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PINK EXPLOSION: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blonde Bombshell

We did it. We survived BARBENHEIMER ’23. Plastic was not only fantastic; it was da bomb, yo!

If someone from the future was to take a time machine back to summer of 2023 to study pop culture and its influence on the modern movie society, they would have to look no further than the mash-up meme that lit the fuse of multiplex marauders around the world, propelling into existence what could arguably be called the most unexpected double feature of all time.

One was a big, bright studio comedy featuring the iconic toy heir of the Mattel fortune, while the other was a 3-hour, R-rated adult drama…with very few explosions and a whole lotta sitting around and talking. And guess what? They both played like gangbuster blockbusters, sparking the imagination of theatergoers around the globe.

It certainly didn’t hurt that BARBIE and OPPENHEIMER both received rave reviews from critics and audiences alike (that always helps), but what started out as a simple lol, went viral, and then straight-up nuclear, as the pair became the #1 and #2 highest-grossing films worldwide this summer.

Through Labor Day—the official end of the summer season in Hollywood—BARBIE ruled with $1.38B, while OPPENHEIMER stood by her side boasting an equally impressive $853M. Together, as one, BARBENHEIMER collected $2.23B globally. To put that in perspective, if BARBENHEIMER was indeed a single film (which many still believe this to be true), it would rank as the #4 flick of all time, of any time—just ahead of TITANIC ($2.22B). That’s how big this thing was. Titanic-level + re-releases.

Yes, the meme that took the box office by storm, also saved the summer.

Surprisingly, before the pink explosion, the domestic box office was in the dumps; trailing last year at the same time by around 7%. To make matters worse, there was over 30% more product than in 2022. And major franchises that were expected to do most of that heavy lifting—MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, INDIANA JONES and a certain DC film—were flailing, if not outright failing. All that changed on July 21 when, domestically speaking, BARBIE and OPPENHEIMER opened with $162M and $82M respectively.

From that point on, and with a nod of the cap to a sustainable crop of August releases, the late summer box office rallied behind all things BARBENHEIMER, and finished with a domestic total of $4.032B (383M tickets sold)—an increase of almost 19% overall versus summer 2022. We’ll discuss the fact that the actual tickets sold is the lowest in the history of modern summer movie tracking (outside the pandemic years 2020-2022) but for now, let’s dive into the details—and deal with the devil later.




THE GOOD: TOP 10 FILMS WORLDWIDE

1. BARBIE ($1.38B) Warner Bros

This icon’s journey to the big screen has been a 60+ year adventure, as Mattel’s toy line has been one of the best selling brands for decades upon decades. Oh, and she officially took the pink belt from Princess Peach, topping THE SUPER MARIO BROS ($1.35B) as the #1 release of 2023. Yes, Greta Gerwig delivered the goods, while Barbie herself gave the world the Margo Robbie we needed, even if Harley Quinn was the Margo Robbie we wanted. Expect sequels and spinoffs galore–although nothing officially announced–as Mattel has been waiting for this moment for over a half-century. And the Barbillions made by WB was almost enough to forget about DC’s disastrous double bill of FLASH and BLUE BEETLE. Honestly, BARBIE was the laugh the world desperately needed this summer, and the Kenergy Hollywood had to have to remind them that big-budget, high-concept comedies can still work amidst all the sequels and superheros. Girl power, indeed. Gerwig now has a golden ticket, as she dropped the highest grossing film ever directed by a woman. Next stop: Oscar nominations.

2. OPPENHEIMER ($853M) Universal

A three-hour, adult drama made specifically for IMAX? Well that can’t possibly work in the modern marketplace–big-time bomb, right? Wrong. Breaking IMAX records left and right (IMAX total as of Labor Day was $170M globally, including $85.5M domestic). Christopher Nolan continues to prove why he is the preeminent creator of cinema in this time and in this place; constantly pushing the envelope and imploring audiences to dig deeper and feel more. His impact on cinemagoers is cemented–the man is his own IP. Who needs codpieces and continuing sagas? Besides, he’s already been there and done that, delivering what many consider is the greatest superhero trilogy of all time with THE DARK KNIGHT. What’s next? Whatever the hell he wants. That’s true power–aka nuclear fusion–that could melt down Tinseltown. Could this finally be Nolan’s trip to the Oscar podium for Best Director? Many think so.

3. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3 ($844M) Disney

James Gunn makes his Marvel exodus with this film, heading over to DC to to lead its beleaguered universe into what is hopefully a new box office dimension. But before he did that, he capped off what has been an amazing and critically impressive trilogy featuring a motley crew of spandex outcasts. Could this be the best series of three since THE DARK KNIGHT? Arguably. Gunn’s penchant for humor and action pushed all the right buttons once again and made people forget all about that silly catchphrase: superhero fatigue. If just for a moment. You build a good movie, they will come. Everytime. This franchise was a battlefield of dreams for Gunn; one that elevated him from working stiff to seriously hot stuff on Earth-616. May your next project be super, man.

