, the failure of the AMPTP to resolve both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes in the immediate future will almost definitely ice whatever momentum Nolan and Gerwig helped create.

Without promotion from WGA and SAG members, studios are scared to release projects

The casual entertainment news follower would be forgiven for assuming that the Hollywood shutdown caused by the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes would only affect those films still in production. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the case.

Despite securing its own deal with the unions to move forward with production on two films, A24 has opted to postpone the August release of its upcoming movie, "Problemista." This news comes shortly after Lionsgate made a similar call with their own August hopeful, "White Bird." Though both were mere weeks at most from hitting theaters, studios chose to wait likely so that the projects can be promoted by the stars and writers involved.

Both unions strictly prohibit actors from promoting struck work, causing Charlie Day to exit the premiere of "Fool's Paradise" (which he wrote) in May and the entire "Oppenheimer" cast to walk out of theirs the moment the SAG-AFTRA strike began. Cast promotion is a necessary contributor to a film's box office performance that "Mission: Impossible" star Tom Cruise lobbied to amend strike rules against promoting films, lest the AMPTP's refusal to negotiate impact the theatrical industry. He was unsuccessful.

Warner Bros. is considering delaying huge 2023 releases including Dune: Part 2

Star-studded projects slated for the fall and winter this year are in threat of delay, Variety reported. Among those that could get new release dates are "Dune: Part 2" (currently set for an early-November release), "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom," and "The Color Purple" (both scheduled for late December). The reasoning is that these films stand a far better chance if bolstered by the support of stars like Timothée Chalamet, Jason Mamoa, and Halle Bailey. An executive who spoke to Deadline described the looming effects of the shutdown as "the car accident, one exit up."

What this means for Hollywood aside, if those films were to follow the lead of "Problemista" and "White Bird," 2023 could be a grim setback for the theatrical industry — which is already trailing behind pre-pandemic standards by more than 20%. It certainly doesn't help that next week's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem" and "The Meg 2: The Trench" double billing is far from reaching "Barbenheimer" buzz and that the big mid-August release of "Blue Beetle" is tracking for a catastrophic opening — the worst for a DC film yet. Suffice it to say, while all may be pink and pleasant in Barbie Land, Tinsel Town's troubles are spelling disaster for cinemas long term.