Barbenheimer and Beyond: Hollywood's Greatest Box Office Showdowns

As the battle of Barbenheimer is decided, we look back on some other classic pairings of films that came out on the same day

Image by Hamza Rasheed

BY Rachel HoPublished Jul 20, 2023

When Warner Bros. Pictures announced the release date for Barbie at CinemaCon in April 2022, eagle-eyed film fans were quick to note that Oppenheimer's release date, which was announced in late 2021, was scheduled for the same weekend. As July 21, 2023 approached, Barbie's marketing painted cities pink and the internet delighted in sharing memes of the famously introverted Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer's lead, minding his own business. The diametrically opposed movies offer something for everyone, but their box office battle is more than just a pink explosion for the internet.

As pandemic-induced restrictions began to ease, Warner Bros. announced that their entire 2021 slate was going to be released simultaneously in theatres and on HBO Max (as it was then called). In response, Christopher Nolan, one of the studio's most prominent directors, was outspoken in his criticism of the move, describing the decision as making "no economic sense." Although WB was Nolan's home for the better part of 20 years, it was of little surprise that he began shopping his latest film to other studios after their public falling out. It's of even littler surprise that his former employer has decisively pulled out all the stops in their counter-programming strategy.

"Barbenheimer" isn't the first time two big titles face off at the box office — it isn't even the first time Universal Pictures, Warner Bros. and Nolan have danced this dance. From '80s tentpoles to Christmas fare, we look back at some of the greatest (and most curious) box office showdowns in cinema history.

As for Barbie vs. Oppenheimer, who will come out on top is anyone's guess. Nolan's fanbase is ardent and IMAX-happy, but it's hard to discount the fact that Barbie feels like a moment. For my money, it's a peculiarly excellent double feature waiting to happen: come on, Oppy, let's go party.

May 21/23, 1980
Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back ($4.9 million) vs. The Shining ($622,337)

While the box office numbers may seem wildly lopsided, it's important to note that The Shining only released on 10 screens during the Memorial Day weekend compared to The Empire Strikes Back's 126 theatres (the latter also began showing in cinemas two days earlier). Empire would go on to be the top domestic grossing film of 1980 (The Shining was twelfth) and set a new standard for how good sequels could be — but Stanley Kubrick's iconic film, though met with mixed reviews on its initial release, is now considered a bonafide classic in its own right.

June 8, 1984
Ghostbusters ($13.6 million) vs. Gremlins ($12.5 million)

There are many films that can be considered decade-defining in the '80s, but Ghostbusters and Gremlins represented a shift in the horror genre with the addition of pure comedy; perhaps in keeping with the tubular '80s, viewers looked for the humour in even the most terrifying scenes. However, for some parents, Gremlins took this concept a bit too far, with many not realizing the film was not suitable for children, prompting many to walk out before the film ended that opening weekend. It's rather fitting that two films so emblematic of the decade would be released on the same weekend, with just $1.1 million separating the two.

July 12, 1991
Boyz n the Hood ($10 million) vs. Point Break ($8.5 million)

Considering Point Break opened in twice the amount of theatres as Boyz n the Hood, John Singleton's seminal film is the emphatic winner in this SoCal movie competition. Although the two films have a shared location (sort of), Boyz n the Hood's authentic exploration of a much-maligned neighbourhood has cemented it as an American classic, while Point Break continues to delight as a pulpy cop thriller. Neither film toppled Terminator 2: Judgment Day in its second weekend (or earned more than the fourth theatrical re-release of 101 Dalmatians), but they are still beloved by audiences today, albeit for very different reasons.

March 31, 1999
The Matrix ($27 million) vs. 10 Things I Hate About You ($8 million)

On the surface, it feels like an unfair comparison. The Matrix was one of the biggest cinematic events in the '90s and had an instant impact on pop culture that continues to resonate today. But in 1999, the teen high school comedy really was all the rage. Similar to how I imagine the crowds for Barbie and Oppenheimer will be, The Matrix brought out all the sci-fi boys to the yard, while 10 Things I Hate About You seemed destined to fulfill the angst-ridden high schooler of the day. Both movies have continued to find life beyond their theatrical releases, but one was just on a slightly larger scale than the other.

November 7, 2003
Elf ($32 million) vs. Love Actually ($6.8 million)

The tale of two Christmases, Elf and Love Actually appeal to different sides of the yuletide from different sides of the pond. Given that Love Actually is a distinctly British film, it's surprising that it was released in the US and Canada two weeks ahead of the UK (where Love Actually topped Elf). Canadian and American audiences were decidedly Team Buddy upon their debuts, but both films have found a place in many households during Christmas. (Fun fact: The Matrix Revolutions was also released on this day and took the top spot at the box office that weekend with $48 million.)

July 18, 2008
The Dark Knight ($158 million) vs. Mamma Mia! ($27.7 million)

Christopher Nolan, Universal Pictures and Warner Bros. were once again behind the ultimate counter-programming move, although the parties were all on different sides than for today's Oppenheimer/Barbie showdown. Nolan and WB were in the midst of their successful partnership, and excitement was exceptionally high for the director's follow-up to 2005's Batman Begins. Universal, in a bid to cut into their competitor's box office receipts, released a rom-com musical, but to no avail. Not only did The Dark Knight crush Mamma Mia! in its opening weekend, it also became the top-grossing film of the year, crossing the $1 billion mark worldwide.

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