4. FAST X ($714M) Universal

Sure, Vin Diesel and crew didn’t hit the top speed of FURIOUS 7 ($1.5B) or THE FATE OF THE FURIOUS ($1.2B), but FAST X nearly matched F9 ($719M) and finished in the Top 5 globally. Lots of gas in this tank. Lots of miles left on these tires. Lots of cliched puns that aren’t in the rearview mirror just yet. Now if only domestic audiences would get back on track–with $145M, this was down sharply from the last one, and a huge drop of $200M+ versus Part 7. What really has this classic franchise grinding gears is the film's $340M budget–making it one of the most expensive flicks of all time, of any time. Hard to make a profit when you need to race past $680M at the box office just to break even. That’s even before we include marketing, which is massive for a film of this ilk. Still, Universal must be eking out a profit somewhere, as at least one more sequel is guaranteed with wheelman Dominic Toretto, if not two. And then, spinoffs galore. Zoom, zoom. This will one day have more sequels than James Bond.


5. SPIDER-MAN: ACROSS THE SPIDER-VERSE ($689M) Sony

Until BARBENHEIMER dropped, Spidey was the story of the summer. With $381M in the US/CAN, the toon doubled up domestically on INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE ($190M) and continued to push the envelope in terms of bold creativity. Writers/producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, as well as its trio of directors, infused this with anime elements as well as next-gen visuals, making this the artsiest arachnid the Spidey franchise has ever witnessed. My Spidey-sense is still tingling. More to come, as BEYOND THE SPIDER-VERSE is on the way, although the threequel currently wears the dreaded TBD pants. Nobody, and I mean nobody, likes trying TBD on for size. An animated SPIDER-WOMAN is also in development.


6. THE LITTLE MERMAID ($569M) Disney

Although it didn’t join the Billion Dollar Club like previous animated adaptations–THE LION KING, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and even Guy Ritchie’s ALADDIN–it did manage nearly $300M domestic. That, combined with the fact that Disney has been floating mermaid merch for 30 years, and will now sell gadgets, gizmos a-plenty, whozits, whatzits galore, and even thingamabobs for decades to come to a whole new generation of guppies more than justifies Disney’s $250M investment. I’m not sure it will get a sequel, but I’m sure D+ will surface with a new series or two.

7. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE- DEAD RECKONING PT 1 ($560M) Paramount

This was supposed to be the first M:I film to reach $1B worldwide–shooting into the stratosphere after Tom Cruise single-handedly saved cinemas last summer with TOP GUN: MAVERICK. Nope. That didn’t happen. There will be no buzzing of the box office tower. In fact, it didn’t even top M:I-FALLOUT ($791M), the top-earner of the franchise. What happened here? Well, for starters, the film didn’t really up the ante much. This series has become more like a played-out JACKASS joke–what wild stunt will Cruise perform next? This is what happens eventually when you sell and construct your cinema around Cruise’s antics instead of an intriguing spy series as it once was. With a budget of nearly $300M, will this even turn a profit? May have to blast Cruise into space (for real) for Pt 2, which arrives next summer. Supposedly. Note to self: never call part 7 in a series part 1. This isn’t Harry Potter. Nobody is splitting a behemoth of a book in half here.

8. ELEMENTAL ($480M) Disney

Pixar returned to cinemas, and so did audiences. Even after its subpar domestic debut–just $29M–it ended up catching fire and passing several Pixar flicks, paving the way back from Disney+ purgatory. This is a step in the right direction, and INSIDE OUT 2 next summer should cement Pixar’s status as a must-see theatrical event once again.

9. TRANSFORMERS: RISE OF THE BEASTS ($438M) Paramount

Look, I don’t make the rules, but when a film makes $400+, a sequel is automatically greenlighted. Now, RISE OF THE BEASTS cost $200M, plus a Cybertron-sized summer marketing budget, so you can see Hasbro’s dilemma here. How are toy sales? Merch is king in this decision. What we do know is RotB is the lowest grossing Transformers film ever, even lower than BUMBLEBEE ($468M), which cost half as much. In Michael Bay’s heyday–AGE OF EXTINCTION and DARK OF THE MOON both hit $1B+ worldwide. This is more like RETREAT OF THE BEASTS, or, if you’d rather, BEASTMODE: DEACTIVATED. Need to do a lot of tinkering if this clunky franchise is coming back. And it probably will. I mean, Paramount is thirsty for sequels, more so than maybe any other major studio in town. TRANSFORMERS: ONE, an animated film, drops next fall.

