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Barbenheimer: Is Nostalgia the Missing Piece for a Blockbuster Hit?

The highly anticipated launch of “Barbenheimer” has taken the world by storm as movie lovers flock to theaters for the Barbie x Oppenheimer unofficial ‘double feature’. Both films were released on Friday, July 21, sparking intense discussions and becoming a cultural phenomenon. 

But, how and why have these two films become such film standouts? 

Was it the irresistible draw of their cinematic juxtaposition, or the extravagant marketing efforts taking over every part of both online and offline society? We set out to find answers to these questions–and to see which film reigned superior among our Clariteers.

Clarity’s views on Barbenheimer

We surveyed our team to ask the questions at the heart of the debate around “Barbenheimer”: how are our team members seeing these films? We also asked when, with who, and why they had made the choices they’d made. Below is a snapshot of our results:

It’s a Barbie world. We’re just living in it.

  • While there was no overarching majority in the Barbie vs. Oppenheimer battle, people were more excited for director Greta Gerwig’s take on the most iconic doll in history, with 42% of participants intending to only watch Barbie
  • By contrast, 20% were interested in viewing only Oppenheimer, and 30% were interested in seeing both (the “Barbenheimers” if you will).

Moviegoers are procrastinators?

  • In spite of the anticipation around both movies, 72% of respondents said they did not have their tickets as of the time they filled out the survey (responses were collected just days before the releases).

The recipe for a perfect date night is half pink, half explosions.

  • 34% of respondents planned on seeing the movies with their significant other, though a majority (51.1%) planned to watch with friends.

Millennials = more biopics, less Barbie

An interesting trend appeared when we compared responses across generations. Nearly every generation in our team were more excited to see Barbie – except one: dark and serious millennials. 

This group was not only the most excited for the “Barbenheimer” double-feature, they were also the largest group planning to only see Oppenheimer. Many of our millennial respondents cited enthusiasm for viewing another one of director Christopher Nolan’s works, with an emphasis on the importance of this film since his split from Warner Brothers, the studio responsible for Nolan’s previous hits including The Dark Knight

Nostalgia was a factor as well, albeit a different type than the kind that drew Barbie aficionados to the theater. Many respondents in the millennial and older generations grew up with Nolan’s earlier works, iconic movies that quickly became classics (such as Memento and Inception). Likewise a director of Nolan’s caliber is capable of creating excitement for moviegoers just from the sheer anticipation of seeing his work on the big screen once again. 

The power of a massive marketing budget

Let’s dig a little deeper. The “Barbenheimer” phenomenon spiraled and evolved into a cultural event due to a combination of word of mouth from die-hard movie fans and mainstream audiences’ excitement at the prospect of the return of summer blockbusters. But both films had a helping hand from their marketing departments which turned “Barbenheimer” into the unmissable event of the season.

Barbie had one goal–she was already everything, so she had to be everywhere. Warner Brothers put a staggering estimated $150 million into their marketing budget, resulting in more than 100 brand partnerships and collaborations with a range of industry giants, including Progressive, Pinterest, Bumble, Burger King, Aldo, and more. Even post-premiere, new partners like Heinekein are still being announced. The life-size Airbnb Malibu dream house went viral online and offline, with people not only posting and sharing, but also driving west to check it out in person. 

And there’s no denying that Barbie heavily benefited from nostalgia–many of our survey responses cited nostalgia for the iconic toy as a main reason for their attendance. Barbie’s marketing department understood this appeal intimately and approached each partnership with an innate understanding of the place Barbie holds in the cultural mindset.

A more arty approach from Oppenheimer

In contrast, Oppenheimer built a sense of suspense and intrigue with more traditional marketing efforts. The film’s marketing team focused more heavily on striking, dark visuals; sending the all-star cast on press tours for earned media opportunities; and releasing a range of promotional out-of-home (OOH) visuals. While Barbie capitalized on brand, Oppenheimer spotlighted the old-school ‘magic of cinema’, with different cuts of trailers, teasers, and featurettes calling attention to the filmmaking process, particularly Nolan’s use of IMAX cameras and 70mm film - and his refusal to use CGI.

The power of nostalgia

"Barbenheimer" has undeniably taken the cinema world by storm, skillfully combining the charm of Barbie with the brilliance of Oppenheimer all under one umbrella–nostalgia. While Barbie's widespread marketing centered around an iconic decades-old brand proved to be a successful formula, Oppenheimer's suspenseful allure similarly attracted an eager audience. This created an overlap that was unexpected (yet loved and hyped) by moviegoers, theaters, filmmakers, and studios. As the films continue to captivate audiences, their impact on popular culture and the ongoing discussions surrounding this unique cinematic experience remain undeniable–nostalgia sells. 

Following their premieres this weekend, both movies have broken numerous records including The Largest Opening Weekend for a Female Director for Barbie, Biggest Opening Weekend for a Biopic for Oppenheimer. It was also the first time in history that a movie opened over $100 million and another movie opened over $80 million in the same weekend.

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