Jeff Goldstein, executive vice president of domestic theatrical distribution at Warner Bros., was effusive when he returned my call on Sunday, July 23. Warner Bros.’ Barbie had just opened alongside Universal’s Oppenheimer to a combined $244.4 million. Bolstered by a diverse slate of holdover titles, the domestic market had just experienced its highest-earning summer weekend of all time at the box office. Goldstein called it “a unique and extraordinary weekend,” recognizing the successful counterprogramming strategy between the two studios. “What’s interesting is that these are movies with audiences that complement each other— Barbie is 65 percent female and 35 percent male, with Oppenheimer being the reverse,” he said. “Here you have two movies with a A CinemaScores [and that] register at 90 [percent] or above in both the Rotten Tomatoes Critics and Audience scores.”
Jim Orr, president of domestic theatrical distribution at Universal Pictures, echoed those sentiments in his own comments to Boxoffice Pro that Sunday. “Overall, it speaks to the fact that people want to be in theaters, that there’s no real, legitimate replacement for the excitement and experience of being in a theater to see a movie like Oppenheimer on the big screen,” he said. “When audiences realize the occasion is worth the value proposition, they come out to theaters—and they come out in droves.”
The Barbenheimer phenomenon, whereby moviegoers pledged to enjoy a Barbie and Oppenheimer double-feature over the films’ opening weekend, catalyzed the highest-grossing summer weekend on record. Join us as we look back at the heroes, villains, and Kens that helped summer 2023 return to the $4 billion mark it had enjoyed in the years leading up to the pandemic.
Fast Cars, Intergalactic Heroes, Mermaids, and Spider-Men
Summer movie seasons are defined by the films that work just as much as those that don’t. Measured by the first weekend in May and running through the Labor Day frame, Hollywood’s summer season offerings, taken as a whole, are often responsible for the bulk of the year’s grosses. Expectations were high for 2023’s summer slate, with hopes that a varied slate of titles could carry blockbuster numbers throughout the season. The stellar success of Universal’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie, which roared across the $500 million mark domestically following an Easter weekend premiere, raised expectations even further as we entered the month of May.
Disney was up first with the May release of its latest Marvel Cinematic Universe title, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. Released on May 5, the same day that its 2017 predecessor opened in theaters, the third entry in the Guardians series kicked off the summer with a theatrical run that nearly matched its predecessor’s numbers. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 earned $359 million in North America and $845 million worldwide, just $30 million short of Vol. 2’s domestic figures and less than $20 million under the prior film’s global tally. It was unseated as the top film at the domestic box office two weeks later with the release of Universal’s Fast X, a franchise experiencing diminishing returns in North America but that continues to consistently gross over $500 million overseas.
Disney’s The Little Mermaid (2023) brought in $118.8 million over its 4-day Memorial Day weekend bow, quietly legging out in subsequent weeks to finish its original domestic run just shy of $300 million. (The film, and several others, would close out the summer by returning to theaters for National Cinema Day.) While it didn’t come close to matching the heights of Disney’s most successful live-action remakes, its performance hinted that family audiences were ready to return to the movies. Sony’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse fulfilled that promise, opening at $120.6 million over the first weekend of June—a massive bump over the $35 million debut of its predecessor, 2018’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. The animated Spider-Man sequel grossed over $380 million domestically through the rest of the summer.
Paramount’s Transformers: Rise of the Beasts topped the domestic market when it opened a week after Across the Spider-Verse. The latest Transformers title proved a modest box office hit, giving the franchise its highest-grossing domestic entry ($157 million) since 2014’s Transformers: Age of Extinction.
The Summer Slump
Signs of trouble emerged in mid-June, when a string of titles either underwhelmed at the box office or missed their marks completely. Warner Bros.’ The Flash entered the year with lofty expectations and a tricky marketing challenge as the studio scrambled to promote the film around star Ezra Miller’s legal troubles and public scandals. The film opened to a disappointing $55 million domestically. It failed to pick up speed in the ensuing weeks, eventually bowing out with a frustrating $108 million haul from North America.
Finishing second under The Flash that same weekend was Disney’s summer Pixar title, Elemental. Sharing the same release date as last year’s ill-fated Lightyear (the lowest-grossing Pixar title of all-time, excluding the pandemic-curtailed run of 2020’s Onward), Elemental scored the lowest opening weekend at the box office for a Pixar title since 1995’s Toy Story with a paltry $39 million haul. It would eventually leg out to a more respectable $151 million domestic take, better than both The Flash and Lightyear—but still far from the theatrical run exhibitors hoped to see from the movie.
The two high-profile studio titles released around the July 4 weekend also failed to meet expectations at the box office. Disney’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was the lowest-grossing entry in the Lucasfilm franchise, earning less than any individual entries from the original 1980s trilogy and 2008’s Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Paramount’s Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One didn’t get the box office bump from Top Gun: Maverick many were hoping for, finishing its theatrical run as the next-to-last entry across all seven titles in the franchise.
The Surprise Hit of the Year
The gap in grosses left by the relative underperformance of those two titles was made up by a surprise hit at the box office. Angel Studios’ Sound of Freedom opened on July 4, sandwiched between Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (June 30) and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (July 12). It didn’t come with the star power of Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise or the three-decade-plus IP recognition of either Indiana Jones or Mission: Impossible. There was no major marketing campaign to promote the film, which opened on only a fraction of the screens that studio titles usually enjoy. Sound of Freedom finished the summer having outperformed both those studio titles at the domestic box office.
