‘It has to be an event’: Does ‘Barbenheimer’ signal a return to movie theaters?

Wisconsin movie theaters say advance ticket sales for 'Barbie' and 'Oppenheimer' through the roof

People make crafts at a "Barbie" Blowout party held by Marcus Theatres, with an advanced screening on Wednesday.
Marcus Theatres held a “Barbie” Blowout party with an advanced screening on Wednesday, which sold out at many of their Wisconsin theatres. Photo courtesy Jenni Tetzlaff

As the much-anticipated movies “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” hit theaters this week, Wisconsin theater operators hope it’s a promising sign of a post-pandemic return to the cinema.

Nationally, the films generated $32.8 million in combined Thursday sales, CNBC reported.

“Barbie” is a satire from director Greta Gerwig based on the iconic girl doll. And “Oppenheimer” is an R-rated, three-hour drama from director Christopher Nolan about the scientist who helped create the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II.

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It’s been dubbed the “Barbenheimer” craze. Anticipation has exploded on social media, with an outpouring of memes and jokes about the films.

Mark Gramz, president of Marcus Theatres, estimates the movies will generate at least $125 million in ticket sales in the first three days.

“The two together are really strong — almost as though we’re opening a ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Avengers: End Games’ — and it’s interesting because both of these are brand-new titles,” he said.

Gramz said Marcus Theatres played select premiere shows for “Barbie” on Wednesday, and the movie opened at theaters everywhere at 3 p.m. Thursday afternoon. “Oppenheimer” opened later the same evening. For both films, most auditoriums will be playing to full houses between the hours of 5 and 8:30 p.m., he said.

“Sales are really pretty spectacular,” Gramz said.

He said while both are well-reviewed, for “Barbie,” themes of nostalgia combined with comedy and social commentary “has really turned it into something of a phenomenon.”

The term “Barbenheimer” is a reference to buying tickets to see both films on the same day.

That’s what Leo Costello, a self-described film buff who lives in Wausau, has planned for the weekend.

“I think this is a really unique weekend for the box office because I can’t remember any time in my lifetime where two movies of this magnitude have come out on the same day,” he said.

Leo Costello, a news producer at an ABC affiliate in Wausau, stands in front of
Leo Costello, a news producer at an ABC affiliate in Wausau, stands in front of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” signs. He plans to watch the double feature on Saturday. ​​​​​​Photo courtesy of Leo Costello

On the surface, Costello said, the films appear to be completely different. But they both play on themes that reshaped American culture.

“Despite having unrealistic body expectations for women, Barbie has always been like a feminist icon showing that women can do all these sorts of things,” he said. “And Oppenheimer obviously changed the world forever, with not only politics and modern warfare, but also just pop culture and how we view the world.”

Those aspects also stood out to Christine Whelan, a University of Wisconsin-Madison clinical professor of consumer science. She said Americans are nostalgic, and the two movies touch on different elements of American lore.

“We are in a moment where throwback films and this idea of going back to the past and taking a new look is something that is increasingly appealing to us,” Whelan said.

She said there’s also a post-pandemic urge to return to normalcy, and a generation of adults want to share the experience, particularly the “Barbie” movie, with their kids. Whether there is a long-term increase in movie goers remains to be seen. It’s possible that with people watching more at home through streaming services, going back to the movies is seen as a fun retro experience, Whelan said.

Gramz of Marcus Theatres said “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” had a huge opening in April last year, and “Top Gun: Maverick” performed well at the box office throughout the summer. “Avatar: The Way of Water” was successful from Christmas through New Years.

Gramz said when the public talks about how theaters are lagging behind the pre-pandemic years of 2018 and 2019, it’s more about the quantity and spacing of releases. He said the theater business struggled a year ago in the first quarter and the third quarter last year because of what he said was a lack of film releases.

“Some of it was due to the lag time — that timing it takes to produce movies and get movies on screen,” he said, adding it had to do with resource allocation where studios were launching their streaming services.

Gramz said there are about 10 percent fewer films in wide release this year as opposed to 2019. But he said their measurements show confidence in movie-going is at least at 95 to 98 percent of what it was pre-pandemic.

“I think people are willing and want to go back to the movies. The question is, do they have the titles?” he said. “Are the topics available that people really want to see?”

Cara Ogburn is the artistic director for Milwaukee Film, which operates Oriental Theatre. She estimates more than 2,500 people will see each film over the weekend.

Ogburn said Milwaukee Film’s attendance levels for 2022 were down about a quarter from 2019, but the cinema industry has “been on a steady trajectory upward.”

She said there are other promising films scheduled to come out later this year, but the Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild strikes could complicate release dates. Still, she said, the theater is hopeful attendance will remain strong.

“This weekend shows people are coming back to the cinema — but it has to be an event, it has to be a movie worth seeing,” she said. “Cheering together, laughing together, those kinds of experiences are why cinema is amazing. You don’t get that on your couch.”

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