Barbies and bombs.

Normally you wouldn’t pair those two together. Unless you’re that kid from Toy Story.

Or apparently, a movie exec. If you’re paying attention to summer blockbusters, you know that Barbie and Oppenheimer are coming out on exactly the same day. 

Which resulted in a loving dubbed media phenomenon Barbenheimer.

These two films couldn’t be more different from each other. Yet, they have come together in the most natural way possible, thanks to their simultaneous release and the subsequent social media frenzy surrounding them.

Here’s the deal – marketing movies requires substantial investments of time and money to create something truly memorable. That’s why some campaigns are etched into our memory due to their clever marketing tactics. Take, for instance, the found footage trailer for the Blair Witch Project, which left audiences captivated and intrigued, ultimately leading to the smash success of the film.

This unusual combination of nuclear bombs and plastic dolls has created a genuine organic marketing phenomenon, which is every studio’s dream. It’s the type of buzz that money can’t buy. And we’re going to blow those heels right off your feet telling you why.

The Birth of Barbenheimer

If you haven’t been living under a rock, you probably know about these two films already. But just in case, let me give you a quick rundown. Barbie is a fun-filled fantasy comedy based on those iconic Barbie fashion dolls by Mattel. On the other hand, Oppenheimer is a thrilling biographical film that dives into the life of a theoretical physicist who played a crucial role in developing the first nuclear weapons.

Now you know from our intro that the origin of this internet phenomena is that both of these movies hit the cinemas at the same time, but what you may not know is that it could very well have been an orchestrated simultaneous birth. Like the weirdest pair of fraternal twins ever. In the movie business, they call this counterprogramming.

Counterprogramming is when studios release films with completely different vibes on the same day to appeal to two separate groups of film goers. Top Gun: Maverick and The Bob’s Burgers Movie, is an example that happened in the past as they are clearly targeted at different audiences.

And if your goal is purely to get two movies with different vibes out on the same day, Barbenheimer is the perfect recipe for success. Both movies would be huge high-profile releases on their own, practically guaranteed to be blockbusters. People would watch them regardless of their juxtaposition.

And yet the juxtaposition opens up so many doors for marketing. Just imagine the contrast of going from a lighthearted doll-filled fantasy to a gripping thriller centered around nuclear weapons. Rather than just having two separate movies making money in their own little silos to their own typical target audiences, now the online discourse is centered around a debate on which film you should watch first. For example, Tom Cruise says “he’ll see Oppenheimer on Friday, and then Barbie on Saturday:”

And that conversation? That’s how you turn Barbie and Oppenheimer into “Barbenheimer.”

Juxtaposition Creates Conversation (And Organic Marketing)

When it comes to the pairing of Barbie and Oppenheimer, something magical happened. Instead of fighting against each other, they collided together like a nuclear reaction, causing a pastel mushroom cloud spreading joyful fallout for miles downwind.

The internet exploded with excitement knowing these polar opposite films are on at the same time. Instantaneous conversations sparked across social media platforms, fueling massive word-of-mouth for both movies. Memes, articles, and even celebrity endorsements were ablaze with many suggesting that the films should be viewed as a double feature.

This is precisely what the movie studios had hoped for. While these films will be competing at the box office, why not embrace the memes and absurdity and join in on the fun? The Barbie team did just that by sharing a photo of themselves holding tickets to Oppenheimer. and Cillian Murphy is well behind going to see Barbie.

Barbenheimer, even as a new phenomenon, is already proving that people are having an emotional response to both films. And when something like this goes viral, it transcends mere popularity and becomes ingrained in our everyday vocabulary. People I know in person are getting to a point where instead of saying, “I’m looking forward to seeing Barbie and Oppenheimer,” we find ourselves eagerly anticipating “Barbenheimer.”

And on that weekend they’ll be thinking, embracing the juxtaposition “Let’s go see both! Its Barbenheimer weekend!” The allure of experiencing this unique combination of films will be irresistible.

They’ll immerse themselves in a world where they can enjoy smoking cigarettes and sipping whiskey in the morning, followed by an ecstasy-fueled comedy extravaganza. It’s all about finding that perfect balance, and Barbenheimer promises to deliver just that.

But, as fun as all this sounds, you might be wondering…

Will Barbenheimer Actually Result In Increased Box Office Sales?

According to Business Insider, Barbie is projected to gross around $80 million in its first three days in US theaters, while Oppenheimer is expected to bring in $40 million in the same period of time. It’s clear that the “Barb” in Barbenheimer is set to be the financial winner, but these are just the early figures. Once we see the actual numbers, we’ll know for sure.

