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'Barbie' beats 'Oppenheimer' at the box office with a record $155 million debut

Ryan Gosling (left) and Margot Robbie pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of "Barbie" in London.
Vianney Le Caer
Invision / AP
Ryan Gosling (left) and Margot Robbie pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of "Barbie" in London.

Step aside, all you dusty old superhero franchises. This summer's highest-selling movie isn't shaping up to be a big-budget action flick like Ant-Man or even Indiana Jones.

It's the pink, plastic, feminist inquiry that is Barbie.

The comedy directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Margo Robbie fetched$155 million in the first three days of domestic ticket sales, according to the data aggregator ComScore. And, as if the message wasn't clear enough, consider the similarly resounding popularity of Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer, a three-hour, tonally bleak portrait of the man who built the atomic bomb.

Combined, the incongruous duo collected $235.5 million in a single weekend, representing the fourth highest-selling box office opening in history (not accounting for inflation). The so-called Barbenheimer pairing easily beat out the summer's other big-budget releases — the latest Mission Impossible film, for example, took home $54.2 million its first three days of sales.

Barbenheimer's superhero-sized success won't escape notice from studio executives who've struggled to turn a profit in a post-pandemic, movie-going landscape marked by an uptick in theater closures and the enduring dominance of at-home streaming services.

The headline from this weekend is that audiences may be sick of trekking to the theater for those tired sequels, but they'll show up — and heck, even dress up — for fresh characters and original storylines.

Biggest debut for a female director

Guided by the poor showings for its other summer releases, Warner Bros. projected a conservative $75 million in box office sales for Barbie's opening weekend. Box-office analysts went a step higher, according toDeadline, predicting $110 million for the film, which cost about $145 million to make.
But Barbie's cultural cache carried it far past those expectations and helped it earn some new titles in the process:

  • Highest preview ticket sales of the year ($22.2 million on Thursday), according toVariety.  
  • Biggest single-day debut of the year ($70.5 million between Thursday and Friday sales), also according toVariety.  
  • Biggest North American opening for a movie directed by a woman (2019's Captain Marvel, co-directed by Anna Boden, brought in $153 million; 2017's Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, clocked $103 million.) 
  • Biggest debut for a comedic film (this is according to film consultant David A. Gross, who also publishes a weekly newsletter on box office numbers. Gross toldthe New York Times that no comedy has opened higher than $85.9 million over a three-day weekend.) 

Universal Studios predicted its R-rated biopic, starring Cillian Murphy, would nab about $40 million during opening weekend, less than half of what it cost to make the movie. But in the end, it doubled its projected performance and also racked up a few records:

  • Second-highest opening for a non-franchise, R-rated film (2004's The Passion of the Christ still holds the record at $83.8 million), according toRotten Tomatoes).
  • Third-biggest opening for a biographical film in North America, not adjusted for inflation (2014's American Sniper is still first, at $89.3 million).
  • Seventh-biggest opening for films longer than 165 minutes (Oppenheimer's run time is 180 minutes, just about tying with the top dog in this category: Avengers: Endgame, which, at a duration of 181 minutes, took home $357.1 million during its opening weekend in 2019.) 

Combined, the opening of the two movies represents:

  • The biggest three-day opening weekend, post-pandemic.
  • The fourth-biggest movie weekend ever (not adjusting for inflation), trailing Avengers: Endgame, plus 2018's Avengers: Infinity War and 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And if you haven't caught on by now, that also makes it ... 
  • ... The top-selling box office weekend not led by an established franchise. 
  • The first time a three-day weekend has seen one film open with more than $100 million and another with more than $50 million, according tothe Hollywood Reporter.

The Grove theater marquee in Los Angeles announcing the opening of "Barbie."
Valerie Macon / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
The Grove theater marquee announcing the opening of Barbie is pictured in Los Angeles last week.

Numbers aside, did the films meet the hype?

It wasn't just that audiences showed up for these movies; they celebrated their arrival with everything from memes to merchandise to a rare embrace of the ensuing marketing mania.

And while the same-day release inspired plenty of rhetoric about a rivalry, in the end, each film only boosted the other, with over 200,000 people purchasing tickets to see the odd couple as a double feature, according to the National Association of Theater Owners.

The question of which movie to see first became a bit of an internet punchline. But no matter the manner in which they saw them, viewers offered their ecstatic approval.

Both earned sky-high scores on Rotten Tomatoes (90% for Barbie; 94% for Oppenheimer). Both films received an A grade in CinemaScore exit polls. And neither film proved exclusive to any audience demographic, though each skewed a bit by gender (65% of Barbie viewers were female; 60% of Oppenheimer's were male), according to theNew York Times.

What does this all mean for the movie industry?

This was the weekend Hollywood desperately needed after months of flailing big-budget releases. The question now is whether movie studios can keep the momentum going.

And they may have some challenges. A strike of unionized actors started July 14, joining efforts that screen and script writers began in May. With no talks scheduled on the immediate horizon, the release dates for forthcoming films may be postponed as striking actors refuse to take part in publicity events.

Logistics aside, there's also the question of what Barbenheimer's success tells us about the future of the franchise vs. the original, standalone story.

Mattel, the company behind Barbie (the doll), hasn't been shy about leveraging its intellectual property into a cinematic universe beyond this one film. The company's CEO Ynon Kreiz toldTimeMagazine, "My thesis was that we needed to transition from being a toy-manufacturing company, making items, to an I.P. company, managing franchises."

Just judging by the audience's receptivity to a new story about an old favorite toy, films about Hot Wheels, Polly Pocket or Rock'Em Sock'Em Robots could come next.

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Emily Olson
As a Live Blog Editor, Emily Olson is helping to shape NPR's breaking news strategy and expand its digital presence through original reporting, audience listening, search optimization and network collaboration.