Barbenheimer Revived Mass Passion for Movies — But Is This a One-Off?

Can Hollywood learn the right lessons from the success of this organic viral phenomenon?

Richard Yao
IPG Media Lab

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Credit: @JustRalphyyy

By now, you’ve definitely heard of the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon. More than 200,000 people bought tickets to see Barbie and Oppenheimer on the same day, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners. Maybe, like me, you’ve even participated in the pop culture event of the year by watching these two drastically different movies on the same day. Wading through the sea of people dressed up in Barbie pink on the opening weekend makes one truly feel the excitement behind an in-joke often heard among cinephiles — “Movies are back, baby!”

Or is it? The success of Barbenheimer, while undeniably impressive and certainly worth celebrating, might just end up being the last gasp of the year for the theatrical exhibitors that are staring down a pipeline that is quickly drying up due to the ongoing double strike. Major studios have postponed or are reportedly considering moving the upcoming release of their upcoming blockbusters to next year. And without the actors being able to promote their work, even the most star-studded movie might fail to garner enough buzz to draw people back to the theater.

Still, for the time being, thanks to the record-breaking success of Barbie and Oppenheimer, it appears that movies have temporarily reclaimed a center-stage position in pop culture. Hollywood loves a comeback story, but will the entertainment industry learn the right lessons from this viral phenomenon and keep movies at the center of pop culture?

Counter-Programming Working as a Double Bill

… but only if both movies are good

Barbenheimer is a rare case of a studio counter-programming becoming an internet-designated double-feature. The stark differences in tone and subject matters between these two highly anticipated movies being released on the same weekend created a funny contrast in line with Gen Z’s absurdist humor. So naturally, the excitement for both movies originated by fans on social media was organically picked up by meme creators, and things snowballed from there. By the time the press tours came around, the Barbenheimer meme was embraced by both teams: ​Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie posed with their Oppenheimer tickets while Christopher Nolan called the notion of doing the double feature a “great” one.

Hollywood is no stranger to counter-programming at the cinema. Hollywood studios releasing a rom-com on the same weekend as a big-budget action flick has been standard practice for decades. Before Barbenheimer, there has been a long list of distinctly different movies being released on the same weekend, hoping to capture different audiences. While the audience markup of Barbie and Oppenheimer did break down somewhat expectedly along the lines of gender and age, the smashing box office results for both movies suggest that the logical foundation for counter-programming might be flawed — it’s not always a zero-sum game where audiences have to choose only one of two very good movies.

The wrong lesson here would be for Hollywood to start shoehorning two completely different movies together in hope of replicating the Barbenheimer phenomenon. Already, Paramount Pictures is pushing for the upcoming releases of its animated Paw Patrol movie and the latest installment in the long-running Saw horror franchise to get the same meme treatment as “Saw Patrol.” Pairing an R-rated horror movie with an animated kid’s movie might cause an even bigger cognitive dissonance than Barbenheimer, which, while funny to think about, is very unlikely to have the same reach as Barbenheimer, because the pairing doesn’t feel as organic — Lionsgate actually decided to move up the U.S. release date of Saw X by almost a full month to coincide with Paw Patrol, during the weekend that Barbenheimer hit the theater.

What Hollywood should learn from the success of the Barbenheimer double feature is to understand that if you put two good movies together, audiences will show up for both. But the pairing will need to happen organically rather than manufactured, at least in the initial stages. The recent backlash against fashion influencers being paid to tour Shein’s factories in China proved that consumers have grown quite sensitive to any perceived inauthenticity and are quick to reject narratives that are being fed to them. The Barbenheimer grew into the cultural phenomenon that it is on the back of genuine excitement from fans of Barbie dolls as well as the A-list directors and casts. What Hollywood can do is to get better at spotting this type of groundswell excitement and spread it to a mass audience through its marketing apparatus.

Franchise Fatigue Means Finding New IPs

… but cashing in without quality control would be shortsighted

Much has been written about the growing superhero franchise fatigue at the box office recently, stemming primarily from the underwhelming box office performances of the latest MCU and DC superhero movies. Some have argued that the success of Barbenheimer is a triumph of original stories over IP-driven content, while others are quick to point out that both Barbie and Oppenheimer are backed by their own type of IP as well, namely the Barbie dolls and the atomic bomb. Hollywood’s tendency to overly rely on built-in fandoms for comic book IPs to do the heavy lifting of drawing in an audience has seen a diminishing return in recent years. It is time to look for new types of IPs.

In an earlier piece, I’ve analyzed the emerging trend of Hollywood turning to beloved consumer products as a new source of IP to anchor blockbusters. For better and for worse, from Super Mario Bros to Barbie, the tentpole movies of the year double as vehicles for brand storytelling and myth-making. In other words, consumer brands are the new IP. It is brand storytelling as marquee attractions, a perfect union of mass entertainment and fandom-driven consumerism.

