On July 21, people flocked to the movie theaters dressed head-to-toe in one of two colors: black or pink.
A person’s outfit made their choice clear in the heavy debate that circulated during the summer months — whether one would see “Barbie” or “Oppenheimer” first. The stark contrast between “Barbie,” a musical comedy centered around the nostalgic fashion doll and “Oppenheimer,” a drama that follows the physicist who created the atomic bomb, caused an explosion among internet users when they were set to release on the same day. This cultural phenomenon became known as “Barbenheimer.”
Interestingly, the release date for the films was not a coincidence. Christopher Nolan, the director of “Oppenheimer,” previously worked with Warner Bros. while directing his previous movie, “Tenet.” When the film finally came out, Warner Bros. immediately released it on streaming services. According to Screen Craft, this provoked Nolan to end his contract with Warner Bros. and instead direct “Oppenheimer” with Universal Studios.
Hannah Lee, senior film production and screenwriting major, anticipated the release of “Oppenheimer” due to Nolan’s acclaimed filmmaking.
“After the box office fail for ‘Tenet,’ fans have been eager for a new Nolan project, and the damaged psyche of the figure of Oppenheimer is a perfect playground for what Nolan does best,” Lee said.
A year after its showing, Nolan announced the release date of “Oppenheimer.” However, three weeks later, Warner Bros. announced “Barbie,” which so happened to have the same release date. Some fans speculated that Warner Bros. did this to spite Nolan by distracting audiences with “Barbie,” according to Screen Craft.
However, Warner Bros’ attempt to prevent moviegoers from seeing “Oppenheimer” had the opposite effect, as the competition between the two movies only added to the movie’s appeal.
The competition was not the only thing that beckoned audiences. The set designs for “Barbie” had an absurd amount of pink and realistic-looking doll houses. The “Barbie” logo was also in its font from the 1980s.
Dr. Natalie Winter, professor of management and marketing, recognized how this sentimentality attracted audiences.
“The movie tried to capitalize on the nostalgia of Gen Xers and Millennials who played with Barbies growing up,” Winter said.
Alyssa White, senior double major in creative writing and film, said she thoroughly enjoyed both films.
“It was like “Barbie” is just a big party and everyone’s invited,” White said. “Because the Ken dolls are in there, it can appeal to the men and how the movie is talking about masculinity. And then women are going for the message of women empowerment.”
Greta Gerwig, the director of “Barbie,” addressed feminism by detailing the experiences women have had over the past century while reflecting progressive attitudes toward gender roles.
“There are too many problems, too many expectations, too many thoughts. It’s overwhelming,” Lee said. “But I think the way that Greta approached the reflection of those themes was most important.”
For “Oppenheimer,” lead actors Cillian Murphy, Florence Pugh and the remaining star-studded supporting cast attracted several different fanbases.
For “Barbie,” Margot Robbie as Barbie and Ryan Gosling as Ken were the defining elements of the film. The idea of casting two well-known actors for a film that was unusual for them to star in only added to its popularity. These two actors spent countless hours attending interviews and red-carpet events.
“Press engagement is generally key for movie promotions as are movie theater previews,” Winter said. “Movies are also promoted through social media advertising and word-of-mouth marketing.”
The “Barbenheimer” trend may be the most viral movie phenomenon to occur on social media. Internet users created memes, fan art and TikToks to flaunt ‘Barbenheimer’ outfits.
“Without even trying, they were also promoting the movies,” White said.
The rise in accessibility of streaming services at home has taken a toll on movie theaters, according to The Huntington News. However, thanks to “Barbenheimer,” audiences have poured into theaters once again, providing hope for the future of movie theaters.
The two movies may have received less attention without this competitive element. Due to this, film companies are attempting to recreate “Barbenheimer” by releasing polar opposite movies on the same day. Whether or not this will fly with moviegoers, the success of “Barbenheimer” has been encouraging for production companies and theaters alike.
“There is a long history of big summer blockbusters competing with one another,” Lee said. In 2008, the ABBA musical “Mammia Mia” and Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” came out the same day. “‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ just happen to be the first to be released in an insane tech world dominated by social media to further advertising.”