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The news site of Santa Barbara City College.

The Channels

The news site of Santa Barbara City College.

The Channels

After blasting onto the scene, Barbie and Oppenheimer rule the summer

Delaney Newhouse
78 years after the atom bomb, and 64 years after the invention of the Barbie doll, films reflecting on their social impacts take the summer film market by storm. The two films were released in theaters simultaneously on July 21.

On July 21, the phenomenon known as Barbenheimer launched, landed, and–thankfully, for the studio behind it–didn’t bomb.

The shorthand phrase, a portmanteau of the titles of summer films Barbie and Oppenheimer, spread across the internet as commentators speculated as to why exactly Warner Bros. Media chose to release two of their highest budget films of the year on the same date.

Julie Brown, chair of City College’s marketing department, commented on the unusual decision, calling it “a big risk.”

“Why would you go see Barbie and then see Oppenheimer? They’re almost complete opposites,” she said. “But because it was a buzz–nobody thought you could put those two together, they were contradictory–it worked. It created buzz for something that had never been done before.”

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Nico Maestu, chair of City College’s film department, agreed. He cited studios’ current decisions to push forward release dates of their fall films in order to avoid competition with Taylor Swift’s upcoming concert film as an example of a more typical decision. The choice to manufacture competition–a marketing strategy known as counterprogramming–was unusual, but resulted in success.

“I could have seen a scenario where each one made only 40 million dollars, but it made so much more than that,” Maestu said.

Brown enthusiastically contributed to the monetary success of the Barbie film, and has seen it seven times. Throughout the summer, she noticed the steady proliferation of others in pink outfits, offering and receiving friendly greetings in turn. To her, the words, “Hi, Barbie,” became a tool for women to recognize and support each other.

“Women have always been the weavers; we’ve always been the networkers, so this gave us a chance post-pandemic to say hello to strangers again,” she said, eyes glimmering with excitement.

Brown attributed the massive success of Greta Gerwig’s film to a long-awaited acknowledgement of women as a potential target audience.

“We’ve had to watch one stupid action film after another with our sons, our brothers, our husbands, our male friends,” She said bluntly, before the warmth returned to her voice. “Now, we got to watch a movie with all our friends, and we got to wear pink.”

As a vintage Barbie doll collector and overall enthusiast, Brown embodied the audience Gerwig partnered with Mattel in order to target. She points out, however, that not all intellectual properties (IPs) make for a successful film series.

“It has to be the right brand, and it has to be the right customer base,” Brown said, emphasizing the multigenerational appeal of the Barbie doll.

Polly Pocket, she said, would be unlikely to be the concept behind a successful motion picture. Barbie, on the other hand, has had the consistent name recognition of an icon for decades.

Super Mario Brothers, the IP basis of 2023’s second most successful film, she explained, was another example of such a concept.

“There’s memories within our childhood that make us happy, and so the Super Mario Brothers, Barbie: that goes into an intrinsic piece [of us].”

— Julie Brown

“There’s memories within our childhood that make us happy, and so the Super Mario Brothers, Barbie: that goes into an intrinsic piece [of us],” she said.

Maestu gave similar insights, with some caveats.

“If you look at types of bigger films that come out, it’s either the director who is very well-known… you have these filmmakers who are able to make these bigger budget types of films that draw in a lot of people, or it’s the opposite, where the director is not really as important, it’s more the concept or the intellectual property that becomes more important,” he said.

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer serves as an example of a movie whose director lends its commercial appeal. Maestu praised Nolan’s creativity but lamented Oppenheimer’s singularity, and the lack of mass audience access to other such creative films.

“There’s very little variety in types of films. The only variety we get today is by going on every single streamer that you can think of, and there’s so many,” he said. “The more independent types of films that are smaller budget, that might have a diverse point of view, an unusual point of view, they’re not part of that theatrical experience at all. They’re not in theaters.”

Both Brown and Maestu discussed the role film studios have had in limiting both the number and type of films available to potential theater goers. While studios have realized that the oversaturation of content available on streaming platforms provides little financial benefit, producing and releasing profitable films in theaters in the near future seems unlikely during the ongoing writers’ and actors’ strike. 

“We need to have the people who are going to make these films interesting be a part of the system, but they need to be paid fairly.”

— Nico Maestu

“We need to have the people who are going to make these films interesting be a part of the system, but they need to be paid fairly,” Maestu said, emphasizing studios’ reliance on skilled writers in order to gain profit.

Brown expressed frustration with the major studios, saying, “they’re hurting their customers.”

“They’re gonna bite off their nose to spite their face, because I’m one of those customers,” she continued. “If you don’t pay your people well, I won’t see your productions. And then we’ll go to smaller companies that have social values, and we’ll know that people–at least they’re getting paid for their worth.

These smaller companies creating lower budget films do exist, though they struggle to compete with established studios in terms of generating profit. The film industry is, like all industries, a business, but Maestu warned enthusiasts not to get caught up in reviewing budgets and profits, given that  “the bigger the budget, the more conventional everything becomes.”

Instead, Maestu advocated for a more thorough evaluation of films.

“It’s not a tennis match, it’s not a basketball game, It’s not about who wins. It’s more about what’s interesting,” he said. “That is a part of media literacy and that’s exactly what we teach in film and media studies. How do we understand the images that come at us and the impact that they have?”

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