The big launch of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” should have been a celebratory moment, but an industry on pause has darkened the mood.
By Kyle Buchanan
The film industry’s happiest weekend in a long time may also be its last happy weekend for many months.
With the dual opening of “Barbie,” Greta Gerwig’s comedy based on the Mattel doll, and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” a biopic about the mastermind behind the atomic bomb, the pop culture phenomenon of “Barbenheimer” is upon us. Though the movies are wildly different in style and tone, by helpfully landing on the same day, the buildup has so captured the public consciousness that many movie fans, who have been slow to return to theaters at all, are eager to watch two of the year’s most anticipated titles back-to-back.
Analysts have predicted a record-breaking box office weekend: “Barbie” will debut well north of $150 million domestically and may even top the opening gross of this year’s champ, “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” “Oppenheimer,” also in its first weekend, is set to make more than $50 million, a thunderous achievement for a dense, three-hour drama. For a theatrical sector still battered by the pandemic and diminished by the rise of streaming, this potent double win would normally presage popped corks all over Hollywood.
But any champagne will come with caveats, as the two movies open during a dual strike that has brought the industry to a near-standstill.
On Friday, the Hollywood actors’ strike reached the one-week mark, after the 160,000 members of the SAG-AFTRA union joined members of the Writers Guild of America, who have been on strike since May. Both labor actions are expected to last for months, scuttling plans to put new studio films into the pipeline and jeopardizing the ones already set to come out, since actors have been ordered not to promote them during the strike.
“It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times,” said Michael Moses, who oversaw the release of “Oppenheimer” in his role as the chief marketing officer for Universal Pictures.
He noted that in the past few weeks, as the “Barbenheimer” hype grew, so did the animosity between the guilds and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the organization that bargains on behalf of the studios. With both sides entrenched and the strikes expected to continue into the fall, the mood for many in Hollywood this weekend will shift between joy and unease.
“Celebrations are tempered,” Moses said. “But we still need a healthy business on the far side of this.”
Even those cheering the success of “Barbenheimer” fear this weekend’s box-office sugar high might be short-lived. There are no other “Barbie”-level blockbusters on the release calendar until “Dune: Part Two” on Nov. 3, and even that sci-fi sequel could be delayed until next year if the actors’ strike persists, since stars like Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya and Austin Butler would be forbidden to take part in the film’s global press tour.
Already, some upcoming films have had their release plans modified as a result of the SAG-AFTRA strike. The Helen Mirren drama “White Bird” and A24’s Julio Torres comedy “Problemista” were supposed to launch in August and are now without an official release date, while “Challengers,” a tennis romance starring Zendaya, on Friday abdicated its prestigious slot as the opening-night title at the Venice Film Festival, which begins Aug. 30. That film, like the Emma Stone comedy “Poor Things,” had been set for theatrical release in September in order to capitalize on a starry press push at Venice. Now “Challengers” has moved to April 2024, according to Deadline.
Venice and the Toronto International Film Festival will announce their full lineups next week, and though those slates have the chance to build on the movie-loving momentum offered by “Barbenheimer” weekend, many wonder if they’ll be lacking the starry prestige titles studios normally send there. “If ‘Oppenheimer’ were a fall movie and I was taking it to Toronto, I think we’d probably at this point have decided not to take it,” said that film’s awards strategist, Tony Angelotti, citing the cost of reserving travel and lodging for the cast and makers of a major movie: “Would they refund your money if the strike continues?”
While Hollywood braces itself for the next strike-related shoe to drop, Scott Sanders is feeling an unwelcome case of déjà vu. As one of the producers of a new movie-musical adaptation of “The Color Purple,” Sanders has spent months poring over a meticulous release strategy for the Fantasia Barrino-led film, due in theaters on Christmas Day. But all of that hard work could be dashed if Warner Bros. delays the movie, as it did three years ago with another Sanders-produced musical: “In the Heights” was pushed a full year to June 2021 because of the pandemic, and then released simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max.
Sanders said the studio has assured him that, so far, no discussions have been had about bumping “The Color Purple” into 2024. Still, he said, “If the other big tentpole holiday movies or awards-bait films start to shift, frankly, I’m going to be nervous.” He added, “The optimist in me thinks we have six or seven more weeks before we have to start taking Pepto Bismol.”
The hype around “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” could rekindle a love for moviegoing, Sanders said, but there might be few titles left to capitalize on it. “Are we going to keep the momentum going from this weekend?” he said. “Or are we going to suddenly pull the emergency stop in the next month or two and go back to square one again?”
If that cord is pulled, it will have a significant ripple effect. Theaters that are barely back from the brink since the pandemic would be tested once again, while the films that were already dated for 2024 might be forced to free up space. And without the usual influx of year-end prestige films, this year’s awards season could look very different — and, in another way, all-too-familiar.
“Worst-case scenario, every studio on the planet decides to move their fourth-quarter movies into next year,” Sanders mused. “Suddenly, the last contenders for awards are ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer.’ Then what happens?”
Kyle Buchanan is a pop culture reporter and serves as The Projectionist, the awards season columnist for The Times. He is the author of “Blood, Sweat & Chrome: The Wild and True Story of Mad Max: Fury Road.” More about Kyle Buchanan
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