Barbenheimer Proves Counterprogramming is Back, But Who’s the Real Winner?

Movies Features Greta Gerwig
Barbenheimer Proves Counterprogramming is Back, But Who’s the Real Winner?

You may not have heard, but Barbie and Oppenheimer—two very different movies—are releasing on the same day. After you’ve gotten over that glitter-filled bombshell, you might wonder why two buzzy, polar-opposite films would even attempt to battle each other for the top box office spot. But it is precisely because of their contrasting natures that Christopher Nolan’s biopic and Greta Gerwig’s cultural icon pastiche will be so successful come July 21st, thanks to a little film distribution trick called counterprogramming.

Picture this: A new movie is coming out, a massive one with a big budget promising thrills and spills (maybe an action film or one of those Star Wars the kids are always on about)—but it appeals to you in no way. The buzz is unignorable, and everybody around you is getting hyped to go to the movies, meaning you want to go to the movies, but you’re frustrated Hollywood didn’t cater to you this time. Enter counterprogramming, usually manifesting as a smaller film with a different tone, genre and target demographic, but with the same release date. It stands out as an appealing alternative—the question changes from “Will you go see this film?” to “Which of these films will you go see?” The expectation of attendance is all but confirmed, and even though the smaller film is unlikely to take the number one spot, it still exceeds expectations.

Hollywood has been pulling this trick for decades, with unlikely pairings like The Empire Strikes Back and The Shining, Batman and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, The Force Awakens and Sisters. The latter incorporated its underdog status into its marketing, preempting the Barbenheimer double-bill with the hashtag #YouCanSeeThemBoth. Sometimes, counterprogramming is so successful that the underdog outshines the bigger budgeted film—such was the case in 1997 when My Best Friend’s Wedding outdid Batman and Robin, or in 2006 when The Devil Wears Prada had the legs to nearly match Superman Returns despite having a fraction of the budget, or when Pitch Perfect 2 beat Mad Max: Fury Road to the number one spot in summer 2015.

But there’s a commonality in these examples that reveals the regressive politics entrenched in film distribution—to Hollywood executives, the “counter” in counterprogramming might as well mean “for women.” Barbenheimer seems like such an oddity because its assumed demographics (young women and film bros) are so different, but it’s less of an oddity when you realize that this is the most basic rule of thumb to counterprogramming, all based on reductive generalizations about audiences.

It may be difficult to sniff at Barbie’s exuberant, fiercely poppy and feminist indulgences, but the conversation around it and the intense, broody, Godfather-length WWII biopic Oppenheimer perhaps only caught on as much as it did because of the presumption is that the former is for women, and the latter is for men. Clearly, neither film is interested in pandering to gendered demographics, but even if audiences don’t genuinely possess regressive beliefs, studio executives certainly do.

As Scott Mendelson wrote in regards to Straight Outta Compton becoming 2015’s breakout summer hit, “We now consider pretty much anything that isn’t aimed at the young white male demographic to be counterprogramming.” Audiences are primed to be more forgiving to male-oriented disposable blockbusters because they match their lower expectations, while “virtually any film opening at any time that isn’t explicitly targeted at young white males is considered an ‘other.’”

Whichever you’re more hyped for, Barbie or Oppenheimer, it would be disingenuous to call Barbie the outlier—in fact, it would be generous to call it an even race. Barbie has likely spent more on its marketing than the production cost (~$100 million), with a full-scale, tourable Dreamhouse, a full album with pop music’s hottest stars, and a rotation of custom Barbie-inspired fits for Margot Robbie’s press tour. All of these are designed to create engagement, full-bodied celebration of the commitment to a film about a toy that’s iconic, but still considered the plaything of children—while also hoping to drum up incredulous disbelief of how hard they’re committing.

