Two huge studio films – Barbie and Oppenheimer – are landing on the same day this coming July. Why has neither shifted date, though?
Take a look through the release schedules of the 1990s and early 2000s, and it wasn’t uncommon to have a clash of the blockbusters. The occasional moment in history where two studios marked out the same release date, and neither was looking to budge.
On July 2nd 2003 for instance, Terminator 3 went against Legally Blonde 2, whilst go back to June 13th 2008 and in the US, The Incredible Hulk and The Happening were duking it out.
Inevitably, over time, the practice dwindled. After all, when you’ve got two big films launching on exactly the same day, there’s almost certainly going to be a winner and a loser there. Nobody can have all the money, and for the studios, there was too much at stake.
Also, it was a bit more doable when studios were making and releasing 20 to 30 movies a year. When their output is down to fewer than ten, then that has two immediate knock-ons: there are fewer big films to squeeze into the calendar, and the size of financial and resource investment required by a blockbuster movie significantly increased.
As such, we’ve been more accustomed in recent years to major blockbusters appearing at a rate of a few a month, generally spaced out to give each movie a week, usually more, to make its mark. In recent years, it’s not unusual for the biggest of films to have a couple of weeks breathing room either side: just look at how no studio was willing to go up against last Christmas’ Avatar: The Way Of Water.
Which all makes what’s happening this summer all the more interesting. Because on July 21st, both Universal Pictures and Warner Bros are releasing their respective big blockbuster hopes of the season. A pair of films that have cost nine figures each, and which are demanding a similar amount of spend to promote.
For Universal, it’s its first collaboration with Christopher Nolan, whose latest movie – Oppenheimer – has required $100m to make, and has long marked out a prime summer slot for its release.
Then there’s the sensational-looking Barbie project, from Greta Gerwig. Starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, it’s described as a fantasy comedy, based around one of the biggest selling toy lines in the world.
On paper, there’s little crossover between the pair, and they’re not seen to be fighting for the same audience. In reality, of course they are. These are two PG-13 rated blockbuster movies, with weighty marketing campaigns, that might be very different but are also aiming at as big a crowd as they can muster.
So why hasn’t either Universal or Warner Bros blinked? Why have they both resolutely held the line, and not shuffled a week or two either way to give each other space.
Well, half of that is easy to answer: Universal can’t.
The backdrop to why goes back to when Christopher Nolan opted to end his two decade working relationship with Warner Bros at the end of 2020. The metaphorical straw that broke the relationship was Warner Bros deciding to put its entire slate of 2021 releases simultaneously on its HBO Max streaming service as they went into cinemas. Nolan was not shy about relaying his views to The Hollywood Reporter, in an infamous statement that read “some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service”.
There was little sign of Christmas cards being exchanged that year.
What this meant was pretty much every other studio in town bidding for Nolan’s services, with the exception of Disney. And why wouldn’t they? Nolan’s track record of regularly delivering individual films that succeed commercially is surely now unparalleled in modern cinema. Who wouldn’t want to be in the Christopher Nolan business? Well, apart from Disney.
But Nolan had conditions. A $100m production budget for his new movie, and guaranteed levels of marketing support. A summer release date, and reportedly, a commitment from Universal that it wouldn’t release any other film three weeks either side of Oppenheimer.
This bit’s important: Universal is by distance the most prolific of the major traditional Hollywood studios, and the only one regularly releasing into cinemas more than ten films a year. Nolan asked for a concentration of studio efforts on his next movie, and Universal happily agreed. As such, after Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City releases towards the end of June, it has no further film until Speak No Evil on August 9th.
What this means is that Universal is bound into its release date: if it opted to move one film, it’s got to move others. And it’d risk alienating a filmmaker it worked hard to woo. As such, when rumours sprung up a few weeks ago that Oppenheimer’s date might move, it didn’t really seem plausible.
After all, if it was going to shift, surely it would have done so by now, and not two months before it was due to release – a move in itself that’d be perceived as a panic measure, however well it was spun.
This clash has been coming for a long time, with Warner Bros confirming the date for Gerwig’s Barbie film in April 2022. Was Warner Bros deliberately trolling the man who’d publicly criticised the company after such a long working relationship? If so, it looks like an accidental by-product: the studio had previously earmarked the date for a planned Coyote Vs Acme film, and given we’re in the era where studios announce a date and then reveal the film that’s filling it further down the line, the showdown feels less engineered than it probably looks.
Given how tied in Universal has found itself, if anyone was going to blink here, it was Warner Bros. Yet it’s clearly had a huge amount of confidence in its Barbie project for some time, and knows that it’s – on the surface – the kind of broad, fun, accessible-looking film that plays well in the summer.
What’s interesting is that it’s not just playing into the in-built audience for Barbie, a doll who’s helped spawn over 40 straight to video/DVD/streaming movies already. Its marketing campaign is reaching far, far further than that of any other summer release.
Furthermore, whenever fresh information about the movie is teased out, it’s absolutely hitting the mark. Heck, the first trailer – showcased before screenings of Avatar: The Way Of Water – was digging deep into cinema history, mixing Barbie with Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. As much as Warner Bros has come in for heavy criticism in recent years, its marketing operation remains one of Hollywood’s best oiled. Thus far, it’s excelling where Barbie is concerned.
It may not have started the race as the running favourite, and the promo work for Oppenheimer has hardly been shabby. But it feels as though Warner Bros might be nudging ahead as things stand. As such, why would it budge, when it appears to hold an upper hand?
Still, I can’t believe that at some point, there haven’t been discussions in both Universal and Warner Bros posh executive boardrooms about whether they should blink and move their release date. But for differing reasons, this is one stand off where nobody’s backing down. Universal because, realistically, it can’t. Warner Bros because, well, it doesn’t seem that it needs to. An unlikely and expensive battle is about to commence.
For moviegoers, it’s two big summer films from two excellent, individual filmmakers, who somehow have fashioned what look like very distinctive pictures within the confines of studio architecture. One looks bright and breezy and fun, the other inevitably darker. Both clearly hugely cinematic. Both eagerly awaited.
Those of us happy to toddle along to a multiplex twice in a given month won’t have any problem here, and we’re the winners in all of this. What a lovely double bill to look forward to. But we’re not the majority, and particularly in the new normal in which we live, it’s the latest example of nobody quite knows how this is going to pan out. We’ve not had a direct clash like this for some time now, and it’s not just executives at Warner Bros and Universal watching this closely.
At that stage, most outsiders would have suggested Oppenheimer just about had the edge. Things look a little less certain now, and Barbie may just have a knockout blow in her armoury. But who really knows?
For Universal and Warner Bros’ respective marketing teams, the pressure is very much on. And looking at the UK release schedule, they’ll actually be back for a rematch on August 9th, when the aforementioned Speak No Evil goes up against Warner Bros’ The Nun 2.
That one seems easier to call: as the old movie marketing proverb goes, never, ever, bet against nuns…
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