‘Barbie’ + ‘Oppenheimer’ = ‘Barbenheimer.’ Why Hollywood needs the movie mashup

A cheerful woman drives a car with a serious-looking man in the back seat.
(Photo illustration by Nicole Vas / Los Angeles Times; Melinda Sue Gordon / Universal Pictures; Warner Bros. Pictures)
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Kate Kohn, a 26-year-old social media manager in Washington, D.C., was doing “Barbenheimer” before “Barbenheimer” became an online film fan phenomenon.

Or at least that’s what she and her colleagues, who work for a think tank founded by Manhattan Project scientists, thought as they joked in their private Slack channels about the looming box-office collision of two very different, high-profile movies.


The same-day release of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” — the latter about the father of the atomic bomb, the former about the bubbly Mattel doll, both coming out on July 21 — lent itself to a unmissable portmanteau and hilariously incongruous visuals.

“We thought we independently came up with it,” Kohn said. “We’re like, ‘We have to do something for it,’ because we’re all cute, young and hip, but we also have an Oppenheimer-related legacy. And then it started becoming an actual thing on the internet.”

Kohn designed a sticker logo with the text “i survived Barbenheimer 2023,” accented with a pink mushroom cloud. Simple, effective. She put it on the online art marketplace Redbubble, initially just to make it easy for her friends to download, print and put on coffee mugs.

Kate Kohn's "Barbenheimer" design, punctuated by a pink mushroom cloud.
Kate Kohn’s “Barbenheimer” design, punctuated by a pink mushroom cloud, went viral in June.
(Kate Kohn)

But like many things that start as inside jokes, “Barbenheimer” went viral, with the humor being so self-evident that numerous people came to the same conclusion at the same time.

An irresistible mashup that seemed to come out of a Hollywood genre particle collider, the name inspired memes, T-shirts and ballcaps, some with J. Robert Oppenheimer’s famous invocation of Hindu scripture, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” in cutesie pink lettering.


A photo of two side-by-side Santa Monica beach houses — long known as the goth and pink houses — got re-memed as the “Oppenheimer”-”Barbie” homes.

“It was a really obvious low-hanging-fruit thing, because it has kind of an obvious dichotomy between what these movies are supposed to be,” said Kohn, whose own design went supernova in the most 2023 way, when an image of an uncredited ripoff from another site got endlessly retweeted.

Hollywood is hoping “Barbenheimer” will become more than the sum of the chain reaction of memes that flooded Twitter and other social media sites. The spontaneous silliness is a better, not to mention free, marketing campaign for the idea of moviegoing than any studio could’ve come up with on its own.

Film fans online are debating which they’ll see first, which will “win” at the box office (we’ll get to that), if it’s feasible to see both on the same day and, if so, in which order. It’s all good for movie theater owners, who are happy to have a pair of nonaction, nonsequel titles opening on the same weekend. And seeing both gaining some prerelease buzz is heartening after what has been a wobbly summer for Hollywood tentpoles.

AMC Theatres on Monday said 20,000 loyalty program members had booked tickets for both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” on the same day. Quite a double feature.

“When you look around, we’re in a situation right now where you have people talking about ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ — which one are you going to go to, and some people are saying, ‘I’m gonna go to both,’” said Michael O’Leary, president and chief executive of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. “And so you’re actually having conversations about upcoming motion pictures.”


Warner Bros.’ “Barbie,” starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, is expected to collect $80 million to $90 million during its opening weekend, with plenty of potential upside. Universal Pictures’ “Oppenheimer,” starring Cillian Murphy in the title role, is on track for a debut of $40 million to $45 million, with hopes of kicking off a long run along the lines of Nolan’s World War II tour de force, “Dunkirk.” “Barbie,” backed by a truly bananas marketing campaign, likely will play more like a typical summer popcorn flick.

It’s now trite to say that “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” couldn’t be more different on the surface. One is a self-aware, brand-based comedy awash in primary colors, largely targeting an audience of young women. The other, a three-hour historical drama, has all the ingredients of the ultimate dad movie. Surely, though, there’s overlap in the Venn diagram of film lovers who are inclined to see both.

It’s part of what theater operators and studios are hoping will be a robust back half of the so-far-middling summer box office season. Multiple summer movies have underperformed expectations set by tracking, including Pixar’s “Elemental,” DC’s “The Flash” and Lucasfilm’s “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.”

