Barbie, Oppenheimer, Taylor Swift: 2023’s most important films

Movie posters for “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” are pictured outside the Cinemark Somerdale 16 and XD in Somerdale, New Jersey, in 2023.

Hannah Beier | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Call 2023 an explosive comeback at the box office.

There were blonde bombshells in “Barbie,” actual bombs in “Oppenheimer” and small-budget blockbusters — each of them aiding the theatrical industry in bolstering ticket sales and drawing relapsed customers back to the big screen.

With one week left in the year, the 2023 box office has tallied $8.8 billion in ticket sales, about 20% down from the same period in 2019 but up 21% over last year.

Much of that haul was due to Warner Bros. Discovery’s “Barbie” and Universal’s “Oppenheimer” and “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.” Together, those three films contributed more than $1.5 billion to the domestic box office, according to data from Comscore. Globally, the films have generated more than $3.7 billion in ticket sales.

This year’s box office wasn’t just buoyed by big-budget content. Several lower-budget films sparked public interest, driving moviegoers away from their couches and toward cinemas. These films filled gaps in the calendar created by Hollywood labor strikes and challenged the status quo of how the industry operates.

There’s still room for improvement in 2024, and most industry analysts don’t expect a return to form until 2025 after months of production shutdowns.

But in the meantime, here’s a look at some of the most important theatrical releases of 2023 — and why they worked.


The historic box office combination of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” dubbed “Barbenheimer” by the public, arrived at a time when even the most dependable franchise movies had failed to lure in audiences.

Their shared July 21 release date inspired double features, not direct competition. Together, the films generated $244.5 million during their first three days in theaters — $162 million for “Barbie” and $82.5 million for “Oppenheimer.” The two films accounted for nearly 80% of the total haul that weekend, which ended up being the highest grossing of the year with $311.3 million in ticket sales, Comscore reported.

What set “Barbenheimer” weekend apart was fresh storytelling, a fear of missing out on a cultural moment and a desire to experience movies on the biggest screen possible.

“Barbie” director Greta Gerwig recalled lines of audience members in New York dressed in Barbie’s signature pink to celebrate the film’s opening weekend.

“Men, women, kids — everyone dressing up in pink, and no one told them to do that. That was a spontaneous thing,” she told Variety in a taped interview published last week. “It was this overwhelming feeling of like, ‘Oh, it belongs to them. It doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to them. And they wanted to dress up.'”

A scene from “Barbie.”

Courtesy: Warner Bros.

Moviegoers who bought tickets to “Oppenheimer” donned suits and fedoras to see Christopher Nolan’s latest feature. The three-hour biopic about…

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