But what’s really going to be interesting are the target demographics. Deadline predicts that Barbie’s primary target audience is under-35 females, with a secondary target of 35 to 49-year-olds. This demographic alignment makes sense considering Barbie’s PG rating, its longstanding reputation as a beloved brand spanning over six decades, and its enduring popularity. In fact, between 2021 and 2022, Barbie doll sales grossed a staggering 1.49 billion U.S. dollars, which demonstrates the strong and consistent appeal of the franchise.

Meanwhile, with Oppenheimer, you have a different target audience, to say the least. For one, it’s an R-rated film, which restricts who can view it. In fact, with this being Christopher Nolan’s first R-rated film in 20 years, it is likely to attract a predominantly millennial audience, falling within the age range of 27-42. This overlaps somewhat with Barbie’s primary demographic, but only by about 25%. 

And as Barbenheimer continues to spread through various social media platforms, it’s evident that the demographics responsible for sharing these memes, such as the 25-34 age group on Facebook and the 18-29 age group on Twitter, are likely to be the age groups that cause the most overlap for both films.

Imagine if you took the counterprogramming away entirely and social media for that matter, when you look at target audience and subject matter alone, these movies would not be competing with each other at all. Put them together, and both have a very good chance of seeing greater-than-expected box office sales because of Barbenheimer.

In short, this is, at worst, going to result in a few extra bucks for the moviemakers. At best, it could dramatically push those $80 million and $40 million projections up. Keep in mind, all this social media buzz is free. Free awareness, free impressions, easy sales.

But even if you think this is going to have a relatively small impact, you should know that counterprogramming has a rich history of success and failures to boot.

Other Barbenhimer Examples And Counterprogramming 

Truth be told there’s nothing that compares to the pure polar opposites of Barbie and Oppenheimer. They are the perfect example of counterprogramming. However we can talk about the general workings and results of counterprogramming in the past so you can see the power of it, as well as its limits.

The Good

Let’s start by highlighting the positive outcomes of counterprogramming. An excellent example of this strategy occurred during the 2008 Euros and the 2014 World Cup when both events were broadcasted on TV.  We can all relate to knowing someone who loves sports and someone who doesn’t share the same enthusiasm.

But what does football have to do with movies? Well, it turns out that films that counterprogram against football games become goldmines for studios to attract audiences who don’t care about the foot hitting the ball for 90 minutes. They’re going to want to watch something that’s polar opposite.

That’s why movies like The Fault in Our Stars, with a budget of $12 million, went on to gross an impressive $48 million in its domestic opening, and over $300 million worldwide, and Sex and the City, with a budget of $65 million, earned just shy of their budget at $57 million at the box office on opening weekend. It then went on to make $420 million worldwide.

Both of these surprisingly strong box office openings are the result of counterprogramming during sports events. The idea, again, was specifically to pick up the audience who wouldn’t want to watch the ongoing sporting events dominating the TV networks.

But bear in mind, counterprogramming can also go wrong if you’re not smart about it

The Bad

When it comes to counterprogramming, it becomes abundantly clear that going against the powerhouse of the film industry, Disney, and specifically Marvel, can spell trouble. Marvel films, particularly the Avengers franchise are box office juggernauts, with their top 3 films grossing an insane $874 million dollars on opening weekends alone.

Marvel films have been backed by massive marketing campaigns and have garnered immense popularity since the release of Iron Man back in 2008, which grossed $98 million on opening weekend. That may sound a lot, but considering that 11 years later they made $357 million on opening weekend with Avengers: Endgame it puts Marvel’s dominance in perspective.

Now, let’s consider Made of Honor, a comedy romance that attempted to counterprogram Iron Man on the same day. Even though it was the only movie competing against it on release day, it unfortunately was overshadowed and obliterated as it only managed to gross $14 million in the first 3 days, and it only just scraped by domestically at $46 million.

This example serves as a stark reminder of the overwhelming dominance of Marvel films and that any attempt of counterprogramming against such massive blockbusters is highly unrecommended unless you come with your own juggernaut or are willing to take a loss.

Final Thoughts

Barbenheimer truly embodies the perfect fusion of pink and orange, delivering a unique cinematic experience that our screens need back to back on the weekend. The studios behind Barbie and Oppenhiemer picked the best weekend for these films to competelement each other. Yes, that’s a word I’ve made up.

Not only have they succeeded in counterprogramming, but they also unleashed a social media phenomenon that defies the traditional expectations of counterprogramming as they got people wanting to go see both films as a double feature. How cute!

Which is a good lesson towards counterprogramming, instead of attempting to challenge a major blockbuster or go up against a powerhouse like Disney, that often ends up being overlooked and discarded like yesterday’s popcorn. Find a way to market your film that compliments each other or don’t even try because Disney and any other blockbuster won’t be messing around.