September 1, 2023 | ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENT | By Sophia Lisco
June 26, 1987: “Spaceballs” and “Full Metal Jacket”
March 31, 1999: “10 Things I Hate About You” and “The Matrix”
July 18, 2008: “The Dark Knight” and “Mamma Mia!”
July 21, 2023: “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer”
The tactic of counterprogramming – that is, the simultaneous premieres of two very different films – has been practiced by Hollywood studios for decades. Film studios have been known to carefully time the release dates of highly anticipated films to target different audience pools and increase box office sales. The recent releases of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie”and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” provide an excellent example of counterprogramming.
“Barbenheimer,” the portmanteau of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” was picked up by major news outlets after tearing through the internet when it was coined on X (formerly Twitter) in April of 2022. The widespread popularity of the term is likely due to the opposing themes, subject matters, and aesthetics of the two films – prompting internet trends and comparisons that would dominate the realms of Instagram, X, and TikTok through the month of July.
The darker, longer, and (arguably) more boring of the two films follows Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer as he leads the Manhattan Project and pioneers the development of the atomic bomb that would devastate the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, marking the end of World War II. This biopic is a departure from Nolan’s usual far-fetched themes present in “Inception,” “Interstellar,” and the “Dark Knight” movies.
The underperformance of Nolan’s last theatrical release, “Tenet,” signified the end of his long-standing relationship with Warner Bros. Entertainment. As a strong proponent of a theatrical release over streaming services, Nolan partnered with Universal Studios for the production and distribution of “Oppenheimer.” With this in mind, the Warner Bros. decision to release “Barbie” on the same day feels a little personal.
Early promotion of “Barbie” proved that Gerwig’s new film wouldn’t be the unserious kids’ movie that the world seemed to expect – and would be worthy of competing with the much-anticipated “Oppenheimer.”
The first “Barbie” teaser directly paralleled the opening seconds of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” complete with a monolithic Barbie doll and recognizable theme song. By directly appealing to the “serious” film lovers that might have first turned up their noses, the 60 second teaser showed audiences that “Barbie” would be a film to anticipate.
Gerwig is known for creating strong female characters, so her feminist take on “Barbie” was highly anticipated. Fans of “Little Women”and “Lady Bird” know that the director has been charming the indie film scene for years as an actor and director alongside her partner Noah Baumbach, long before her Academy Awards debut.
Though some critics lament Gerwig’s step into the mainstream; her trailblazing could certainly pave the way for more gender inclusivity in Hollywood.
The string-pullers of Big Hollywood had set the stage for something big, firmly rooting both Nolan and Gerwig in the heart of mainstream film industry and supplying them with a star-studded cast including Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Cillian Murphy, and Florence Pugh.
The decision to release these movies on the same day feels like a cleverly orchestrated cash-grab, but it was perhaps the only thing that could have revived the in-person theater industry. Though ticket sales aren’t exceeding pre-pandemic levels, this summer was still record-setting.
With the two films propelling the other towards success, both earned major achievements for their theatrical releases. Nolan is no stranger to the smash-hit success, but “Oppenheimer” was his biggest non-Batman opening weekend. The movie broke records for the biggest opening for a biopic film and for an R-rated film, surpassing “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “John Wick: Chapter 4,” respectively. It is also the highest grossing film to never top domestic charts, thanks to “Barbie.” Gerwig made history with this pink, glittery masterpiece, becoming the highest grossing female director after “Barbie” debuted with the biggest opening for a female-directed film.
Hidden beneath these glamorous successes, however, is another historical event in the world of television and movies. On July 13, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists joined the Writers Guild of America on the picket lines for the first joint strike in over 60 years. The “Oppenheimer”cast walked out of their own premier after making an appearance on the red carpet, joining their fellow actors to advocate for fair wages.
This strike will put thousands out of work until an agreement is reached. Not every member of Screen Actors Guild or the Writers Guild is a celebrity, and many continue to struggle with financial insecurity.
While the directors and stars of films like “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” enjoy the spotlight, it takes hundreds of people to produce these films. Those outside New York and Los Angeles who wish to stand by these workers are encouraged to voice their support on digital platforms or donate to the Entertainment Community Fund.