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After racking up over $1.4 billion at the global box office and sparking a cultural phenomenon that cannot be measured in dollars and cents, “Barbie” has become the year’s biggest success for movie theaters. Josh Goldstine, the marketing chief at Warner Bros., opened up about the marketing strategy that helped transform Greta Gerwig’s film into a worldwide sensation, including the iconic parody opening.
“You have this iconic brand that is both a reflector and creator of culture,” Goldstine said during the panel “Reel Resilience: Navigating the Theatrical Landscape in 2023” during TheWrap’s annual business conference, TheGrill, on Wednesday.
“There was such a fascination about what a ‘Barbie’ movie could be,” Goldstine continued. “Part of our job was to defy expectations and to use cultural curiosity about what this could be.”
Goldstine said that Gerwig gave his team the perfect way to introduce the film to the world through the opening of the film, which parodies “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
That parody was used as the basis for the teaser trailer that was attached to “Avatar: The Way of Water” last December, which sparked months of hype leading up to its July release, as Warner Bros. slowly offered more glimpses of Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as Barbie and Ken.
The end result was a box office run that set an all-time box-office record for Warner Bros. with $1.43 billion grossed.
“This really was an example of how theatrical movies can engage culture,” Goldstine said. “It can pierce the zeitgeist and become part of the conversation, and I think the shared experience of a theatrical space, with so many people wearing pink to the theater for a film that appealed to the very young and also adults with a sense of nostalgia shows how ‘Barbie’ engaged people on so many levels.”
Goldstine was joined by Cinemark president and CEO Sean Gamble, Screen Engine/ASI founder and CEO Kevin Goetz and moderator Greg Foster, the former CEO of Imax Entertainment and the founder/principal of Foster + Crew.
The success of “Barbie” prompted a larger discussion of the topsy-turvy nature of the box office, which saw weeks of high ticket sales thanks to “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” in the late summer but sank to near-year-lows in late September. Gamble noted that a factor in these larger swings is the accelerated nature of word-of-mouth for films.
“If a film doesn’t work for audiences, the grosses drop off fast,” Gamble said. “But if audiences really like a film, it can play for weeks and weeks.”
Goetz noted that theaters are now competing more than ever with streaming for customers’ attention, and with so many high-quality shows and films available at home it takes a film that clears that higher bar to get millions to spend the time and money to travel and see a film on the big screen.
“The criteria of what makes a theatrical experience is whether it is ‘elevated,’” Goetz said. “If it is not elevated, audiences won’t see it in a theater. ‘Barbie’ got audiences to lean in because the concept and the marketing was so compelling. It promised an experience, and if you don’t have an experience, you won’t be able to make it in a movie theater.”
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