No one could have foreseen this level of success for Sound of Freedom. Acquired at the start of the year by upstart distributor Angel Studios, the title’s success came down to a clever counterprogramming strategy and the power of word-of-mouth recommendations. At the heart of the success of Sound of Freedom is its Pay It Forward program, unprecedented at this scale in the history of theatrical distribution, whereby moviegoers can purchase tickets for other patrons for future showtimes of the title. Sound of Freedom finished the summer as one of the year’s ten highest-earning films at the domestic box office, with around $180 million in ticket sales.
Angel Studios first instituted the Pay it Forward program in movie theaters with the faith-based title His Only Son, released in the Spring of 2023. With Sound of Freedom, at the end of each screening, star Jim Caveziel appeared on-screen for a brief call-to-action, prompting viewers to donate future tickets for the movie through a website accessible via a QR code on the screen. Once there, moviegoers could select the theater where they’d like to donate tickets for future showtimes.
The word-of-mouth around Sound of Freedom was not entirely positive. The film found itself embroiled in the culture war taking over the contemporary social and political discourse in the United States, with viewers linking the movie’s depiction of human trafficking with unfounded, politically partisan conspiracy theories. That sentiment spilled over to exhibition, with social media posts sprouting up claiming there was a nefarious plot from exhibitors to derail screenings of the film. The complaints became so prevalent that AMC Theatres CEO Adam Aron took to X, previously known as Twitter, to denounce the speculation that his theater chain would be involved in sabotaging its screenings for a movie they willingly programmed.
“If there are some imaginary theaters in the universe that are trying to thwart this film, they are terrible at it, because the movie is doing great,” clarifies Brandon Purdie, vice president and head of theatrical at Angel Studios, emphasizing exhibitors’ support. “We’ve received the best partnership I could have ever imagined [from exhibitors]. I’ve worked on distributing over 100 movies over 20 years and never received this kind of support.”
July 21, 2023: Barbenheimer
It started as a joke, an easy meme to share on social media: a pair of highly-anticipated and widely-marketed studio films that couldn’t be further apart tonally, sharing the same release date. As noted by the films’ respective distribution chiefs, referenced at the top of this article, the opening weekend demographics reflect complementing audience segments—but the films’ overall box office performance also points to an overlap in their audience over time.
According to the National Association of Theatre Owners, over 200,000 moviegoers pledged to participate in the Barbenheimer double feature over the films’ opening weekend. AMC Theatres, the largest circuit in the United States, reported that 87,000 members of their loyalty program, AMC Stubs, took in the double feature over the weekend, leading to the chain’s second-highest single-day of concessions revenue that Saturday. AMC recorded the best admissions revenue in its 103-year history through the ensuing playweek. Cineplex, Canada’s largest exhibition chain, reported over 80,000 guests participating in the double feature, resulting in the second-highest-grossing weekend in the company’s history. Barbie became Warner Bros.’ highest-grossing domestic release of all time within a month of its release, a centennial birthday present for the iconic studio. By the end of August, Barbie had already grossed nearly $600 million in North America and over $1.3 billion worldwide.
Universal’s Oppenheimer—a dialogue-driven, three-hour historical drama—proved that you don’t need extensive action set-pieces or superheroes to succeed on premium format screens. The film neared the $300 million mark through its domestic run over the summer, hovering around $750 million worldwide in the same span. Impressive numbers for a film that never reached first place on North America’s weekend box office charts. Celluloid screenings were in high demand for the title, contributing 6 percent of the film’s opening weekend box office in North America despite only being available in 3 percent of screens across the market.
Cinemas were caught unaware by last summer’s “GentleMinions” viral sensation, where crowds of teenage moviegoers dressed in costumes and engaged in raucous behavior during screenings of Universal’s Minions: The Rise of Gru. This summer, however, exhibition refused to be caught flat-footed, with cinemas worldwide leaning into the Barbenheimer phenomenon and encouraging patrons to show up in costume and take selfies in their lobbies. Concession stands offered themed menus for both titles, ranging everywhere from drink specials to commemorative popcorn tubs and unique menu items. Hold-over titles from prior weeks—led by Sound of Freedom and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One—helped to make the July 21 weekend the highest-grossing summer frame of all time.
The Dog Days of August
The domestic box office registered 19 consecutive weekends grossing above $100 million—from Easter weekend in April to mid-August—its best streak since summer 2019. August, a traditionally quiet month for exhibitors, contributed a string of mid-range hits to theaters. While Paramount’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem and Warner Bros.’ Meg 2: The Trench and Blue Beetle won’t go down as inflection points for the season, each did play a role in sustaining the market once the Barbenheimer hype settled. The summer approached its end with the return on the last Sunday in August of National Cinema Day, celebrating its second edition this year, with exhibitors across the country offering $4 tickets to any movie in any format. It was a last hurrah for a summer where, for the first time since the pandemic, public sentiment focused more on moviegoing over specific movies on the market. A diverse and consistent slate, one with enough alternatives and surprise hits to make up for those movies that failed to connect with audiences, brought that energy back to theaters. No summer is ever endless, no matter how good the box office—but they all leave behind memories. It’s safe to say that exhibitors will fondly remember summer 2023 for many years to come.