Why did 'Barbie' set records at the box office? Experts weigh in.

The film had the highest-grossing debut weekend of 2023.

July 24, 2023, 4:58 PM

Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” defied a sluggish pandemic recovery at movie theaters to rake in $155 million domestically over its opening weekend.

The haul made it the highest-grossing debut of 2023 and the top contributor to the fourth-largest weekend at the box office in the U.S. of all time.

At first glance, a comedy based on a children’s toy and bathed in pink may not fit the mold for a blockbuster at a time when superhero movies reign.

However, the longstanding and widely appealing resonance of the toy offers a unique advantage for a film that capitalizes with a fresh perspective from Gerwig and an immense marketing campaign promising summertime escape, analysts told ABC News.

“It’s the right movie at the right time,” Daniel Loria, editorial director and senior vice president of content strategy at BoxOffice.com, told ABC News.

A top reason, analysts said, is the cultural prominence of the 64-year-old “Barbie” brand, which transcends generations and geographies. According to Mattel, “Barbie” has 99% brand awareness worldwide.

“This is one of those movies that a grandma, mother and daughter can all go to together and enjoy,” Ayalla Ruvio, a professor of marketing at Michigan State University’s Broad College of Business who studies consumer behavior, told ABC News.

“The brand has strong nostalgic value,” she added. “It doesn’t matter how old people are -- 30, 40, 60 -- they all think the movie is targeted toward them.”

The mass appeal of the intellectual property, or IP, risked giving rise to a “generic film” but movie studio Warner Bros. realized the work needed to “have something to say to bring in an audience,” Loria said.

By choosing Gerwig, Loria added, the studio drew upon the creative artistic vision she displayed in previous independent films, such as “Lady Bird.”

“Audiences are willing and happy to go see IP films as long as they have some creative touch from a filmmaker behind them,” Loria said. “That’s precisely what ‘Barbie” and Greta Gerwig were able to do.”

On top of that, the movie benefited considerably from a relentless marketing campaign that began months before the film’s release, analysts said.

PHOTO: Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie attend the "Barbie" Celebration Party at Museum of Contemporary Art, June 30, 2023, in Sydney, Australia.
Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie attend the "Barbie" Celebration Party at Museum of Contemporary Art, June 30, 2023, in Sydney, Australia.
Hanna Lassen/Getty Images

“Barbie” took part in more than 100 crossover product advertisements, allowing the brand to reach consumers of everything from Xbox to yogurt, Sheri Lambert, a marketing professor at Temple University, told ABC News.

While some of that blitz was likely lost in “clutter,” it contributed to an engaging, multi-pronged outreach campaign that made the brand nearly inescapable in the lead-up to the release, she added. Many consumers welcomed the pull toward "Barbie," she added.

“We know from all of our marketing textbooks that emotion sells,” Lambert said. “It’s goofiness, it’s fun. It takes you back to your childhood and playing with things.”

To Lambert, the standout marketing tactics included selfie filters, pop-up activities featuring human-size Barbie boxes and pink double-decker buses in London.

“Barbie” was not the only high-profile debut over the weekend. Christopher Nolan’s R-rated “Oppenheimer” pulled in $80.5 million at the domestic box office, making it the first weekend in U.S. movie history with one film at more than $100 million and another over $80 million, Loria said.

The twin releases helped create a sense of destination viewing at theaters over the weekend, softening consumer habits hardened during the pandemic that treat the trip to the theater as a rare outing for individual, sought-after films.

“What we saw with ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ this weekend was people talking about going to the movies rather than a movie,” Loria said.

Still, the top performer made itself known, Lambert said, referencing a plot point in “Barbie” in which she travels away from home and into human society.

“She’s coming out into the human world while we are definitely going into Barbie Land now,” Lambert said.