"Barbenheimer" Ignites Movie Going and Restores Theatrical Window

Generations of women stand in line at the concession stand of the local cinema. A sea of pink worn by mothers, daughters, and grandmothers waiting for popcorn to eat while watching Barbie together. It's precisely what movie makers and theater owners hoped for—a sense of community watching a movie together pre-pandemic style. It's an experience that can't be duplicated streaming at home alone. Most studios have ended same-day streaming offerings, and theater-only windows are extending longer.

Studios are again hopeful about opening exclusively in theaters after the success of what is being called "Barbenheimer's" (a combination of the Barbie movie and Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer that both opened on July 21st) record-shattering blockbuster weekend.

Barbie has a star-studded cast including Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, America Ferrera, Will Ferrell, Rhea Pearlman, and is narrated by Helen Mirren. It received an 89% score on Rotten Tomatoes based on its cultural satire, intelligent, witty script, and perfect casting. Produced by Warner Bros Discovery (WBD), it's certain to stream on MAX at some point.

The usual window for MAX is for a film to play for 70 days exclusively in the theater before coming to streaming. That would put the Barbie movie streaming date at September 29th. While other films like Black Adam started streaming in 56 days, and Shazam: Fury of the Gods was on MAX in 67 days, neither had the theatrical success that Barbie has already shown. It will be interesting to see how WBD reacts if the movie continues to draw audiences in theaters. Will there be a period of rentals/purchasing on services like Apple before it streams for free on MAX, or will the company use the film's popularity as a carrot to attract subscribers to MAX?

Barbie is sharing its spotlight with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer biopic about the scientist who developed the atomic bomb. It, too, scored big with Rotten Tomatoes at 93%.

Oppenheimer is a Universal Picture and, as such, will be available to stream on Peacock once its theatrical run is finished. Although M3GAN, Cocaine Bear, and Renfield were released to stream on Peacock in less than 60 days, another prestige drama, Tár, took 112 days to be available to stream. The successful The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which had the biggest opening weekend this year (until Barbie blew past its numbers) grossed $1.3 billion, will have taken more than 120 days before streaming. While it's doubtful that Nolan's new film will surpass Super Mario, it's possible thatOppenheimer may not stream until Thanksgiving.

A long theatrical window will undoubtedly satisfy Nolan, given his past criticism of same-day theatrical release of movies during the pandemic. In December 2020, Warner Bros. announced that all of its films released in 2021 would be available to stream on the same day the titles opened in theaters. This upset the theatrical release model that had been in place. At the time, Nolan's Tenet was scheduled to be released in 2021, and he insisted that the film not be available to stream until it had made its money in the theaters. The film did not perform as expected, partially due to closed theaters and pandemic restrictions.

What Nolan perceived as a slap in the face to filmmakers was the primary cause that Nolan cut his ties with Warner Bros. and made Oppenheimer with Universal instead.

When Warner Bros. announced same-day theatrical and streaming releases, filmmakers feared it would become the norm. Looking back at Nolan's comments, his words sound like prophecy in light of Hollywood's current writer and actor's strikes.

In 2020, Nolan told NPR, "The economics of it (same-day releases) are unsound unless you're purely looking at movements in share price, number of eyeballs on the new streaming service," and added that the traditional release windows are "very important to the economics of the business and to the people who work in the business."

He continued, "And I'm not talking about me. I'm not talking about Ben Affleck or whoever. I'm talking about the grips, the electricians who depend on IA [the International Alliance union] and IA residuals for pension and health care. I'm talking about SAG [the Screen Actors Guild]. I'm talking about actors. I'm talking about when I come on the set, and I've got to shoot a scene with a waiter or a lawyer who has two or three lines. They need to be earning a living in that profession, working maybe sometimes a couple of days a year. And that's why the residuals structure is in place. That's why the unions have secured participation for people down the line. So when a movie is sold to a television station 20 years after it was made, a payment is made to the people who collaborated on that on that film. And these are important principles that when a company starts devaluing the individual assets by using them as leverage for a different business strategy without first figuring out how those new structures are going to have to work, it's a sign of great danger for the ordinary people who work in this industry."

Residuals is a major issue currently being negotiated between the writers, actors, and studios. The problem of residuals is exacerbated by streaming services dropping popular titles to stop paying residuals. Streaming services also don't release how often a title is streamed, pouring salt on the wound as movie makers need to know if they are being paid fairly. (Hey, Hollywood isn't known for fair profit sharing.)

The examples of theatrical windows show that delayed streaming has been restored to pre-pandemic norms for successful movies.

Another idea Nolan told NPR in 2020 was seen during the "Barbenheimer," release weekend "If you're asking where moviegoing is going, I think the long-term health of the movie business depends on people's desire to get together and experience a story together. And I don't see any signs that that's going anywhere anytime soon."

This weekend's pink-clad moviegoers and packed theaters to see Oppenheimer may have proved Nolan was right. While we can watch on our beautiful giant home theater screen with Dolby Atmos surround sound, we have yet to lose the desire to share the experience as part of a community. We’ll have to wait to stream Barbie and Oppenheimer

Mark Henninger's picture
After years of not going to a movie theater I'm two hours away from returning to one...
Barb Gonzalez's picture
How did you enjoy Oppenheimer. I went today because we have our typical August smoky skies and it was 3 1/2 hours in air conditioning.
David Vaughn's picture
Enjoy the show Mark!
Billy's picture

I saw Oppenheimer two days ago. I hadn't been in a theater since before Covid. My goodness, things have changed. First, I went to a 1230 showing on a Tuesday and found out that the showing only had 4 seats left! Talk about online purchasing Batman! The young lady at the counter turned a touch screen towards me and said I had to pick out one of the last four available seats. All in the first row right in front of the screen. Oh well, I really wanted to see the flick. I get in there, almost an hour before the showing, and I am the only one in there, yet I had to sit in the exact(crummy) seat I had purchased. A pleasant surprise was that all the seats were now thick and wide, soft, and with full electronic powered adjustment! Just like at home! Despite the awkward viewing angle that reminded me of where the kids used to sit to experience cartoons in a theater 50 years ago, I truly enjoyed the movie. I highly recommend it. I assumed it would be a rehash of Fat Man and Little Boy, but I was wrong, it was so much more than that. In fact, hardly touched on making the bomb at all. I learned quite a bit, despite smugly thinking I knew it all about this topic. Moral of the story, in the future, buy tickets online days in advance, pick the best seat in the house, and walk in 2 minutes before the lights go black. This old man is going to have to get modern. I still love my dedicated home theater, but being in an actual theater was somehow wonderful as well.

David Vaughn's picture
Awesome story Billy. My wife and I went to see a prescreening of the new Mission Impossible 3 days before its official debut and thankfully were able to reserve great seats. Only negative was my seat wouldn't recline (it was broken) and had to sit up the entire movie while my wife was in a more comfortable position. The theater did give us passes for a future movie, but that means I can't buy the tickets at home and will have to make two trips to the theater. One a few days before to purchase the tickets and the second to see the film. Like you say, there is a benefit of showing up exactly at showtime and knowing your seat is waiting for you!
revame's picture

To be honest, even though I regard Christopher Nolan as one of my favourite, if not favourite film directors, when I first heard that Oppenheimer was his next film, I was a bit skeptical. Oppenheimer is a drama/biography is a genre Nolan has not tackled before.

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