Peter Bart: What Will The Box Office Business Learn From ‘Barbie’?


The film festivals can always be counted on to deliver surprise hits at this time of year, but meanwhile Hollywood must deal with another issue: Its Barbitude hangover.

Barbie’s billions will importantly impact upon how decision-makers frame future strategies on budget, content and promotion.

The megahit could also cast a pink cloud over awards season: Will message-minded Academy voters levitate Barbie to the same somber stratum as Nomadland?

Further, will Greta Gerwig, its auteur, become a victim of the Tom Cruise syndrome – a filmmaker-star whose work we are encouraged to admire but not honor?

Complicating matters, the bizarre lure of Barbie clearly encouraged ticket buyers to rally behind another assured Oscar nominee, Oppenheimer. It’s hard to find a precedent for feminist frivolity stoking an appetite for nuclear terror.

As such, battles over Barbitude might open a unique opportunity for a reborn Golden Globes. If 300 or so Globe voters, representing a broad ethnic and geographic constituency, are looking for a pop culture shocker to support, this would pose an intriguing opportunity.

Barbitude represents a timely refutation of the generation, long hegemony of Marvel superheroes. Who would have expected Iron Man to melt into Ken?

The filmmaking cognoscenti may find gems at Telluride with breakthrough potential, but the fact remains that Barbie has opened up new concepts of box office commerce.

Should release schedules be re-structured with offbeat coordinates? Would Babylon have registered better at the box office if paired with Bottoms?

The mind-blowing triumph of Barbitude will also pose another challenge to studio decision-makers: How do they find the next Greta Gerwig? More urgently, how will they create a deal that would satisfy the real Greta? An even bigger budget (Barbie’s was $140 million)? A commitment to creative freedom (she already has it).

In chasing future “hot” filmmakers, studio insiders are keenly aware of past debacles. The most sought after filmmaker of the 1960s was Dennis Hopper, whose Easy Rider invented an entire new lexicon of filmmaking.

Hopper’s next cinematic adventure turned out to be aptly titled The Last Movie.

A decade later, Hollywood’s studio gurus eagerly chased Michael Cimino, whose hit, The Deer Hunter, re-defined the war movie. Cimino, once again, was offered final cut and full controls.

Cimino’s agents dutifully dispatched the screenplay and budget for the filmmaker’s next project to a short list of decision-makers with one limitation: Cimino would not attend any meetings to discuss script or details on the budget. The only response would be a firm “yes” or “no.”

United Artists responded with a “yes.” Heaven’s Gate turned out to be what became known as a career-ender. The experience prompted David Picker, who earlier headed a successful United Artists, to observe, “I prefer deals with filmmakers who are coming off a failure than coming off a hit. They’re more open to new ideas.”

At age 40, Gerwig is a lot smarter and richer than Cimino. She is also well schooled in the tricks of Hollywood and even lives with another savvy filmmaker, Noah Baumbach.

But, pre-Barbie, her low-budget films dwelled in the realm of mumblecore. Would she use her hard-won freedoms to create a mumblecore Heaven’s Gate?

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