Movie Industry Really Needs ‘Barbenheimer’ to Stretch Its Legs

July 31, 2023

Strong second weekend for box office comes as strikes cast shadow over future releases.


By guest author Dan Gallagher from the Wall Street Journal.

The second-weekend take for ‘Barbie’ was down 43% from its opening weekend. Photo: Warner Bros/Everett Collection
As WSJ’s Dan Gallagher explains, Hollywood strikes could hurt box office returns for the year’s remaining releases. Photo: Chris Pizzello/AP


Hollywood’s most ingenious—and incongruous—bit of counter-programing at the box office has continued to pay off. But for the studios behind “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” that could set up a new dilemma.

The two movies held up well in their second weekend in theaters. “Barbie” from Warner Bros. Discovery WBD 2.19%increase; green up pointing triangle

scored a domestic box office of $93 million, while “Oppenheimer” from Comcast’s CMCSA 0.07%increase; green up pointing triangle Universal took in $46.2 million, according to Box Office Mojo. That was well above the disappointing USD 24.2 million debut of Walt Disney’s DIS 3.20% increase; green up pointing triangle “Haunted Mansion.”

The continued popularity of the two movies that fueled the Barbenheimer social media craze made this past weekend the third largest for the entire year for the domestic box office, scoring above the total even for extended weekends for the Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Presidents Day holidays.

The weekend’s successful box office also suggests the two movies might have what is known in the industry as “legs.” The second-weekend take for “Barbie” was down 43 % from its opening weekend, while “Oppenheimer” saw a drop of 44 %. Those are solid numbers in an industry where many movies lose two-thirds of their audience during the second week. Of the big movies released so far this year, only the blockbuster “The Super Mario Bros. Movie” from Universal has fared better, dropping just 37% in its second weekend. Movies that scored an opening weekend take of more than $50 million domestically have averaged a second-weekend drop of 56 %.

Just how long the studios and theater chains can ride out “Barbenheimer” remains to be seen. The aforementioned “Mario” movie is still going strong, having remained in theaters for 17 weeks since its debut in early April. But that is getting to be more of an anomaly in an industry where most of Hollywood’s major studios also own their own content-hungry streaming services; Paramount, for example, put its latest “Transformers” movie on its Paramount+ service after only eight weeks in theaters.

Still, studios with cash-burning streaming services are also now highly incentivized to squeeze out everything they can from a successful theatrical run. Paramount kept last year’s box-office champ “Top Gun: Maverick” in theaters for 24 weeks on its initial run, while Disney kept “Avatar: The Way of Water” in theaters for 23 weeks before adding it to Disney+ in June.

But “Barbenheimer” now faces a unique—and burdensome—opportunity. It has a more open competitive window near term as studios shift release dates due to the continuing Hollywood strikes. Striking actors aren’t able to promote their movies. Sony SONY 0.14%increase; green up pointing triangle last week delayed the wide release of its “Gran Turismo” videogame adaptation that was set for Aug. 11 by two weeks in the hopes that two weekends of sneak previews will generate strong word-of-mouth from the audience.

The second-weekend take for ‘Barbie’ was down 43 % from its opening weekend. Photo: Warner Bros/Everett Collection

But that also means “Barbenheimer” carries the weight of the industry’s remaining summer on its shoulders. And they could even be the last big hits for the year, if the strikes extend well into the fall and force more delays of major movies.

In a report Monday, Doug Creutz of TD Cowen noted the “very wide bid-ask spreads between the negotiating parties” involved in the strikes, and added that a long-term shutdown would “likely accelerate streaming churn, linear cord-cutting, the migration of ad dollars to digital platforms, and the reduction of the theatrical footprint.”

The father of atomic weapons can only keep Hollywood from bombing for so long.

Appeared in the August 1, 2023, print edition as ‘Movie Industry Needs ‘Barbenheimer’ to Stretch Its Legs’.