Betting against Christopher Nolan is betting against the house – which is like losing like a fool – and yet he still came into the summer movie season looking like an underdog.
In the big Barbenheimer shocker of ’23, Mattel’s smiling plastic toy had a handful of built-in benefits: It was a high-spirited, colorful, heartwarming comedy starring one of the movie stars the most brilliant of her generation as an already known element of pop culture. and appreciated by the general public. Its rival, Oppenheimer, was beginning to seem a hard sell by comparison, a historical drama about the crushing depths of American guilt with a running time of three hours, lengthy black-and-white photography sequences, a name not quite -l he leading man of the brand in Cillian Murphy, and an R rating limiting his audience. And while it is true that feminist icon Greta Gerwig may have won the battle, having already crossed the billion-dollar mark in her still-under-construction project, they have both won the war.
This weekend, the little blockbuster that could cross the important milestone of $900 million at the worldwide box office, offering real success beyond not being crushed under Barbie’s high-heeled foot. Oppenheimer now holds the kind of status that ensures a film’s place in posterity: it’s the greatest biopic ever made (surpassing Bohemian Rhapsody), it’s the third best-performing theatrical release of the year ( after Barbie and the Super Mario movie), the third highest of Nolan’s career (just behind The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) and the 12th highest in the century-plus history of Universal Pictures ( their highest level ever, if franchise pictures are excluded). Oppenheimer still has a way to go to reach the big billion, a benchmark that would require several more weeks of theatrical play or a major re-release around awards season to reach. “Those last few miles of an indoor race are the hardest,” a Comscore senior analyst says in a Variety report. Even so, Nolan’s latest bonanza demonstrates an encouraging principle in this unpredictable entertainment business: if you build it, they will come.
Oppenheimer is perhaps the first pillar in history to benefit from fierce competition, his informal packaging with Barbie leading not to a stalemate but to a mutually beneficial centering in the zeitgeist. As a once-in-a-lifetime market extenuating circumstance, it has not completely upended the conventional industry wisdom that distribution is a zero-sum game, fought for a limited amount of attention and money each weekend. (Just look at how smaller titles like The Exorcist: Believer moved away from the weekend of October 13 when Taylor Swift planted her flag on the date of her Eras Tour concert documentary.) That said, it has proved the no less significant lesson that if given something worth seeing, viewers will be more than happy to go to the movies twice in a single weekend.
Describing a project with a nine-figure advertising budget as a word-of-mouth phenomenon seems wrong, although there’s no denying that the premiere coinciding with the start of the actors’ strike received a crucial boost from an organic fandom. Moviegoers around the world have responded to the scale of the film’s spectacle and the depth of its toll, brought to life by a uniformly strong ensemble bringing together stars around the father of the atomic bomb. It helps, too, that its dense moral calculus is able not only to withstand, but to reward multiple viewings, each revealing further nuances about Oppenheimer’s tortured inner state.
From the start, Nolan and Universal emphasized the impeccable craftsmanship involved in the technical aspect, which practically demanded to be seen on the largest screen available with the highest level of presentation possible. Sold out for weeks, the 70mm or Imax screenings create the feel of an unmissable event and reinforce the cumulative number of supplements; Oppenheimer broke into the top five highest-grossing Imax releases, raking in a staggering $17 million from 30 screens in its opening weekend and holding its own against Blue Beetle’s feeble attempt to move it. If the Hollywood machine learns anything from all this, it will be an increase in push releases onto bigger, more expensive canvases, the most easily replicable aspect of sui generis success.
The handsome earnings of Oppenheimer and Barbie also reestablish a timeless truism that executives are reluctant to admit: that art made with a certain personal authorial sensibility appeals to the average consumer in a way that targeted content created by a committee cannot do it. Someone’s made Barbie without Greta Gerwig’s personality might have gone the way of so many forgotten intellectual property digs, just as an Oppenheimer lacking Nolan’s tendency toward obsessive self-examination might have lost sight his ethical objective by marveling at the destructive power of the bomb. . It would be easy – and not entirely incorrect – to dismiss Barbenheimer as a fluke, but the resistance of his less overtly commercial half is a testament to how well the system works. Give reliable talent the budget and latitude to create something great, make sure people know about it, and the revenue will follow.
The coming months will see the release of two large-scale productions fitting this mold, with Martin Scorsese’s thriller Killers of the Flower Moon and Ridley Scott’s epic Napoleon both due this awards season. Apple’s theater division hasn’t been as bullish on theatrical release in the past, viewing it primarily as an award qualifier and a glorified loss leader for streaming subscriptions. she actually suggests. But Oppenheimer’s example could and should be instructive for digital newcomers. Trust your blockbusters to break the block.