10. MEG 2: THE TRENCH* ($376M) Warner Bros

Now, technically, at least for now, INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY is clinging to this bottom rung, but with Indy’s run done at the box office, and the big shark still getting chummy with audiences, MEG 2 will eventually pass the man with the hat globally. You know, like, uh, so many prospective audiences passed on it. Ouch. More on that later, but for now let’s not bite off more than we can chew. China has championed this Middle Kingdom-funded sequel, grossing out $116M there, and a respectable $79M so far in North America. Will it get the 3Dquel? It better. I’ve trademark’d that phrase!

MORE OOEY-GOOEY GOODNESS

Honorable mention for biggest story outside BARBENHEIMER? That would be Angel Studios’ SOUND OF FREEDOM. This $15M flick was in Disney’s back pocket at one time. Ironic that it slipped out—they sold the rights back to the filmmakers after Disney bought Fox--and made more than Indiana Jones domestically this summer, grossing $182M. The lord works in mysterious ways. It also topped these other legacy IP movies: TRANSFORMERS: RISE OF THE BEASTS ($157M) and M:I7 ($170M).

And with its success, a new studio is born. Angel Studios. Was this on anyone’s radar this spring? Certainly not mine. Now it’s one of the most successful independent flicks in history. We also have to mention that Jim Caviezel is obviously touched by an angel. Remember, he also starred in another little indie flick that became an almighty box office presence: THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST.

So, when is SOUND OF FREEDOM II coming? Well, the next best thing is already set, as SOUND OF FREEDOM director Alejandro Monteverde's CABRINI will spread the gospel March 8, 2024, also from Angel Studios. Already booked for release that date: Universal's KUNG FU PANDA 4 and Paramount's A QUIET PLACE: DAY ONE. Obviously Angel Studios hopes their new film will play through Easter, which arrives at the end of the month. Man, Angel Studios...not giving one sh*t about legacy IP or VIP IP for that matter. That's a true mission from God.

Oh, and let’s not forget the industry has a new revenue stream, too: CROWDFUNDING. But, but, but…is it legit? Well, nobody’s in jail…yet. Let’s hope little films like THE MARVELS and WONKA will continue this tradition this fall and PAY IT FORWARD so these financially handicapped films can also become grassroot success stories.

The other indie that gripped the summer box office was A24's summer horror slam, TALK TO ME, which has now scored $44.5M--the highest grossing horror flick in the studio's history, topping HEREDITARY ($44M). Keep in mind, the mantra for horror franchises: horror never dies, it sequelizes. And TALK 2 ME was the first original flick this summer to officially announce a sequel.

Denzel’s THE THREEQUELIZER debuted with $42M over Labor Day weekend, closing out the sizzle reel season as the 2nd best end-of-summer opening ever. In fact, the last three years have seen two of the best openings over what has traditionally been a largely-ignored 3-day weekend. SHANG-CHI ($94M) dropped it like it’s hot in 2021 and now THE EQUALIZER 3 put up sizable numbers. It's time to recognize Labor Day weekend for what it is--a damn fine place to release a popcorn film that bookends the summer and gives momentum to the fall season. Sony is looking to OWN that weekend, dropping KRAVEN THE HUNTER over Labor Day 2024. Every studio really should have a weekend to call their own.

ON THE FENCE

The toxic turtles of TMNT: MUTANT MAYHEM powered up over $108M domestic, which is cowabunga! for an August release, however it's made just $45M overseas. With a $70M budget, this might just turn a profit, although no one is working the turtle to fame and fortune here. Sequel prospects: Magic 8-Ball says: "Concentrate and ask again.”

THE BAD

THE FLASH ($108M, $268 WW--$200M budget) Warner Bros

Holy, gone…in a flash, Batman. Ezra Miller is so done-zo. DC’s shield was smashed this summer. The brand obliterated. And to top that off BLUE BEETLE had the worst opening of any DC film outside of the pandemic, although it has made more than SHAZAM 2 if you need a DC upper.

Here’s the mic drop for THE FLASH: DOMESTICALLY—IT MADE LESS THAN GREEN LANTERN…not adjusted for inflation. That’s all you need to say, folks. And they canceled BAT GIRL?!?! Really?!?!

Personally, I liked the film, but Keaton is my Batman. That’s my era. You could put his Batman in Fast & Furious doing donuts in the batmobile and FAST X would have been my favorite film of the summer.

As it stands, this was the final nail in the coffin for DC. What happens with AQUAMAN 2 is anyone’s guess. Remember, the first one somehow hit $1B+ worldwide.