While the volume of would-be blockbusters has grown, revenues have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. This has led some analysts to conclude, three years after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered theaters, that the demand for moviegoing simply isn’t what it once was.

That’s probably an overreaction, in keeping with the industry’s habit of drawing sweeping conclusions from a handful of hits or misses.

Ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada have totaled $4.78 billion so far this year, down about 21% from the same period of time in 2019, according to Comscore. The number of movies released on at least 2,000 screens in 2023 is 48 to date, nearly 19% fewer than during the comparable span four years ago. The business still has a volume problem.


Yes, some changes in the industry probably have altered consumer behavior. One outcome of the pandemic — the shortening of exclusive theatrical windows — may be having some detrimental effect on box office numbers, as consumers have learned they can wait just a few weeks to see most movies at home.

The movies that underperformed did so for unsurprising reasons. “Dial of Destiny” was a so-so franchise sendoff that no one was really asking for. “Elemental” reviews were mediocre by Pixar standards, and it looked like territory Disney had tread before. “The Flash” had myriad problems, including the legal problems facing its star.

Almost all of these movies cost too much money to make, with studios in some cases spending more than $250 million before marketing.

It’s a tough business. It always has been. The bar for getting people to the movies is higher than ever. Just ask anyone releasing an R-rated comedy. “Better days are ahead,” read the subject line of a box office update from Roth MKM analyst Eric Handler on Monday morning.

That’s why the utter weirdness of something like “Barbenheimer” taking hold in online culture comes as such a lighthearted relief.

At this point, it can’t hurt to make a sport out of moviegoing, encouraging fans of one, the other or both to vote with their wallets. The “Barbie”-”Oppenheimer” showdown comes shortly after the much-anticipated release of Paramount Pictures’ “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One,” which is expected to open with about $90 million domestically during its first five days starting Wednesday, powered by movie theater patron saint Tom Cruise.


Kohn, by the way, doesn’t reflect the stereotype of someone who might participate in any Film Twitter meme wars, though she expanded on her workplace in-joke by creating a Barbie-fied global map of nuclear warhead inventories. She’s not a regular moviegoer, having mostly stayed away from the multiplexes since the pandemic hit. (She does have a Letterboxd account, though.)

Still, she is planning to see these movies. Her friends have rented out a theater, so now the pressure’s on. “I like really don’t have a choice, because if I say, ‘I’m going,’ I have to go, or I’ve cost them money,” Kohn said.

VIDEO | 06:56
LA Times Today: Why the movie industry needs ‘Barbenheimer’ now more than ever

Watch L.A. Times Today at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1 on Channel 1 or live stream on the Spectrum News App. Palos Verdes Peninsula and Orange County viewers can watch on Cox Systems on channel 99.

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SAG-AFTRA strike watch

This is a prediction-free zone for strike-related matters. SAG-AFTRA’s contract with the studios expires Wednesday night, after which, without a deal in place, actors and writers could be on strike simultaneously for the first time in 63 years.

How did we get here? Stacy Perman and Anousha Sakoui’s latest story offers some helpful perspective:

Historians and labor experts cite several explanations, including greater cohesion among Hollywood unions, a nationwide rise in labor activism after the COVID-19 pandemic and, perhaps most important, dramatic technological change.

Almost as long as there has been an entertainment industry, there has been labor strife. And, more often than not, that conflict has nearly always coincided with new technologies that have disrupted how filmmakers, creatives and other industry employees have been paid and their work distributed.

More strike coverage from Brian Contreras: Why actors are wary of AI.

Best of the web

— More stories like this, please, about celebrity shills feeling the pain. Tom Brady’s crypto dreams collapse. (New York Times)


— Get ready for the Hot Wheels and UNO movies. After “Barbie,” Mattel is raiding its entire toy box. (New Yorker)

Disney World hasn’t felt this empty in years. Shorter wait times for rides and more discount offers are signs of thinning crowds at the theme parks. (Wall Street Journal)

Films shoots

Not a lot of production happening last week, which had a big holiday. Also, strike stuff.

film tracker 2

Finally ...

I’ve been catching up with the novels of Los Angeles author Percival Everett. Last year’s “Dr. No” was hilarious and quirky, and I’m almost done with “The Trees.”