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18 August 2023

Why Barbenheimer won’t save cinema

July’s blockbusters made box office records – but the industry’s crisis is only deepening.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

“Barbenheimer saves cinema!” declared a Daily Mail headline in late July. The tabloid wasn’t the only publication wildly exaggerating the impact of the summer blockbuster releases Barbie and Oppenheimer: two very different works appealing to very different audiences, both released on 21 July, that social media gleefully christened under the portmanteau. Almost every outlet heralded the films as saviours of a dying industry. “Barbenheimer has saved cinema from the jaws of streaming – and not a moment too soon,” announced the i. The “Barbenheimer bonanza” insisted the Guardian, “saved the summer box office”. “Barbenheimer may just have saved London’s cinemas,” claimed Time Out.

On the surface, the box office figures showed a boom in cinema-going. As of 13 August, Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, which stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling and playfully challenges ideas of the patriarchy, had taken $1.18bn at the worldwide box office. It is the highest-grossing movie in the US made by a female director. Meanwhile Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s biographical thriller starring Cillian Murphy as the scientist who developed the atom bomb, has grossed $649m worldwide, making it the highest-grossing Second World War film.

“That’s one of the things I love about this business,” said Tyrone Walker-Hebborn, director of Genesis Cinema in the East End of London. “You’re really on your downs and then all of a sudden it floods in.”

At Genesis, the two films together led to a record-breaking opening weekend and first fortnight. Walker-Hebborn estimated that his cinema’s takings from the two weeks from 21 July would be 10 per cent of his entire annual turnover. The cinema totally sold out that first weekend – every film, not only Barbie and Oppenheimer. The same happened the next weekend, and it was very nearly sold out all week. After three years of poor sales, including a slump last summer – “the worst summer I’ve ever known in cinema” – Genesis was due such a boost. “That last happened probably in award season…” Walker-Hebborn paused to think back. “We’ve had a few, certainly around La La Land [the 2016 musical romance] but we probably last saw it in 2018.”

The story was similar at Curzon, the chain of 16 cinemas across the UK. “We’re 63 per cent up on our best box office week ever, which was previously the week commencing Valentine’s Day 2020, driven by week two of Parasite,” said Jake Garriock, Curzon’s head of distribution strategy and group publicity. The week from 21 July this year was the biggest in Curzon’s 89-year history for admissions, box office and food and drink sales.

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But the message that Barbie and Oppenheimer have “saved” cinema is far from the truth. Cinema owners and others in the industry remain sceptical about any long-term impact the films may have. Walker-Hebborn has enjoyed the Barbenheimer “boom”, but isn’t convinced it will last. “I’m worried,” he said. “Over the next few months, there’s not much coming out. My fear is that there isn’t enough good product to keep that buzz going.”

Overwhelmed by think-pieces about whether Barbie is really a feminist movie or whether Oppenheimer glosses over the devastation wrought by the nuclear bomb on Japan, it would have been easy to miss news stories about the demise of UK cinemas. The exterior of a glum-looking building on a retail estate is far less clickable than a photo of Robbie in her vivid pink get-up. But the crisis is real: Cineworld, the second-largest cinema chain internationally and the owner of Picturehouse, is in administration. So is Empire, which employs 437 people in England and Scotland and closed six cinemas in July, with eight more threatened. In June, Odeon closed five branches.

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The film industry has still not recovered to where it was before the pandemic forced cinemas to close and film companies to halt production. Before then, business was good: 2018 and 2019 had the highest UK cinema attendance since 1971. Venues were closed for much of 2020, and after the lockdowns ended audiences were reluctant to return. During this time the industry shifted. The December 2020 film Wonder Woman 1984 marked the first significant simultaneous release in both cinemas and on Warner’s streaming service, HBO Max. Other such hybrid releases followed. This move away from solely theatrical releases, which are not necessarily as profitable, has added anxiety to an already tumultuous period for cinemas. UK box office takings for 2022 were £979m, a 64 per cent increase on 2021 – but still a long way from the £1.3bn plus achieved annually between 2015 and 2019. The trend is comparable in Europe and the US.

While the success of Barbie and Oppenheimer “shows that there’s still that massive appetite to watch films together”, said Garriock, it doesn’t mean business has returned to normal. As with the rest of the industry, overall there has been “a drop in admissions” in Curzon cinemas since the pandemic. “Everyone’s had an amazing weekend with Barbie and Oppenheimer. How do you sustain that until the next one comes along?”

The film critic Manuela Lazić predicted that Barbenheimer may result in more people feeling excited about cinema-going again, the films’ success resulting in a trickle-down effect for the industry at large. “But at the same time,” she said, “we are in a cost-of-living crisis and I wouldn’t expect people to suddenly prioritise the cinema when they struggle to make rent or pay their bills.”

The “buzz” around Barbenheimer undoubtedly helped the horror film Talk to Me, said Andy Mayson, the CEO of its distributor, Altitude, whose previous releases include The Florida Project and the Oscar-winning Moonlight. Talk to Me, which was released on 28 July, generated £643,354 in UK and Irish cinemas in its opening weekend, setting a new box office record for Altitude. But the “hold overs” – the decisions a cinema makes about which films to continue showing for another week, based on box office data – are competitive. “Talk to Me has done really well on a number of major chain screens and the next week we can’t keep those three shows on a Friday and Saturday because they’ll get more business from the studio films.” At the moment that’s Barbie, Oppenheimer, Gran Turismo, Meg 2: The Trench and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem. “That really works against us,” Mayson said.

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With so much available on streaming platforms, it is a special title – an event, like Barbenheimer – that entices consumers to the cinema. “People are more savvy,” Mayson said. “It’s not cheap to go to the cinema. The films have to be quality.” Exactly what “quality” means is difficult to pinpoint, and the danger of following trends can mean that “by the time you’ve made [the film], tastes have changed. It’s an art, not a science.”

Recent figures suggest that the industry is not good at keeping up with changing audience tastes: interest in superhero films is waning, but Hollywood continues to produce them. Shazam! Fury of the Gods bombed upon its release in March this year, earning more than $200m less than its predecessor and becoming the DC Extended Universe’s lowest-grossing film to date. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania has been called “the worst Marvel film yet”, while the 2022 release Black Adam, starring Dwayne Johnson, failed to break even. It remains to be seen how Blue Beetle – which will be released on 18 August – will fare. Superhero films “cost a lot of money to make”, said Lazić. “It used to be worthwhile for the studios because they knew they would make even more money at the box office.” That is no longer guaranteed, “which I think is great: that couldn’t last forever.”

Despite the dwindling success of these films, dozens more are in development, with studios churning out more predictable, action-packed plots at the expense of unexpected, adventurous works. It suggests a profound creative malaise that the ongoing screenwriters’ strike, protesting low pay and the threat of AI-written scripts, confirms. Hollywood’s lack of investment in creativity could have a serious impact on the industry’s future. But if the industrial action by the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists brings ever more uncertainty to the cinema industry, it also brings the opportunity to reinvent it.

Barbie and Oppenheimer will remain in cinemas as long as audiences keep watching them. Garriock said he knows people who have seen Barbie twice, even three times. The industry is taking notes from Barbie, with numerous other films based on Mattel toys and games, such as Hot Wheels, Polly Pocket and, somewhat unbelievably, Uno. But audiences were drawn to Barbie because it felt fresh. If the demise of the superhero movie is anything to go by, more of the same won’t make for an attractive proposition. “I don’t think the audience is stupid,” Lazić said. “You can’t offer them the same product for 15 years and expect them to love it every time.” To really save cinemas, the film industry needs to innovate – and fast.

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