To bet against Christopher Nolan is to bet against the house – which is to lose like a fool – and yet he still came into summer movie season looking like something of an underdog.
In the great Barbenheimer clash of 23, Mattel’s smiley plastic plaything had a handful of built-in advantages: it was a peppy, colorful, feel-good comedy featuring one of the brightest movie stars of her generation as a pop-culture fixture already known and loved by the general public. Its rival, Oppenheimer, started to sound like a tough sell in comparison, a historical drama about the crushing depths of all-American guilt with a three-hour runtime, long stretches of black-and-white photography, a not-quite-name-brand leading man in Cillian Murphy, and an R rating restricting its audience. And while it’s true that Greta Gerwig’s foot-tall feminist icon may have won the battle, having already crossed the billion-dollar mark in its still-building take, they’ve both won the war.
This weekend, the little blockbuster that could passed the significant milestone of $900m worldwide box office, delivering a bona fide success beyond not getting crushed beneath Barbie’s high-heeled foot. Oppenheimer now holds the kind of standing that ensures a film’s place in posterity: it’s the biggest biopic ever (overtaking Bohemian Rhapsody), it’s the third-highest-performing theatrical release of the year (trailing only Barbie and the Super Mario Movie), the third-highest of Nolan’s career (right behind The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises) and the 12th-highest in the century-plus history of Universal Pictures (their all-time highest, if you discount franchise pictures). Oppenheimer still has a ways to go until the big billion, a benchmark it would need several additional weeks of in-theater play or a major re-release around awards season to hit. “Those last few miles of any theatrical run are the toughest,” says one senior Comscore analyst in a report from Variety. Even so, Nolan’s latest windfall demonstrates a heartening principle in this unpredictable biz of show – if you build it, they will come.
Oppenheimer may be the first tentpole in history to profit from stiff competition, its informal packaging with Barbie leading not to a standoff but a mutually beneficial centering in the zeitgeist. As a once-in-a-lifetime extenuating market circumstance, it hasn’t quite upended the conventional industry wisdom that distribution is a zero-sum game fought for a finite amount of attention and money per weekend. (Just look at how smaller titles like The Exorcist: Believer scurried away from the weekend of 13 October when Taylor Swift planted her flag on the date for her Eras Tour concert documentary.) That said, it has proven the no less meaningful lesson that if given something worth attending, 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 feels wrong, though there’s no denying that the premiere coinciding with the beginning of the actors’ strike got a crucial boost from an organic fandom. Moviegoers worldwide responded to the film’s scale of spectacle and the depth of its reckoning with the same, enacted by a uniformly strong ensemble cast gathering A-listers around the father of the atomic bomb. It’s also helped that its dense moral calculus is capable of not just withstanding but rewarding multiple viewings, each one revealing further nuances about Oppenheimer’s tortured inner state.
From the outset, Nolan and Universal have foregrounded the immaculate craft involved in the technical aspect, which all but demanded to be seen on the hugest available screen with the highest possible presentational standard. Sold out for weeks at a time, showings on 70mm film or in Imax created the air of a can’t-miss event and bolstered the cumulative number with surcharges; Oppenheimer broke into the top five highest-grossing Imax releases, raking in a staggering $17m from 30 screens in its opening weekend and holding fast against Blue Beetle’s feeble attempt to displace it. If the Hollywood machine learns anything from all this, it’ll be a spike in releases pushed onto larger and pricier canvasses, the most easily replicable aspect of a sui generis smash.
The handsome earnings from both Oppenheimer and Barbie also re-establish an eternal truism that executives are loath to concede: that art made with some personal authorial sensibility appeals to the average consumer in a way that focus-grouped content made by committee cannot. The Barbie made by someone without the personality of Greta Gerwig could have gone the way of so many forgotten IP excavations, just as an Oppenheimer lacking Nolan’s tendency toward obsessive self-scrutiny could have lost sight of its ethical purpose while marveling at the bomb’s destructive power. It would be easy – and not totally incorrect – to write Barbenheimer off as a fluke, but the staying power of its less overtly commercial half testifies to the system’s proper functioning. Give a dependable talent the budget and latitude to create something good, make sure people know about it, and the grosses will follow.
The coming months will see the release of two big-swing productions fitting that mold, with Martin Scorsese’s thriller Killers of the Flower Moon and Ridley Scott’s epic Napoleon both due this awards season. Apple’s movie division hasn’t been so bullish about theatrical exhibition in the past, looking at it mostly as an awards qualification and glorified loss leader for the streaming subscriptions they’re really pushing. But the example of Oppenheimer could and should be instructive for digital-first upstarts. Trust your blockbusters to bust the block.