INDIANA JONES AND THE DIAL OF DESTINY ($174M, $382M WW--$300M budget) Disney

aka THE BUSY SIGNAL AT THE BOTTOMLESS PIT. How old is too old to be an action star. I think we have our answer. 80. CGI works wonders but it can’t perform real magic. Not at the box office. The toys are flying off the shelf two steps slower than erosion. Clean up on aisle 5, folks. Clearance sale. Have I got a blue light special for you!

KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL was one of the top films of summer 2008 with $317M, $786M WW ($1B when adjusted for inflation). This was the nostalgia play. And it worked. This one, sans Spielberg, not so much. That said, Disney loves to Disney. YOUNG INDY animated series, anyone? WHIP IT GOOD! A reality show?

HYPNOTIC ($4M, $10M WW, $65M budget) Ketchup Ent.

Robert Rodriguez and Ben Affleck teamed up for a film no distributor wanted to touch. Enter: Ketchup Entertainment. Exit: Ketchup Entertainment. Nuff said.

RUBY GILLMAN: TEENAGE KRAKEN ($15M, $41M WW, $70M budget) Universal

Did this actually get released? Or, like HYPNOTIC, did this actually open back in the 90s?!? I can’t even remember. DreamWorks Animation has never done worse. Back to sequel-ville. SHREK 5, where art thou?

HAUNTED MANSION ($64M, $101M WW, $150M budget) Disney

What a difference 20 years makes. Nope. The original with Eddie Murphy adaptation from decades ago made $75M, $182M WW. This is a funeral. VIP RIP. Even though Disney are the merchants of merch and the apostles of promotional partners…finding a pulse for other films based on Disneyland rides may be a dead end. Sorry, Space Mountain.

R-RATED COMEDIES

All of them. JOY RIDE, STRAYS, THE MACHINE, THE BLACKENING…although NO HARD FEELINGS gets a pass. Barely.

AUGUST FODDER

GRAN TURISMO, THE LAST VOYAGE OF THE DEMETER, RETRIBUTION, THE HILL, GOLDA, LANDSCAPE WITH INVISIBLE HAND, JULES–make it stop!!!!

THE BUTT UGLY

Summer 2023 hit $4.034B at the box office--383M tickets sold, which outside the pandemic years (2020-2022) is the lowest in recorded summer box office history. Average ticket price: $10.53.

Now, keep in mind the industry is still recovering, but 2023's 383M tickets sold lags behind 2019's 471M by over 18% and 2017's 426M by 43M tickets punched. That's an awful lot of unsold popcorn.

And now you know why National Cinema Day needs to happen more often. Four times a year would suffice–Super Bowl weekend, late April, late August and Halloween weekend. And yes, I’m available to coordinate this. My usual fee applies–free popcorn all year.

Now those drops are precisely the reason securing IMAX and PLF screens are so damn important in this day and age--the theatrical industry has been on a downswing for decades in terms of actual ticket sales. The one upside--the one avenue seeing growth--premium ticket sales. The heartbeat of the industry now.

10 years ago, in 2013, the summer box office hit a high water mark of $4.754B, or 584M tickets sold. That's 200M more tix than summer '23. So, if you think there aren't major issues that need to be addressed, um, well, your agenda is showing. Hype and cheerleading is great and all, but it doesn’t actually support or help the industry long term.

THE DENOUEMENT

So, what lessons will Hollywood take from this summer? Hopefully this: don’t spend $300M+ on super-sized sequels. But honestly, this seems to resonate more than anything else: The Return of the Auteur. Christopher Nolan, Greta Gerwig, James Gunn, Lord & Miller and the Spider-Man team—singular, honed visions that deviated from the traditional color-by-number blockbuster approach that most studios adhere to. Too many cooks in those kitchens. Which usually leads to rehash stew. A highly derivative recipe—INDY 5, M:I7, TRANSFORMERS, etc.

Now, could all this auteur success signal the ushering in of 70s cinema again? Let’s hope so. To some extent.

In summation–finally, I know–it was a cinematic summer that was saved by a mere meme. Very apropos. What will be remembered is how two original films fought an onslaught of sequels in the heat of the summer season and were undeniably victorious. It was a pink explosion for the ages. Tales will be told. Songs will be sung. Tweets will be…posted. We post now, right? We’ve X’d out tweeting? However the stories go, 2023 will be the BARBENHEIMER summer. Now. Always. Think pink…then blow it up. Which is to say, don't think about it too hard; we’ll do it all over again next summer, anyway. And all new lessons will be learned.


Jeff Bock

JALD (Just After Labor Day) 2023

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