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Friday, July 12, 2024

‘Barbenheimer’ Signals the Start of Hollywood’s Apocalypse

“Barbenheimer”—the collective celebration around the release of the Barbie and Oppenheimer movies—has collided with the wedding industrial complex. That’s not a joke. According to a Variety story this week, people are planning on taking their friends and family, prenuptials, to see the two films as a double feature. People who aren’t getting married are planning similar movie-watching marathons. It’s the kind of viral cultural moment marketing teams dream of. It also feels like a sign of the end times.

This sense of dread doesn’t stem from the public’s collective yearning to absorb stories about a Mattel doll and the development of atomic weapons at the same time. It’s because this weekend promises the kind of “let’s all go to the movies!” hype (and box office haul) that cinemas haven’t seen since before the Covid-19 pandemic shut theaters down—and it’s happening as Hollywood is going on strike.

This week, WIRED rolled out a series of stories detailing what we believe the future of entertainment might entail. The purpose was to look at how all aspects of culture, from books to video games to YouTube, could be impacted by advancements in technology. As we worked on it, though, something happened: Contract talks between Hollywood studios and the writers and actors unions began to break down. One of the major sticking points in those negotiations was the use of artificial intelligence in movie- and TV-making. Suddenly, as Madeline Ashby wrote in her essay this week, the world was in the midst of Hot Strike Summer.

Then, Hot Strike Summer slammed into the Barbenheimer moment. Once the Screen Actors Guild—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, or SAG-AFTRA, called for a walkout, stars could no longer smile on red carpets without looking like scabs. The stars of Oppenheimer walked out of the film’s London premiere when the strike began. The cast and filmmakers behind Barbie, which premiered before SAG called for a strike, voiced their support. Soon, “This Barbie Is Now on Strike” became the headline, transforming one of the world’s most well-known figurines into Norma Rae. The marquee at my local theater in Brooklyn listed both movies alongside the phrase “Atomic Kenergy,” while The New York Times asked, “Can I Watch ‘Barbenheimer’ Despite the Hollywood Strikes?” (Short answer: Yes.)

To that end, the strikes will not affect Oppenheimer or Barbie’s opening weekend box office numbers. Earlier this week, AMC Entertainment reported that some 40,000 people had bought tickets for both films, and together they’re estimated to make around $150-200 million domestically, with Greta Gerwig’s send-up of the Mattel doll bringing in a bigger chunk than Christopher Nolan’s historical drama about the man behind the atomic bomb.  

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But what matters is what happens after this weekend. By all accounts, Hot Strike Summer seems poised to last beyond one season. Even before SAG went on strike, studio sources were telling reporters that the plan was to let the strike “drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses.” In response to that, actor Ron Perlman took to social media to say “listen to me, motherfucker—there’s a lot of ways to lose your house.” He later walked that back, but when Hellboy enters the chat, you know it’s not going to end gently.

The longer writers and actors are on strike, the bigger the hole next summer or the summer after that, when the movies that would be filming right now aren’t ready. (Deadpool 3 and the sequel to Mission: Impossible—Dead Reckoning Part One, for example, are both currently on hold.) Cinemas have been bouncing back in the years since Covid restrictions were lifted and people began feeling comfortable in movie houses again. A lackluster year brought on by a dearth of films could prove detrimental.

Yesterday, Comic-Con International began in San Diego. Typically, or at least before the pandemic, the event has been full of panels with flashy stars promoting their next big movie or TV series. As long as SAG is on strike, those celebs won’t show. Some attendees will likely welcome the event’s return to its comics roots, rather than the Hollywood hype-fest it has become. But no matter what happens, it will be unlike any Comic-Con in recent memory. Maybe a little less plastic, but not fantastic.

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