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Published August 3rd 2023

The Barbenheimer Phenomenon: What Social Data Tells Us

Let's see how the fusing of Barbie and Oppenheimer fared online.

The double debut of films Barbie and Oppenheimer broke box office records across the globe this month.

The juxtaposition of Barbie’s all-things-pink and Oppenheimer’s atomic bomb-based storyline is an unlikely pair. But has the marriage of these films – dubbed Barbenheimer – actually benefited them when looking at social media discourse?

Let’s take a look. 

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Who’s winning on social?

We used Brandwatch Consumer Research to see what the volume of mentions was like for both Barbie and Oppenheimer – and the films combined – throughout July.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Barbie stole the show. The film’s plot follows Barbie and Ken as they embark on a journey of self-discovery following an existential crisis.

Barbie broke box office records in nearly 20 markets, had an impressively famous cast, and a marketing budget bigger than the film itself. Impressively, the film received over 1.4 million online mentions on 21 July – release day.

Oppenheimer’s mentions were around a third of Barbie’s, with a peak of over half a million online mentions on release day. The film’s intense plot follows the true story of the development of the first atomic bomb. These thought-provoking themes, stellar acting performances, and impressive filmmaking – including a lack of CGI – have contributed to its success.

Oppenheimer’s long runtime and vivid themes are perhaps less accessible than Barbie’s, but the film still broke records – it had the third biggest opening day of 2023 so far, behind Barbie and Super Mario Bros.

We also tracked mentions that included both Barbie and Oppenheimer, or the term “Barbenheimer” – the origin of which we’ll get into later. At its peak, this accounted for over 280k online mentions – over half of the number of mentions Oppenheimer accrued.

So, did the dual release date actually help both films? And if so, why?

An unlikely pairing

If you’ve been following the Barbenheimer phenomenon, you’ll know that the two films developed an unlikely bond. Both of these prominent films were released on the same day but follow extremely contrasting themes. 

The result? Memes, merchandise, and plenty of social mentions about Barbenheimer.

Despite the contrast, the films didn’t develop a rivalry – but instead complimented each other. Fans of each film made a point to make an event out of seeing both films. In fact, it’s reported that 6% of Oppenheimer’s sales were due to Barbie tickets being sold out.

So, what does the sentiment look like for each film?

When looking at positive mentions, Barbie came out on top with 46% of sentiment-categorized mentions being positive. Oppenheimer wasn’t far behind at 39%. The themes of each film might contribute to this sentiment – Barbie’s playful nature and Oppenheimer’s intense storyline will lead to some skewing of the data. 

Yet, looking at mentions which include both films is intriguing: dual mentions had the highest positive sentiment. So – using this metric – it looks like Barbenheimer was worth the hype. The fusing of films resulted in an impressive rate of positive sentiment. But how did the combination happen?

The first major use of the term ‘Barbenheimer’ can be traced back to the start of the year, when film critic David Ehrlich tweeted the below.

The term slowly snowballed, and in June 2023, it truly took off as hype for the film grew. Fans took to the internet to share artwork, memes, and commentary on the amalgamation of both films – which had an overwhelmingly positive response.

However, there was some backlash. Most notably, Warner Bros Japan released a statement disagreeing with the films’ alignment. The Japanese branch of the studios criticized its US counterparts for sharing fanart of Barbenheimer, claiming it was trivializing nuclear war. This can be a learning experience for all brands – to consider the impact of such content from the perspective of a global audience.

The Barbenheimer phenomenon went deeper than just internet memes. Let’s look at how the dichotomy of both films contributed to a roar for the cinema industry.

Did Barbenheimer revive cinema?

After a struggling few years post-COVID, the movie theater industry looks to be on the up. The COVID-19 pandemic cut global cinema ticket sales by a third in 2020, and the ease of streaming services hasn’t helped. 

But 2023 is projected to be the first year movie ticket sales outshine pre-pandemic numbers. 

And many are holding Barbenheimer responsible for a boost in cinema sales. In fact, UK-based cinema chain Vue said it was the biggest weekend they’ve had in four years – with a fifth of customers booking tickets to see both films.

Barbie, in particular, saw thousands of people actively dressing up to view the film. There were almost 50k online mentions in July discussing dressing up or wearing pink to go watch Barbie. Plus, TikToks about Barbie outfit ideas have gathered over 11 million views.

It became so much of an event that those not dressing up were considered the odd ones out. 

So, why are people dressing up? Well, it adds to the excitement, and everyone wants something to celebrate.

It’s been years since we’ve seen such enthusiasm about cinema, and the Barbenheimer phenomenon has – at least in the short term – contributed to a mini revival of cinema excitement.

While it’ll take some time to see the impact Barbenheimer has had on cinema in the long term, it’s clear that the films have been the event of the season. Perhaps brands can learn from the combining of both films, and look for ways to generate similar excitement among their own fans.

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