Oscars mark last hurrah for 'Barbenheimer' as 2024 box office faces uncertain future

Sunday's 96th Academy Awards ceremony is expected to serve as a culmination of last summer's "Barbenheimer" phenomenon, with Christopher Nolan's three-hour historical drama about J. Robert Oppenheimer — a nearly $1-billion hit — the clear favorite to win best picture.

But the expected toast to this achievement of commercial event cinema comes at an uncertain time for Hollywood, as the domestic box office this year is off to a shaky start.

While some 2024 releases, such as Paramount Pictures' reggae biopic "Bob Marley: One Love" and the musical reboot of "Mean Girls," have posted decent results, others — including Sony Pictures' superhero disaster "Madame Web" and Apple's spy thriller "Argylle" — tanked spectacularly.

Read more: The 2024 Oscar nominations: Full list

It wasn't until last weekend that Warner Bros. and Legendary's "Dune: Part Two" became the first film in four months to open above $80 million, giving the theater industry a much-needed boost. Prior to the highly anticipated arrival of Denis Villeneuve's latest sci-fi spectacle, domestic box office revenue was down 20% compared to the same period last year, according to data firm Comscore.

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The year-over-year deficit now stands at 13% with another prospective hit, Universal Pictures' and DreamWorks Animation's "Kung Fu Panda 4," in release this weekend. But a thinned-out 2024 release calendar, hobbled by last year's Hollywood writers' and actors' strikes, could spell trouble for studios and exhibitors in the months ahead.

The prolonged, overlapping work stoppages prompted studios to push at least a dozen pictures to 2025 from this year, including the eighth installment in Paramount's "Mission: Impossible" franchise and Disney's live-action remake of "Snow White." Analysts estimate that full-year box office revenue for 2024 will fall somewhere between $8 billion and $8.5 billion in the United States and Canada, which would be down from 2023's $9 billion domestic haul, stalling the momentum of the industry's post-pandemic recovery.

Theatrical had been on a steady decline even before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down multiplexes, due to changing audience habits and rising competition from streaming, premium TV and video games.

"Coming out of winter now, which was always looking like the worst part of all of this following the strikes, there's a little bit more optimism," said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice Pro. "But overall the year doesn't have those types of films where you look at the calendar and you say, 'Here's an automatic [$300 million] or $400 million box office domestic grosser.'"

Read more: Box office 2023: Buoyed by 'Barbenheimer,' hobbled by strikes and franchise flops

It's easy then to understand why Hollywood is looking forward this weekend to reliving the glory days of "Barbenheimer," the surprise double feature that catapulted the North American box office to pre-pandemic heights. And executives at Oscars broadcaster ABC undoubtedly are hoping that the films' outsize popularity will deliver good ratings — if their promise of a showstopping live performance of Ryan Gosling's "Barbie" anthem "I'm Just Ken" during the Jimmy Kimmel-hosted telecast is any indication.

The pair of blockbusters, which have grossed more than $965 million combined in the United States and Canada (and $2.4 billion globally), have managed to translate their commercial success to awards recognition, collecting a total of 21 Oscar nominations. "Oppenheimer" leads the pack with 13 nods, while Greta Gerwig's "Barbie" scored eight. Both films are nominated for multiple acting prizes as well as best picture.

"These two movies were really a cultural phenomenon, and that phenomenon took place in the theaters," said Michael O'Leary, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. "The Oscars this year are going to be a celebration of some momentum we saw last year in terms of people recognizing and celebrating an experience of seeing a movie on a big screen in a theater."

It's not unusual for mega-hit movies to land best picture nominations. Last year saw Disney's motion-capture epic "Avatar: The Way of Water" and Paramount Pictures' high-flying sequel "Top Gun: Maverick" secure best picture nods after earning a combined $1.4 billion at the domestic box office.

Read more: Oscars 2024: Final predictions for all 23 categories

But for the first time in more than two decades, a box-office smash with a domestic lifetime gross of more than $200 million — "Oppenheimer" — might actually claim the top prize. One has to look back all the way to Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" and Ridley Scott's "Gladiator" for examples. And James Cameron's "Titanic" before that.

