Denver-area theaters rode the Barbenheimer box office wave. These are some takeaways from local film professionals

“Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” movies helped the Sie Film Center, AMC Theatres and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema achieve their most successful box office weekends since before the pandemic.
6 min. read
A film reel in the Sie Film Center’s projection room. Oct. 28, 2021.

If you felt the ground shake recently, it wasn't an earthquake. It was the cinematic culture clash of a historical retelling of nuclear war and a feminist doll come-to-life. That's right: "Barbenheimer," the dual-opening weekend of "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer," shook the post-pandemic movie industry. Local movie theaters benefited from their most successful opening week in four years.

"Barbie," co-written and directed by Greta Gerwig, stars Margot Robbie as Stereotypical Barbie, a doll who embarks on a journey of self-discovery when she leaves Barbie Land for the perils of the human world. "Oppenheimer," co-written and directed by Christopher Nolan, chronicles the life of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team of scientists who designed and developed the atomic bomb during World War II.

The home of the Denver Film Society and Sie Film Center on East Colfax Avenue. Congress Park, Aug. 5, 2020.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

For Denver Film's Sie Film Center, Barbenheimer gave the theater its most successful box office weekend since the summer of 2019, when films like "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" and "Midsommar" dominated film dialogue.

The nonprofit theater rode the wave and hosted special movie-going experiences such as a Barbenheimer Glitterbomb Lobby Party on opening night, which included limited edition "Barbie" bars from Little Man Ice Cream, a costume contest, a collectible Kodak 35MM filmstrip and "social media ready selfie areas," as well as an exclusive "Oppenheimer" t-shirt giveaway and specialty cocktails.

"I have no real memory of another similar cinematic moment in time where everybody's attention was turned towards two particular films, both on opposite ends of the spectrum," said Keith Garcia, Sie Film Center Artistic Director.

In Arvada, Sonora Cinemas, a multilingual movie theater that took over the old Elvis Cinemas location earlier this year, also saw similar success on opening week, which coincided with its official grand opening party.

"It reminds me of the earlier Shrek releases," said Louis Sullivan, film buyer and corporate general manager for Sonora Cinemas. "This was something you could tell had good hype around it."

Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a theater chain with locations in Littleton, Westminster and Sloan Lake, also had its biggest weekend in recent years.

"Somehow the internet, the world, turned it into this big pop culture event," said Zach Nix, senior film buyer for Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. "It's something that could never have been predicted but it's amazing how that came to be."

Opening day at Alamo Drafthouse on West Colfax, May 8, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) Alamo Drafthouse; food; nightlife; movie theater; cinema; sloans lake; west colfax; kevinjbeaty; denver; colorado; denverite;

Barbenheimer in numbers.

To date, "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" have grossed a combined $244 million, making this the fourth-biggest box office weekend in cinema history.

At $162 million in weekend sales, the "Barbie" film notched the biggest opening weekend of this year so far, surpassing April's "Super Mario Bros. Movie" $146 million opening weekend sales and "Oppenheimer's" $82 million. This also marked the biggest debut ever for a film directed by a woman.

"Invest in the artists, invest in the storytellers," Nix said. "If they make a good product, the audience will come. Don't just make products that appease the shareholders or the board at a [major] studio."

The Sie Film Center on Colfax Avenue. Oct. 28, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

The AMC theater in Hale set its own single-week box office record

AMC Theatres saw "its highest single-week admissions revenue in the Company's entire 103-year history," making it its busiest weekend globally since theaters opened from pandemic closures in 2020, according to an AMC Theatres press release.

Across the country, 65 AMC locations set their own single-week box office records, including Congress Park and Hale neighborhood's AMC 9 + CO 10 location that first opened in 2021. Cherry Creek's AMC Dine-In Cherry Creek 8 location was not listed.

"The monumental success of 'Barbie' and 'Oppenheimer' has the entire movie and movie theatre industry abuzz," wrote AMC Chairman and CEO Adam Aron in the press release.

The revenue record was bolstered by other popular films that are currently playing in theaters, including "Haunted Mansion," "Mission Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One," and "Sound of Freedom."

The financial success of the week "is a testament to the moviegoing audience, who has demonstrated once again that they are ready, willing, and eager to come out to movie theatres in huge numbers," Aron said.

The new Sonora Cinemas marquis at the old Elvis Cinemas location in Arvada on April 10, 2023.
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News

What this might mean for movies going forward.

"I think they rediscovered a winning formula," Sullivan said. "It was great to see Warner Brothers and Universal be okay in supporting each other's product."

Film buyers like Nix echoed that sentiment.

"A big takeaway that studios could potentially look into is counter programming," Nix said. "If you release two movies that are exactly the same on the same weekend, you are probably going to pull apart from each other. The Barbenheimer [effect] will be difficult to replicate, but it is a fact that counter-programming is a good thing for the industry."

Part of this weekend's winning formula included the original storytelling that both films exemplified. The top three overall weekends in history were led by debuts of sequels in massive franchises: "Avengers: Endgame" in 2019, "Avengers: Infinity War" in 2018 and "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in 2015.

Neither film in the Barbenheimer storm was a sequel or an installment of a long-running franchise.

"This is two different studios, two wildly different film experiences," Garcia said. "Water rising lifts all ships. That's where it takes itself down to a local scene and it really did bring about a lot of fantastic business."

With Hollywood writers and actors on strike in recent months, Garcia and Nix believe it's important to trust professional storytellers like Gerwig, Nolan and all others involved, in hopes of having all audiences make a habit of stepping foot inside of a movie theater once again.

"It proved that people love being part of a moment," Garcia said. "This was a defining, 'Yes, we are ready to go to the theaters, dress up, be part of sold-out shows, have fun and take in a pop cultural milestone.'"

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