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Barbie vs Oppenheimer | Marketing genius or cinematic suicide?

With just six weeks to go until the cinema battle of the century, Barbie and Oppenheimer are still playing the world’s priciest game of chicken. But is the fight itself a bigger story than who wins it?

Are you team Oppenheimer, or team Barbie?

As the summer blockbuster season girds its loins in anticipation of 21 July, when the two most-anticipated titles of 2023 go head-to-head on the same opening weekend, studio execs at Universal and Warner Bros. must be feeling the heat.

Both are attempting something that conventional cinema wisdom has rejected for a while. Where studios used to face-off in counter-programming wars – releasing films with very different audiences on the same weekend to more efficiently pack out screens – on a regular basis, in recent years it’s been rare to find a big, studio film that wouldn’t rather blink than wrestle for space with a rival movie.

Barbie vs oppenheimer

Barbie’s first trailer, mimicking the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, caused ripples on release last December (credit: Warner Bros.)

It’s an attitude which, in a modern context, makes a lot of sense. The collapse of the mid-budget movie on the big screen has meant studios are more likely to put all their golden eggs in a few massive, blockbuster baskets. When there’re more than enough weekends to accommodate all the smashy, crashy superhero flicks the studios can put out, why risk doubling up to split your profits with a rival company?

This summer, though, what has become the norm in distributor circles has gone out the window. Universal Pictures nailed their Oppenheimer release date down back in October 2021. Christopher Nolan’s first film to shun Warner Bros. distribution since 2000’s Memento, the director reportedly cut ties with the studio following Warner’s decision to forgo the usual cinema exclusivity window on some of its pictures following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Completely coincidentally, then, in April 2022, Warner Bros. hit back, putting Greta Gerwig’s much-anticipated Barbie movie in direct competition with the man who made them over $4 billion over the course of his career.

Barbie vs Oppenheimer

Cillian Murphy stars as the creator of the atom bomb in Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer (credit: Universal Pictures)

On the face of things, the two films shouldn’t have much to fear from each other. Oppenheimer is an R-rated, World War Two biopic with long sequences presented in black and white. Barbie is a PG-13 fantastical comedy based on the world’s most famous toy brand, whose production reportedly caused a global shortage of pink paint. If you tried to plot their target audiences on a Ven diagram, the two circles would be miles apart.

But in spite, or perhaps because, of that difference, the two films’ fates seem to have been inexorably linked. The mental image of a bleach-blonde Margot Robbie doing battle with an anxiety-crippled Cillian Murphy seems to have been too good for the internet to pass up, and the conflict has developed a life of its own.

Whether it’s flying the flag for one film or the other or plotting the world’s most whiplash-inducing double-bill, a quick search for either movie on social media inevitably brings up a comparison with the other sooner or later. What started as a bitter feud between former partners might just have struck a mutually beneficial publicity goldmine.

Both studios know this, it seems. Universal was quick to dispel any rumours it was moving Oppenheimer’s release after Cannes director Thierry Fremaux suggested it wouldn’t be ready in time, and so the companies have been staring each other down now for over a year, neither wanting to call the other’s bluff.

Not even Tom Cruise has been able to convince Universal to move. Reportedly unhappy with Nolan’s monopoly on IMAX screens, the star has been pressuring the studio to move release dates to give Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One more time in the spotlight.

Just last year, Minions: The Rise of Gru demonstrated how online trends can translate into big box office. After a TikTok trend saw people seeing the animated kids’ movie in suits, unusually suave-looking teenagers descended on cinemas in their thousands. Rise of Gru finished the year fifth at the international box office, making a tidy $939,628,210 in ticket sales.

READ MORE: Andy Muschietti tipped to direct DCU’s new Batman film | Why are so many horror directors hired for superhero films?

But such a strategy isn’t without its risks. History is littered with opening weekend wars from which both parties rarely escape unscathed. Oppenheimer, with an R-rating effectively blocking out a sizeable chunk of its audience in the states, probably has the most to lose here. But as undoubtedly the more conventional of the two, there’s every chance its easily definable appeal could win out against Barbie, whose 2001: A Space Odyssey-inspired trailer suggests the final film might prove too weird for a wider audience.

Get it right, though, and the conflict could provide the fuel for a much-needed big summer for the cinema industry. And as for which film will ultimately come out on top? It’s too early to say. Whichever it is, though, it’s the battle itself which is the biggest story of the summer.

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