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Can movie theaters sustain the 'Barbie boost'?

The marquee at The Grove theater in Los Angeles announces the opening of <em>Barbie</em> in July 2023.
Valerie Macon
AFP via Getty Images
The marquee at The Grove theater in Los Angeles announces the opening of Barbie in July 2023.

Going to the movies is hot again. Well, sometimes the point of going is to get out of the heat. But with Barbie and Oppenheimer still attracting audiences — and such newer releases as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem and Meg 2: The Trench selling well — the summer box office is booming. The question is whether cinemas can sustain the momentum.

The global box office hit $4.54 billion in July. According to Gower Street Analytics, it's "the single highest grossing month since before the pandemic began."

On a recent Friday afternoon, plenty of women were out to see Barbie at the Regal in Silver Spring, Md., including three friends, Elia Safir, Maya Peak and Sarah Krekel.

Friends Elia Safir, (left), Sarah Krekel and Maya Peak saw <em>Barbie</em> at the Regal in Silver Spring, Md. Peak says she might go to the theater more often, "If they could replicate something [like <em>Barbie</em>] where it's more of an event for us all to go."
Elizabeth Blair / NPR
Friends Elia Safir, (left), Sarah Krekel and Maya Peak saw Barbie at the Regal in Silver Spring, Md. Peak says she might go to the theater more often, "If they could replicate something [like Barbie] where it's more of an event for us all to go."

"None of us own any pink so we all had to borrow from other people," laughed Safir.

The three 20-year-olds say they usually watch movies at home on one of the streaming services. Peak, who has now seen Barbie twice, thinks she might see more movies in theaters, if studios, "could replicate something where it's more of an event for us all to go. That would be really cool. Y'know you can't get that just sitting at home."

Some theaters have life-size Barbie boxes for photo-ops, pink Corvette-shaped popcorn buckets and pink drinks.

"We've sold 7,000 frosés or something like that," jokes theater owner Paul Brown, "I can't keep the rosé on the shelf."

Brown owns the Terrace Theater in Charleston, S.C. He says Barbie and Oppenheimer are fueling the box office, but other movies are also doing well.

"We have Meg, which is very popular because we live in a beach town where there's a bunch of sharks," he laughs, "and we have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles because there's a dearth of good children's movies out. So that's bringing in an audience — and also bringing in an older set that sort of grew up with that brand."

It appears to be a summer where there's something for everyone at the box office. Still, the competition for people's leisure time is fierce. Theaters have had to adjust to all kinds of challenges over the decades: big screens in people's homes, must-watch TV series, and, most debilitating of all, the COVID-19 shutdown.

"The history of the theater business is one of resilience," says Michael O'Leary, President & CEO at the National Association of Theatre Owners. He notes that critics have predicted the "demise" of cinemas before.

"Obviously having a global pandemic where the government basically told you you could not operate, that's an unprecedented challenge," he says, "But even in that context, you saw the industry pull together and move forward." Only about 5% of theaters closed during the pandemic.

Now, they're facing the writers and actors strikes.

Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Comscore, says the prolonged strikes could disrupt the pipeline of movies.

"Where this becomes very problematic is over the long term. If you don't have actors and writers, you don't have movies in the box office. And movie theaters need movies to sustain their business," he says matter-of-factly.

For theaters to thrive as they are this summer, everybody needs to work together, says Dergarabedian.

"When you look at Barbie and Oppenheimer, for example, that situation was born out of everything firing on all cylinders, meaning when the actors are working, when the writers are working, when the studios are doing their marketing plans and executing them well, great release dates for movies and an audience willing to go to the movie theater ... when it all works, you get 'Barbenheimer.' When the system breaks down, then it's tougher," he says.

Even when everyone is "firing on all cylinders," it's not a guarantee of box office success. For Paul Brown, there's something else theaters like his need to sustain this momentum: quality and creativity.

Barbie and Oppenheimer "are good, original movies," he says, "They're not based on comic books. For our audience, we'll do OK with the Marvels. But there's a fatigue out there for that kind of stuff, if you ask me."

Brown says he'll keep showing Barbie and Oppenheimer for as long as the economics make sense.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.

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