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Barbenheimer Getty 1.jpg

Sorry, Hollywood, But There Will Never Be Another Barbenheimer

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | July 5, 2024 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Film | July 5, 2024 |

Barbenheimer Getty 1.jpg

Universal Pictures has moved the release date of the first part of the adaptation of the musical Wicked forward by a few days. It will premiere in the US on November 22nd, five days earlier than planned. That move puts it up against Ridley Scott’s swords and sandals sequel Gladiator II, starring Paul Mescal and Pedro Pascal. What a choice to make, right? A fantasy musical based on The Wizard of Oz or a historical action epic that follows on from a beloved Oscar winner: where are you putting your money? Certainly, the rescheduling news was enough for various publications to declare that we might have a new Barbenheimer on our hands.

Certainly, Hollywood desperately wants a repeat of the Summer of 2023, wherein the dueling releases of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer became the year’s must-see event. But they’ve yet to acknowledge the obvious: there will never be another Barbenheimer.

Fans had spent months building up the premieres of Barbenheimer, spinning internet gold from the perceived battle between hot pink and annihilation grey. It just seemed too good to be true, two films of such opposing versions of blockbuster grandeur, that the mere notion of a double bill was enough to inspire season-long devotion. It was a capital E Event. Cinemas hosted screening parties. People attended in fancy dress. My local arthouse did themed cocktails. The end result was two of the highest-grossing films of 2023, complete with rapturous reviews across the board and a slew of awards on their respective shelves. Both films were expected to do well, of course. Barbie is a beloved IP with a vision-directed filmmaker at its helm, and Oppenheimer is a historical biopic from a beloved director whose name is enough to get people in the cinema for a three-hour drama. But it’s also undeniable that the cult of Barbenheimer pushed them to new heights.

You can’t fake true hype. You can create the aura of it. You can bolster your chances with savvy marketing. But what happened with Barbenheimer had very little to do with studio publicity. It didn’t hurt to see Warner Bros. make poster meme templates or see Universal’s social media account play along with the jokes, but the grunt work of making that phenomenon happen originated with lots of normal people who turned a stylistically opposed cinematic mash-up into a true pop culture moment. When the studios did stuff like that, it was clear that they were following the trend, not creating it.

The lesson that Hollywood seemed to learn from Barbenheimer is that you can take any IP and make it a phenomenon, or that putting two seemingly oppositional films in the same release slot will automatically create excitement with previously ambivalent audiences. They’ve forgotten that which seems entirely evident: you need to make something people actually want to watch before you can hype it to the nines. Sure, we didn’t know that Barbie and Oppenheimer would be Best of the Year material months before their releases, but we were excited to see two directors with proven track records and devoted followings get the chance to tackle these stories. It seemed inconceivable that Nolan hadn’t already made a film about the Manhattan Project, so perfect a fit for the material was he. And Greta Gerwig going from Little Women to Barbie, with Margot Robbie shepherding the project to fruition? A perfect pairing. Audiences wanted this. They wanted to see people who are good at their jobs make something good. Apparently this is a radical notion in the entertainment industry of the 2020s.

We’ve no idea whether or not Wicked or Gladiator II will live up to expectations. The former is adapting one of the most beloved musicals still running on Broadway and the latter is following up a Best Picture winner that is adored by dads the world over. There’s true hype for both of them, but it’s tough to compare it to the deafening enthusiasm of Barbenheimer. That wasn’t an experience devoid of scepticism but it was easy to overlook that because everyone was having so much fun. With, uh, Wickedgator? Gladiwitches? With that, the core audiences are more hesitant in their eagerness. The Wicked trailer was met with mixed reviews and a lot of us are still wondering how the hell you make a sequel to Gladiator without the two original leads (plus Ridley’s track record is spotty in a way that doesn’t inspire the immediate glee of Nolan, although I maintain that Napoleon was a total blast.)

It could be argued that Barbenheimer was a kind of rejection of Hollywood expectations. It’s not unusual for two diametrically opposed movies to be released on the same day. It happened with Mamma Mia and The Dark Knight, if you can recall the madness of Summer 2009. A lot of that strategy is built on increasingly archaic assumptions about their target audiences, and Barbie vs. Oppenheimer may have happened for other reasons - family film versus adult one, fluffy versus serious - but it’s also true that it was a gendered call. Girls are from Barbieland, boys are from the nuclear-ravaged deserts of New Mexico, right? But Barbenheimer was pretty gender-balanced. Men and women went to see both repeatedly and with zeal. Wicked was more likely moved to stop it from competing with Moana 2, but creating faux hype around witches versus gladiators feels extremely pink vs. blue and I don’t know who’s buying it. What, you think women wouldn’t be into Paul Mescal fighting in a leather mini-skirt?

Hollywood spends a lot of time trying to reverse-engineer hits and make lightning strike twice rather than establish a stronger foundation on which to create new ideas. This didn’t start in the 2020s, of course, but it certainly feels more unavoidable in a post-strike, post-lockdown, too-many-streaming-services landscape. When the options are to take a risk and reap the rewards or make fetch happen, we know in which direction they’ll go. Every time they try to make this a thing, we’ll call it out as a wannabe Barbenheimer. The original flavour felt like such a unique first-thing surprise (even if it technically wasn’t), that it couldn’t help but blossom into what it became. Maybe Wicked vs. Gladiator II will make for a fun double bill for some but don’t expect to see toga parties and ‘Defying Gravity’ singalongs in the theatre bar any time soon.