‘Barbenheimer’: The Double Feature Movie Event of the Summer

'Barbie' and 'Oppenheimer' are sure to be two summer smash hits, and audiences everywhere are excited to watch them back to back.

Margot Robbie as Barbie and Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the two unlikely titans of the summer box office. 'Barbie' image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures, 'Oppenheimer' image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

In the olden, golden days of Hollywood, the double feature was a staple of the moviegoing experience. The studios ran the system, forcing theaters into block booking—whether that be a short or a newsreel coupled with the feature film, or the two-hander of the A- and B-movie. As that system began to crumble, theatrical releases became more about competition and counter-programming; two different studios would hesitate to release films on the same day, let alone one studio releasing two movies.

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Box office worries dealt a near-fatal blow to the concept of the double feature, but this summer is seeing a revival of sorts, thanks to two very different and highly anticipated movies. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie has been hyped up since it was announced, with set photos from last year sending the internet into a frenzy. Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer promises a notable key change for the director, appearing to be more of a drama than his usual high-concept fare. Both filmmakers have their ardent fans, and on July 21st, many of those fans will be forced to choose which movie to watch. Unless, of course, they watch both.

Margot Robbie as Barbie. Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

‘Barbenheimer’: a strange summer double feature 

Oftentimes, when multiple movies are released in theaters on the same day, they’re deliberately scheduled opposites. Think a bloody action flick up against an animated children’s film, or a blockbuster versus a small-scale rom com. It’s all in the counter programming, or catering to distinct demographics, often divided by age and/or gender. Barbie and Oppenheimer seem to fall on either side of the line quite neatly (i.e., the former aims younger and is more female-oriented, the latter shoots for older males), but there’s more to it than that.

Yes, one is bubblegum pink and the other is partially black and white, but Barbie and Oppenheimer are vying for a crossover audience. Nolan is a name-brand director, bridging the gap between highbrow cinephiles and mass audiences. Gerwig, with hits like Lady Bird and Little Women under her belt, is making the same kind of impact. Both filmmakers make movies with wide appeal; both make movies that are universally liked.

Christopher Nolan directs Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer. © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

It’s little wonder that people are eager to watch both movies. The novelty comes with the inexplicable virality of the double feature idea. Once people realized the movies were coming out the same day, memes and silly t-shirt ideas circulated online. What started as an in-joke for the cinematically savvy snowballed into a pop culture phenomenon: Barbenheimer. Each film has the credentials to be a hit on its own, but the outrageous contrast between the two links them. The buzz isn’t limited to the internet, either: according to theater chain AMC, about twenty thousand of its Stubs reward program members have already booked tickets to see both on the same day.

The industry reacts

In light of this shared success, the movie industry is encouraging this odd couple double feature. Actor and movie theater champion Tom Cruise went viral for his post about the summer movie slate. “I love a double feature, and it doesn’t get more explosive (or more pink) than one with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer and Greta Gerwig’s Barbie,” he commented. Gerwig and Margot Robbie capitalized on the star’s shoutout, showing off their own excitement on the Barbie movie’s official Instagram account.

The Barbie team has been more than happy to treat the shared release date as a tag-team event. “It’s all love — double up, double up twice,” Gerwig said at her film’s world premiere. “I think you’ve got to see what the experience is, Barbie then Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer then Barbie. I think you’ve got to take all of the journeys.” Issa Rae (who plays President Barbie in the film) said she loves the “solidarity” between the two. On the heated debate of viewing order, she has a hard stance: “Obviously you should see Oppenheimer first and then cleanse your palate with Barbie.”

As for Oppenheimer, star Cillian Murphy spoke in a recent interview about his excitement for the doubled-up release date. “I can’t wait to see Barbie. I love Margot Robbie, I love Ryan Gosling, I want to see them now!” he said, adding, “My advice would be for people to go see both, on the same day. If they are good films, then the cinema wins.”

A still from Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer. © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

A historic box-office battle

Christopher Nolan isn’t a stranger to sharing summer release dates with female-fronted movies. Back in 2008, The Dark Knight faced off against the hit musical Mamma Mia!, and 2017’s Dunkirk had the R-rated comedy Girls Trip to bounce off of. Nolan won the box office both times around, but this summer looks like it’ll be different. Estimates for Barbie’s opening weekend are as high as $100 million, with Oppenheimer looking to rake in a respectable $50 million. It’s a shift in the box office dynamic, a female-fronted, female-directed film taking first place over one of the industry’s biggest names, and the dueling movies will add fuel to the fire of some studio feuds. Regardless of what the totals end up being, it’s sure to be a successful weekend for movie theaters (and an enjoyable one for moviegoers).

‘Barbenheimer’: The Double Feature Movie Event of the Summer