The wrong lesson for Hollywood to learn here would be to double down on movies based on popular consumer products, or, in the case of Oppenheimer. more talky historical biopics masquerading as thrilling summer blockbusters full of sex and explosions. Once again, it cannot be stressed enough that Barbenheimer worked because both movies are really good, and on paper, neither seemed like the safest bet. With more brands seeking to elevate their storytelling to stand out in a world of increasingly fragmented attention, the impulse to lean in to this trend is certainly understandable — Mattel already lined up a dozen movies based on its toys in the wake of Barbie’s success — but cashing in without quality control is a surefire way to alienate even the most hardcore fans. Fans don’t just want any content about the things they already love — they want good content.

Movie-Going as a Cultural Event

… but every offline activity is turning to fodder for social content

What truly elevates Barbenheimer from an unexpected double bill to a mainstream cultural moment is the way that people regarded the opening weekend as a special occasion to dress up for. Similar to the “GentleMinion” trend last year that had teens ironically dressing up in suits to see a kid’s movie about little yellow cartoon minions, people saw the Barbenheimer memes and wanted to partake by dressing up and going to the cinema.

This widespread FOMO-driven urge to be part of the viral trend turned opening weekend into a big costume party for cinephiles and Barbie fans alike, providing them with a chance to celebrate what they love by dressing up and being seen. It’s an immersive experience that even extended beyond the cinema, as many small businesses also jumped on the bandwagon with Barbenheimer-themed products and experiences to keep the party going. It is through such an opportunity to be seen via participation in an ad-hoc connected community that a meme translates into ticket sales.

And just like any party, people take pictures to post on social media, which further amplifies the trend and drives FOMO. By now, you have probably seen a slew of people posing in a life-sized Barbie box on Instagram. One of the key trends highlighted in our annual Outlook trend report this year is the idea of digital narcissism, as mass personalization and algorithmic promotion encourage everyone — from celebrities to your childhood friends — to focus their online activity on attracting and retaining attention to themselves. To fuel such a “main character syndrome,” some have turned every offline activity into fodder for creating content to show off their life on social media. Just think of how many people would record a concert on their phone rather than enjoying the live performance right in front of them. Worse still, the recent trend of some concert-goers throwing things at the performers on stage in hope of capturing a “TikTok-worthy moment” speaks to how far this self-centering tendency has become.

The wrong lesson to learn here is for Hollywood to try to turn every blockbuster release into a costume party for movie-goers, regardless of whether it is appropriate for the movie. Some movies lend themselves better to dressing up than others. For instance, movies that tap into existing fandoms, whether it’s anime or K-pop, are well suited to double as an event where fans can connect offline. And not all movies have the type of inviting, fun party vibes that Barbie gives off. Most of the time, these are niche fandoms that would not hit the type of mass scale of the Barbemheimer — that has to happen organically from the ground up before it could hit the type of mass scale that may engender FOMO even among people outside of the fandoms.

Cross-Category Collabs Legitimizes Online Virality

… but overdoing it would just be producing unwanted merchandise

This last takeaway might be more applicable to the Barbie movie alone rather than the Barbenheimer double bill, but considering that of the two films, Barbie’s relentless marketing campaign is certainly the flashier one that drove awareness, we’d be remiss not to make a note of the unique strategy of cross-category brand collaborations that Warner Bros. deployed.

The onslaught of Barbie-themed products in recent months is a key component in Barbie’s promotional campaign. Working with Mattel, the marketing team at Warner Bros. tapped into nearly every cross-category brand collaboration that one could think of to create a pop culture moment around Barbie. Most of the collaborations are within the endemic realms of fashion and makeup, but there are a few that stepped outside those expected domains as well. For example, Popular racing game Forza Horizon 5, created by UK-based Playground Games featured Barbie’s iconic pink Chevrolet Corvette in its game; and the Barbie team also re-created a pop-up Barbie dream house in Malibu and listed it on AirBnb for the hardcore fans to stay in.

Together, these Barbie-themed collaborations, mostly aimed at adults, tapped into the nostalgia of the Millennial Barbie fans while broadening the appeal of the movie, cementing it as a must-see movie for all audiences. Every offline purchase of Barbie-themed products inevitably feeds back into the online buzz through user-generated “Barbie-core” content, which further propels the trend to reach more people through algorithmic recommendations. By choosing to activate in unexpected categories such as gaming and travel, the Barbie phenomenon was able to break out the algorithm-driven content niches around fashion and beauty content, and reach a broader audience as an omnipresent cultural phenomenon.

The wrong lesson to learn here would be for Hollywood to start forcing an unnecessary amount of themed collaborations for every major release. Barbie has a distinctly recognizable and widely known aesthetics, along with decades’ worth of cultural cachet, to warrant this type of all-out marketing blitz through brand tie-ups. Barbie-themed merchandise are flooding the market because brands realized there is a real demand based on the excitement leading up to the Barbie movie release. Forcing branded products to promote a movie without answering a genuine demand would simply be producing unwanted merchandise.

In fact, there is a limited amount of pop culture icons that would lend well to an aesthetic movement that inspires people to dress up to go see a movie. Overdoing it every time would quickly invite mockery and engender apathy. Instead, for most movies, a well-placed, truly unexpected collaboration should create enough fodder for online buzz.

So, how many wrong lessons do we think Hollywood will learn from Barbenheimer?

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