To bet against Christopher Nolan is to bet against the house – and that’s a losing bet. Despite being an underdog in the summer movie season, he still managed to come out on top. In the great Barbenheimer clash of 23, Mattel’s Barbie had the upper hand with its advantages of being a peppy, colorful, feel-good comedy featuring a beloved movie star. Oppenheimer, on the other hand, seemed like a tough sell – a historical drama with a long runtime, black-and-white photography, and an R rating. However, both films have ultimately won the war.
This weekend, Oppenheimer reached a major milestone, surpassing $900 million at the worldwide box office. It has secured its place in posterity by becoming the biggest biopic ever, the third-highest-performing theatrical release of the year, and the 12th-highest-grossing film in Universal Pictures’ history. It still has a way to go to reach the billion-dollar mark, but its success so far is a testament to the principle that if you build something worth attending, viewers will come.
Interestingly, Oppenheimer’s informal pairing with Barbie has not been a competition, but a mutually beneficial centering in the zeitgeist. While the conventional industry wisdom states that distribution is a zero-sum game, Oppenheimer has proven that giving viewers something worth attending can lead to them going to the movies twice in a single weekend.
Despite having a nine-figure advertising budget, Oppenheimer has also become a word-of-mouth phenomenon. Its scale of spectacle and moral complexity have resonated with viewers worldwide. Additionally, its technical aspects demand to be seen on the biggest screens, attracting sold-out crowds and raking in surcharges. The success of Oppenheimer may lead to more releases on larger and pricier screens.
The success of both Oppenheimer and Barbie reaffirms the fact that art with personal authorial sensibility appeals to consumers more than focus-grouped content. Giving talented filmmakers the budget and freedom to create can lead to success at the box office.
Looking ahead, upcoming releases like Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” and Ridley Scott’s “Napoleon” follow this same formula. Digital-first upstarts like Apple’s movie division can learn from the example of Oppenheimer and trust their blockbusters to make a splash in theaters.
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