Oppenheimer Explodes Expectations With Astonishing $82 Million Opening Weekend


Update 7/24/2023: Variety reports that the final weekend tally for "Oppenheimer" was $82.4 million. The headline has been updated to reflect this. Original article follows.

The last time Christopher Nolan tried to save cinema, the results fell quite far short of the goal. His mind-bending sci-fi movie "Tenet" was one of the first big new releases when theaters tentatively reopened at the start of fall 2020, following the first wave of pandemic lockdowns. America wasn't ready; the film grossed just $58.5 million by the end of its domestic run, and a couple of months later hundreds of theaters reclosed overnight amid a surge of COVID-19 cases. While overseas ticket sales carried the movie to a worldwide total of $365.3 million, it wasn't the result that Nolan was hoping for.

After this weekend, however, Nolan can actually lay claim to some credit for saving cinema — though like the creation of the first atomic bomb, it's very much been a group effort. By teaming up with Greta Gerwig's "Barbie" for the bizarre cinematic event that has become known as "Barbenheimer," Nolan's biographical thriller "Oppenheimer" has helped give the box office its best weekend since the pandemic began. 

Even with the building hype, analysts last week had "Oppenheimer" pegged for an opening weekend of somewhere between $40 million and $57 million. When opening day numbers came in on Saturday, the estimate for the weekend was $77 million. Now, Variety reports that "Oppenheimer" is looking at an astonishing $80.5 million debut, with 47 percent of that coming from premium large format ticket sales. The jumbo-sized 70mm IMAX print of "Oppenheimer" is showing in just 19 theaters across the United States, and those tickets are already sold out for weeks.

It's a similar situation across the globe. "Oppenheimer" has also grossed $93.7 million from international markets, with more than a third of that coming from IMAX showings. Here in the United Kingdom, a 4:20 a.m. 70mm IMAX screening at BFI London was sold out this morning, and the next available tickets — for showings on July 31 — will probably be gone by the time I've finished writing this article.

Doing the impossible

With a current global tally of $174 million, this is a launch for "Oppenheimer" that few would have thought was possible. Even with an renowned, auteur-branded director like Nolan at the helm, we're still talking about a three-hour historical film that's part scientific odyssey, part moral quandary, part courtroom drama, and partly in black-and-white. 

It's certainly not short on star power, with previously top-billed names packing out even the minor roles (Alden Ehrenreich plays a character simply credited as "Senate Aide," Kenneth Branagh is in a scant handful of scenes as Niehls Bohr, and Casey Affleck appeared only long enough for me to think, "Oh cool, I didn't know Scoot McNairy was in this"). Still, on balance it was reasonable to predict a similar debut to Nolan's 2017 war film "Dunkirk," which enjoyed a respectable $50.5 million opening weekend. That would have been a perfectly fine start for "Oppenheimer," which had a production budget of $100 million according to Universal Pictures.

Two things seem key to the surprise success of "Oppenheimer" so far: the emphasis on seeing the film in IMAX, to get the full effect of Nolan's cinematic vision; and, of course, Barbenheimer. The origins of this meme appear to be entirely grassroots: born out of cinephiles noticing that two major movies, diametrically opposed in tone and genre, were releasing on the same day, and deciding to have some fun with it. 

Now, memes don't always translate to box office success (just ask Morbius the Living Vampire; "it's Morbin' time!" was more of a joke about how so few people had seen the movie that it was easy to just make up stuff about the plot). But as Barbenheimer evolved from poster mash-ups into concrete plans to see both movies on the same day, "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" did something highly unusual: instead of each movie cannibalizing the other's ticket sales, they teamed up and propelled one another to greater heights. Talk about relationship goals.

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