If you’re an audience member, the success of Barbie and Oppenheimer, as well as the phenomenon that is Barbenheimer, is a joy to behold. Quality cinema, offering up two very different but equally terrific looks at the potential of the medium, that also manages to be wildly successful? What’s not to like. Fans of the movies in general should be delighted that both of these specific titles are not just critically acclaimed, coronated by audiences, and pop culture juggernauts, but also likely awards players. Now, if you’re a studio? The Barbenheimer success is equally pleasing, but for different reasons. An executive is just trying to figure out how to replicate it, which is bound for failure. Today, I want to talk a bit about the right lessons to take here, as opposed to what’s going to happen.
A studio sees the success of Barbenheimer and wants to grow it again in a lab. Moreover, Barbie alone is inspiring Mattel to develop film versions of as many toys of theirs as possible. Mark my words, those movies will almost exclusively fall well short of the mark. Where they should look at Oppenheimer and see reason to support adult storytelling, they’ll ignore that in favor of potential shortcuts. They’ll cultivate influencers more (which isn’t inherently bad, but if it’s at the expense of critics, it will be), hoping things go viral, instead of considering that two creative risks paid off in spades. Barbenheimer had about a year to grow organically, created outside of the studios and pushed by fans or just those curious about it all. You can’t make that in a sterile environment, though they’re sure going to try.
These are the wrong lessons to take. For one thing, not every pairing is going to be Barbie and Oppenheimer, quality-wise. I love the Saw franchise, but anyone thinking Saw Patrol is going to work with Saw X and PAW Patrol: The Mighty Movie is an unhinged individual. Most of these pairings aren’t going to be done by A-list filmmakers, either. Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan are the exceptions, not the rules.
What should they be doing? Absolutely nothing. Something like Barbenheimer comes to you organically and you ride the wave, that’s it. However, decision makers at production companies and studios are always required to justify their own existence. So, we’re gonna see copycats, forgetting that the purity of the thing is part of what made it take off. Force it down the public’s throats and they’ll reject it, mark my words.
Is it likely that we’ll see nothing done to replicate Barbenheimer? No, though Barbie and Oppenheimer are so specific that they should. More likely, things like Saw Patrol will fall flat (at least in terms of the double feature), though the powers that be will find other things to blame, instead of the flawed concept. Barbenheimer is its own beast and the lesson should be that you can’t force it on people. It has to start out in the world first. The studios won’t listen to me, but at least in this instance…they really should.
Stay tuned to see what Barbenheimer copycat attempts appear in the months and years to come!