"It's almost a bygone era when we talk about the time when best picture winners could be blockbusters on a semi-regular basis," said analyst Robbins. "There have always been nominees ... but hardly considered the frontrunners for their time."

Read more: 'Bob Marley: One Love' breathes positive vibes into a dismal winter box office

Robbins credits A24's quirky fantasy adventure "Everything Everywhere All at Once" — a rare case of an indie darling becoming a box-office hit in its own right — with paving the way for "Oppenheimer's" projected victory by clinching best picture last year. "Everything Everywhere" grossed more than $100 million worldwide, a strong result for an offbeat A24 movie.

"I would probably look at ['Everything Everywhere All at Once'] as the harbinger of what ended up being the year ahead with 'Barbie' and 'Oppenheimer,'" Robbins said. "'Everything Everywhere' was something that checked the boxes from artistic standpoints and from awards season standpoints and managed to also become this commercial success."

Read more: Box office outlook for 2024: Lowered expectations, but don't count out wild cards

Another element that makes both "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" stand out from previous blockbuster Oscar nominees is "the event-izing of the theatrical experience," O'Leary said, which motivated moviegoers to spend more time and money in theaters while observing the unofficial holiday that was "Barbenheimer" weekend, driven in part by social media.

For example, a significant number of moviegoers opted to pay a higher price to see Nolan's atomic bomb drama in a premium large format, with Imax screenings accounting for a record-breaking 26.2% of the film's domestic opening weekend gross. It's no coincidence that Universal later reissued "Oppenheimer" in Imax just in time for awards season.

(The movie amassed an additional $2.1 million after Oscar nominations came out in January, according to Comscore.)

"Christopher Nolan made excellent, very intentional use of Imax cameras and technology with 'Oppenheimer' — including the first use of black-and-white Imax film," said Rich Gelfond, chief executive of Imax Corp., in an email.

"'Oppenheimer' has had a very long, successful run in Imax and all signs point to 'Dune: Part Two' enjoying the same success."

Read more: 'Barbie' beats 'Oppenheimer' in record-breaking, industry-revitalizing showdown

The "Dune" sequel is indeed on an impressive trajectory. But what about the rest of the 2024 film slate?

The main challenge facing exhibitors this year is that overall there are fewer movies scheduled to open in wide release (95 as opposed to 110 in 2023, Cinemark chief executive Sean Gamble said last month). However, there are a number of forthcoming franchise installments that have the potential to do big numbers.

In addition to Universal's "Kung Fu Panda 4," "Twisters" and "Despicable Me 4," Warner Bros. is releasing new films in the "Mad Max," "Godzilla"/“King Kong," "Joker" and "Beetlejuice" universes; Paramount is distributing "Gladiator 2" and "A Quiet Place: Day One"; Sony is expanding the "Ghostbusters" and "Venom" franchises; and Disney is launching sequels to "Inside Out," "Moana," "Alien" and "Deadpool."

Read more: After explosive 'Barbenheimer' weekend, the movie business needs to get out of its own way

But if there's anything to be learned from recent box-office disappointments such as Sony's "Madame Web," Warner Bros.' "Shazam! Fury of the Gods," Disney's "The Marvels" and Warner Bros.' "Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom," it's that new franchise installments aren't guaranteed to connect with audiences.

"I'm not sure that there's a one-size-fits-all approach that works," O'Leary said. "Consumers today are increasingly particular about what they want. ... They want something that's compelling, and they want something that's interesting. So I don't know necessarily that you can say that, 'If we make a bunch of movies like this, the public will respond.'"

Other promising 2024 releases include Universal's adaptation of the beloved Broadway musical "Wicked" and Amazon MGM's Zendaya-starring tennis drama "Challengers," though Robbins suggested that it's too early to predict what the biggest hits will be.

"Could it be something that is original? ... Will it be something totally unpredictable?" Robbins said.

"Even 'Oppenheimer' — despite the fact that it was a Nolan film, it was hard to expect a three-hour, R-rated biopic doing the kind of box office that it did. So there's always going to be those those surprise stories that come up in any given year, even when it looks like the slate has some challenges ahead of it."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.