Oppenheimer may not have appeared as much on social media feeds, but for an all-IMAX, shot-on-film extravaganza, we must remember that it dropped a restrained teaser a year in advance and played epic, foreboding and visually splendid trailers in cinemas, implying that theaters are the designated space to get hyped for one of the biggest movies of the summer. Neither Barbie nor Oppenheimer (which cost the same before press and advertising) could be fairly accused of leeching off the other’s spotlight; these are both large and buzzy films that make for an unlikely and amusing pair. Historically, the “counterprogramming” only referred to the smaller film, not the blockbuster that always cleaned up—here, there’s not a huge difference in the films’ size.

Another reason Barbenheimer fever has reached critical levels is because large-scale counterprogramming has become nearly extinct over the past decade. Like most things, you can blame Disney for this—once it had been proven that superheroes, lightsabers and live-action remakes could own the box office for months at a time, studios shrunk away from challenging their anticipated financial dominion, leading to a sparse release calendar pockmarked with only The Biggest Films of All Time. As Sean Fennessey argued in 2018, “It is brand loyalty as artistic assault. Today, we have repeat customers, not cinephiles. If you are not one of the many people interested in seeing Infinity War three or six or nine times, you may go several weeks before returning to a theater.” 

Compare the latter two Nolan Batman films: The Dark Knight went up against Mamma Mia! while, four years later in 2012, nothing was programmed against The Dark Knight Rises. Barbie and Oppenheimer may not be purely original—they’re based on pre-existing IP or adapted from a Pulitzer-winning biography—but they are releasing at a time when superhero dominance has become shaky, and audiences are hungry for films that offer more.

It’s also not guaranteed that counterprogramming works. There are a myriad examples of failed attempts to profit off blockbuster spotlights (Deathly Hallows Part 2 and Hunger Games: Catching Fire demolished Winnie the Pooh and Delivery Man, respectively). Barbenheimer is so unique because, thanks to viral trends and jokes combining the pair, the idea of watching both films in one or two days is electric. It is not a choice, but a challenge—Twitter and TikTok deserve a lot of credit for pushing the idea that their shared release date is less a contest and more a symbiosis.

Yes, Barbie will rake in more money straight out of the gate (but don’t underestimate the legs of a big shiny historical biopic), but in a post-pandemic world, isn’t it in everyone’s best interest that audiences are excited to see multiple films across a single month, let alone a weekend? Whether it was because social media was in its relative infancy, or because there was no lingering memory of COVID, but back in August 2010, nobody was jazzed to double-bill The Expendables and Eat, Pray, Love.

But Barbie and Oppenheimer are releasing at a time when it has become abundantly clear that a healthy box office does not translate into a healthy industry. A SAG-AFRA strike was announced during Oppenheimer’s premiere, joining the already-in-progress WGA strike, and celebrating the box office numbers of films that we know will reward only the highest-paid studio executives undermines much of the dedicated creative passion behind why we’re excited for these films in the first place.

It’s easy to be on “Team Cinema” in the match between Barbie and Oppenheimer, to alter the Alien vs. Predator tagline to, “whoever loses, we win,” but we owe it to striking and exploited workers to think more critically about how we support films that are seen merely as assets to studios. Prioritizing box office receipts is an ugly way to show your love for cinema, even if monetary returns are the only way to guarantee outsider, marginalized voices can fund their next projects. The politics of studio distribution ought to be critically engaged with so we can better understand how our cash is being encouraged into corporate hands. 

Barbenheimer isn’t just an exciting filmgoing experience, it’s an opportunity to dissect the relationship between the money we spend and the creatives we want it to reward—especially as counterprogramming proves that these execs still look down on their audiences. It’s a frustrating situation to be in: We can’t support workers without buying tickets to their films, and we can’t buy tickets to films without feeding systemic exploitation. Will Barbenheimer be remembered for audiences clocking how passive they have been rendered in the film industry’s dynamics of labor? It’s been hyped for months, but the aftershock of July’s historic counterprogramming will linger for reasons other than clever distribution tactics. Come on Barbie, let’s go picket.

Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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