NEW YORK — In the massive movie weekend of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” there were many winners. Greta Gerwig, who made history for female directors. Christopher Nolan, who set a non-Batman career high. Movie theaters, more crowded than anytime post-pandemic. Lovers of unlikely double features. The color pink. Matchbox Twenty.
But one of the most important triumphs in the moviegoing monsoon of “Barbenheimer” was originality. Here are two movies that are neither sequels nor reboots pushing the box office to highs not seen in years. “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” became a meme because of their worlds-apart differences but they’re each indelibly the work of those filmmakers.
“Barbie,” based on the Mattel doll, had some extremely well-known intellectual property going for it. And the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb comes from no small moment in history. Nolan is himself a brand, too.
But Hollywood’s biggest zeitgeist in years was propelled by a pair of movies without a roman numeral, a Jedi or a superhero in sight. At the same time, some of the most dependable franchises in movies, from Marvel to “Fast and the Furious,” are no longer leading the pack.
The movie business may be shifting. Audiences are showing a renewed taste for something fresh. “Barbenheimer” could, just maybe, be a turning point.
“I’ve always joked that if there’s a tornado movie that works that the next year there will be three tornado movies. There’s an internal prejudice to doing what works,” says Richard Gelfond, IMAX chief executive. “I’m hopeful that these movies were original by noted filmmakers will convince studios to lean into that direction rather than doing what’s safe.
“The numbers don’t lie,” added Gelfond.
And the numbers are eyepopping. The total box office in U.S. and Canadian theaters on the weekend was more than $300 million, the fourth highest ever. Warner Bros.’ “Barbie” grossed $162 million domestically, the best opening of the year. Universal’s “Oppenheimer” took in $82.4 million. Those results, riding critical acclaim and months of a viral double-feature drum beat, nearly doubled expectations and astonished Hollywood.
In the wake of “Barbenheimer,” many are hoping Hollywood will draw a lesson other than greenlighting more toy adaptations and the inevitable “Barbie” sequel.
“Everyone came out this weekend for two ORIGINAL, smart, quality movies,” wrote Clare Binns, managing director of indie distributor Picturehouse, on Twitter. “It’s what audiences want. Reboots, superheroes and films with bloated budgets that often cover a lack of ideas — time to take stock. No algorithms this weekend.”
Lately, some of the movies’ biggest franchises have shown signs of wear and tear.
“Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny,” coming 42 years after “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” has failed to ignite in theaters. It’s made $335 million worldwide with a budget more than double that of “Barbie,” which cost $145 million.
The 10th “Fast and the Furious” movie, “Fast X,” was a dud domestically, though international sales have been robust. In three days, “Barbie” already surpassed its total North American haul of $145.9 million.
The seventh “Mission: Impossible” film, “Dead Reckoning Part One,” fell shy of expectations before getting blown away by “Barbenheimer.” It declined 64% in its second weekend.
Meanwhile, recent Marvel films and DC movies haven’t approached the kinds of grosses once assured of comic-book adaptations. Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” with $843 million worldwide, has been a big seller but movies like “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” and “The Flash” have fallen well shy of expectations.
The nostalgia business isn’t going anywhere, nor is Hollywood’s dependence on remakes and sequels. In last year’s top 10 films at the box office, one movie was a reboot (“The Batman”) and the rest were sequels.
But such overdependence on more-of-the-same was sure to run out of steam one day — and this year’s best performers are coming from some new places.
“The Super Mario Bros. Movie” ($1.3 billion worldwide) isn’t anyone’s idea of cutting-edge cinema but it reflects Hollywood’s new embrace of the giant gaming industry.
The year’s second-biggest hit, “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” ($375.2 million domestically) is yet one more “Spider-Man” movie. But it and its predecessor, “Into the Spider-Verse,” are hellbent on upending comic-book convention and expanding the notion of who can be a superhero.
Originality can be riskier for studios, but the payoff can be immense — just ask James Cameron. His reigning franchise goliath, “Avatar,” reached $2.3 billion with “Avatar: The Way of Water,” a futuristic, sci-fi epic that essentially created its own IP.
What else is working? Movies that appeal to audiences that have historically been underserved. “Creed III,” starring Michael B. Jordan, blew past expectations in March and ended up with more than $275 million globally on a $75 million budget. “Sound of Freedom,” from the faith-based distributor Angel Studios, has made $124 million in three weeks — though its distributor is using an usual “Pay it Forward” purchasing program.
And of course, horror remains the easiest money. “Insidious: The Red Door” is just the latest in long, bloody line of low-budget, high-performance Blumhouse titles. It’s made $156 million worldwide on a $16 million budget.
“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” are widely expected to play strongly for weeks. They’ve reminded everyone of the limitless cultural potency of the movies. When stars, marketing muscle and filmmaking vision collide, anything can happen. And, sure, it doesn’t hurt when their names make a funny smushed-together nickname.
Whether that momentum will dissipate in the waning weeks of the summer will be left up to a series of releases — “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” “Haunted Mansion,” “Gran Turismo,” “Strays,” “Blue Beetle” — that may struggle to keep the spark alive. Meanwhile, the ongoing strike by actors and screenwriters has begun to play havoc with the fall movie schedule. Hollywood remains locked in battle over its future.
Since the pandemic, studios and theater owners have tried various ways to bring back moviegoers to cinemas after the rush to streaming platforms — everything from Tom Cruise jumping off a cliff to $3 tickets for a day. But it could be that what moviegoers are most craving is the chance to see something new.
Mark Harris, author of the Hollywood history “Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood,” believes a developing shift has “become undeniable.”
“In ‘Pictures at a Revolution’ I wrote that an unexpected big hit is much more disruptive to the Hollywood system than a big flop is,” Harris wrote on Twitter. “That’s where we are: TWO surprise smashes that suggest you get people back to the movies by giving them what they haven’t seen, not what they have.”