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Oppenheimer Needs To Make $900M To Beat An Interesting Box Office Record

Summer 2023 has been the most fascinating movie season in recent memory. It's no secret that theaters have been struggling to rebound since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but the releases of Greta Gerwig's "Barbie" and Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer" injected some much-needed wind into their sails. However, despite both movies pulling in enormous profits, "Barbie" consistently remained ahead, likely due to its more universal appeal across age groups and other demographics. That has led Nolan's historical biopic to an unusual situation in which it may set a rather interesting box office record.

The record in question is the movie to make the most money without ever reaching the No. 1 box office spot. "Oppenheimer" has already achieved the domestic record in that category. "Sing," the animated 2016 film about talking animals, previously held the record. It pulled in roughly $270 million at the domestic box office but was upstaged, first by "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" ($532 million domestic), and subsequently by "Hidden Figures" ($170 million domestic). Although "Sing" made more money domestically than the latter competitor, it never reached the top spot. Worldwide, "Sing" topped out at $634 million.

"Oppenheimer," by contrast, has earned upwards of $718 million worldwide. That's no small feat, and it handily outclasses the earnings from "Sing." But on the global scale, Nolan's tale of atomic sublimity still has one last project to beat to claim the title of the highest-earning movie never to reach the top spot at the box office, and that's a Chinese film most North American audiences have likely never heard of.

Will Oppenheimer be the most successful movie never to reach No. 1?

The movie preventing Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer" from claiming the title of highest-earning movie never to reach number one at the box office is 2021's "The Battle at Lake Changjin," a Chinese production that never saw a wide release in the United States or Canada despite pulling in an eye-popping $902 million worldwide. With a budget of $200 million, it was the most expensive Chinese theatrical production in history, commissioned by the Chinese Communist Party as part of a nationwide celebration for the centennial of the Party's founding.

While American outlets like The New York Times panned "The Battle at Lake Changjin" as Communist propaganda — an understandable stance, given that the movie positions the United States as imperialist aggressors — it clearly resonated with audiences in China, where it garnered the vast bulk of its earnings. If Nolan wants "Oppenheimer" to win the title of highest-earning film never to reach No. 1 at the box office, the Cillian Murphy vehicle will have to earn another $183,612,000 before exiting theaters. That's possible but unlikely since Nolan's latest will leave theaters after August 31.

"Oppenheimer" has been blocked from the top spot by the meteoric success of "Barbie," which was released on the same day as the WWII drama. Still, its contention for this strange record proves that a movie can do extremely well, even in second place.