Barbenheimer: who was patient zero?

Nicolette Pellerin  /  Nov 01, 2023

Summer is officially over, and you know what else is? All the craze surrounding Barbenheimer… So, what exactly was that all about? 

If you’re online to any extent, you’re well aware that Barbie (directed by Greta Gerwig)  and Oppenheimer (directed by Christopher Nolan) were the “It Girls” of the summer. Everyone was talking about them. Sure, big movie box office weekends are normal, common, and nothing new. However, the opening weekend for Barbie and Oppenheimer felt *different*. 

Something was in the air. People were dressing up, debating which movie they would see first, clearing their entire afternoons to watch the films back to back, doing outfit changes in between movies, and inevitably continuing the discourse online afterward. It was a cultural phenomenon, and you just had to be there. But how exactly did we get to this point? Especially during a time when movie-going was still on the mend from taking a huge hit during the pandemic…

Initially, the stark contrast between the aesthetics and subject matters of the movies prompted a comedic response from people on the internet. Memes were being made, merch even. The radically different tones made for interesting discourse right out of the gate. Barbie, a film about Mattel’s popular toy doll, is full of glitz, glamour, and a whole lot of pink. Meanwhile, Oppenheimer, a jarring competitor to Barbie, is about the dark history of the creator and creation of the atomic bomb. How much more polarized can you get in terms of mood?

Leading up to the release weekend, marketing for the Barbie movie was knocked out of the park. Months before the film’s release, the Barbie team made an AI social media selfie generator that people could use to make their own version of Barbie character posters. Tons of people had fun with this selfie generator (ourselves included), posting their own Barbie posters across different social channels, which naturally helped market and bring more attention to the movie.

The buzz around the Barbie movie continued to amplify as over 100 brand partnerships emerged to help promote the movie, including collaborations with Airbnb, Crocs, and Kendra Scott. Brands were smart for capitalizing on Barbie’s growing popularity. Both parties involved benefitted from the collaboration; it was a win-win. No matter how hard you tried, you could not escape the Barbie takeover. It infiltrated every crevice of the internet one way or another. 

As the release weekend got closer, more discourse on Oppenheimer entered the picture. After being so inundated with bright Barbie marketing for months, the darkness of Oppenheimer caught people’s attention. People who wouldn’t normally watch Oppenheimer were convinced to see it, given all the buzz circulating the internet and vice versa. It garnered so much attention that even actors and film critics chimed in on which movie to see first. The release weekend was a true spectacle in more ways than one.

Both movies were predicted to do rather well on their own, but the pairing of their release truly amplified their success. Both movies have vastly different audiences, but people went out of their comfort zones to see both movies. This wouldn’t have happened if the movies were released on separate weekends. People wanted to be a part of the cultural event taking place, which had a little life of its own even a few weeks after the initial release. 

Despite their stark differences, Barbie and Oppenheimer proved to be a power duo as their release weekend made history, being the biggest box office weekend since the start of the pandemic and the fourth-biggest collective weekend of all time. All the attention and anticipation for Barbie gave Greta Gerwig a historic box office debut, marking it as the biggest box office weekend ever for a film directed by a woman. This was huge for Hollywood, given the ongoing strikes and never-ending attempt to recover from the pandemic. 

When it comes down to it, social media is the true culprit that really kicked this phenomenon into full gear. Barbenheimer is a true testament to the power of social media and the internet. All it took was one person to mash the two titles together, and suddenly, hashtags like #Barbenheimer, #Oppenbarbie, and #Barbieheimer flooded our devices and became the talking points of many conversations for many weeks.

So, what can we learn from this?

  1. The internet is powerful; anything can go viral. Fast. 
  2. See an opportunity? Run with it.
  3. Trends come and go. Be timely and stay culturally in the know. 

If you haven’t seen Barbenheimer yet, what are you waiting for?


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