Barbie And Oppenheimer Make History With Explosive Opening Weekend Box Office Numbers

BY HANNAH SHAW-WILLIAMS/UPDATED: JULY 22, 2023 3:28 PM EST

Typically when two major movies go head-to-head at the box office, they're viewed as competitors. But this weekend's box office numbers prove that #Barbenheimer — the pairing of Greta Gerwig's pink-drenched "Barbie" movie and Christopher Nolan's sobering, apocalyptic, three-hour biographical thriller "Oppenheimer" — isn't just an online meme. It has escaped into the real world, as I learned for myself when I went to book tickets for both and found myself struggling to find screenings that weren't already sold out. 

That experience is reflected in the box office numbers. According to The Hollywood Reporter, "Barbie" is on track for an incredible $155 million opening weekend. If it hits that number, it would set a new record for the biggest box office debut for movie from a female director (currently held by the $153 million opening weekend for "Captain Marvel," which was directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck). Meanwhile, "Oppenheimer" is set to gross $77 million in its debut — the biggest opening for a Nolan movie since 2012's "The Dark Knight Rises." As THR notes, this is the first time in history that a box office weekend has seen one movie open north of $100 million, and another open north of $50 million. 

Collectively, the two movies have helped deliver the biggest domestic box office weekend since the pandemic began, with Deadline estimating $308 million in ticket sales Friday-to-Sunday. The record was previously held by Dec. 17-19, 2021, when "Spider-Man: No Way Home" arrived in theaters and propelled the weekend total to $282.9 million.

Both "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" have far outstripped earlier expectations. In our box office breakdown last week, we noted that analysts initially had "Barbie" pegged for an $80 million opening weekend, before later updating that estimate to $115-155 million. "Oppenheimer" was predicted to gross $40-57 million this weekend, and has now pulled out far ahead of even the top estimates. At the risk of giving Ryan Gosling's Ken a new reason to be jealous, "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" are a true box office power couple.

Greater than the sum of their parts

While "Barbie" may be on track for an opening weekend double the size of "Oppenheimer," it would be a misrepresentation to say that Gerwig's movie "beat" Nolan's at the box office. These movies were never competing on a level field, and weren't intentionally competing for the same audience: one is a PG-13 comedy with musical numbers and neon yellow rollerblades, and the other is an R-rated biographical drama, partly in black-and-white, scrutinizing the psychology of the man who became known as the father of the atomic bomb. The very fact that they're so different is what made them so appealing as a double feature, and it's reasonable to speculate that neither would have had such enormously successful openings without the oddball and apparently grassroots phenomenon of #Barbenheimer. 

Having a diverse array of options has proven vital to the recovery of movie theaters in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. We saw this at the start of the year, when sci-fi epic "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and tech horror "M3GAN" were king and queen of the box office, and "Puss in Boots: The Last Wish" lingered in the top five for 10 consecutive weekends. This historic joint opening for "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" speaks to an audience craving for movies that are wildly different, after years of mind-numbing "Marvel vs. DC" debate. (Both Marvel and DC movies, incidentally, have seemingly become afflicted by superhero fatigue).

Given the characterization of Barbenheimer weekend as a cinematic event, it will be interesting to see how well the two movies hold next week. Mammoth openings are often followed by sharp drop-offs, but "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" both received A grades from CinemaScore based on audience polling, and they currently have Rotten Tomatoes scores of 90% and 93%, respectively, so word of mouth could keep the momentum up. One thing's for sure: these two have some very strong chemistry.

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