The Barbenheimer effect: What did 2023 teach us about British cinema?

Credit: Warner Brothers

By Lily Ford, ITV News Multimedia Producer

Before the pandemic struck, British cinema was having a renaissance.

2018 and 2019 were the two biggest years for UK cinemagoing since 1970 - even with the streaming service boom completely reshaping the way we watch films.

The nation's desire was clear: Brits liked settling down, popcorn in hand, in front of the big screen. Annual admissions were at more than 170 million.

But Covid soon plunged the world into lockdown, and the entertainment industry was left scrambling to stay afloat. Admissions plummeted to around 45 million in 2020.

Since then, cinemas, in particular, have been trying to recreate the magic of pre-pandemic filmgoing.

In 2023, thanks to some record-breaking box-office hits, that magic might not be too far out of reach.

Is it the Barbenheimer effect or perhaps the post Covid recovery? And what does the year's data tell us about the wants and needs of UK cinemagoers? ITV News spoke to two industry experts.

How successful was 2023 for British cinema?

The UK Cinema Association (UKCA) is a trade body representing the interests of over 90% of UK cinema operators, including the likes of Odeon, Vue, and Cineworld.

Phil Clapp, UKCA's chief executive, told ITV News this year has shown more than ever that customers are willing to "turn out" for the cinema experience.

The UK's top 10 films of 2023 (January - November)

1. Barbie2. Oppenheimer3. The Super Mario Bros. Movie4. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 35. Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse6. The Little Mermaid7. Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One8. Puss In Boots: The Last Wish9. Indiana Jones And The Dial Of Destiny10. Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania

"Despite the challenges, there's an underlying confidence in the sector that when there are films that people want to see, the customers will turn out," Mr Clapp said.

"Obviously Barbie and Oppenheimer were the key examples, but we also saw it with Super Mario Brothers, and Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 3."

These four titles, unsurprisingly, have stolen the top four spots of the UK's highest-grossing films this year, and from January 6 to November 26, grossed over £220m.

Admissions in 2022 were at least 117m, and in 2023 - not including the month of December, when Timothée Chalamet's sugar-sweet musical Wonka debuted - they stood at over 112m.

Is it steady progress? "I think there's absolute confidence that in 2024, we will be an even better place," Mr Clapp said.

"And in 2025, 2026, be back to the types of levels of success that we've seen pre-pandemic.

"Coming into 2023, we were probably expecting the slate to have picked up further. And that was starting to happen. And we were starting to get back into a normal rhythm of film releases for the big titles.

"And then, of course, the writers and actors' strike happened."

How detrimental were the Hollywood strikes to cinema this year?

In a historic 118-day strike, Hollywood was brought to a complete standstill from July to November.

The industry's stormiest season in decades officially came to an end as when US actors union SAG-AFTRA said it has achieved a deal of “extraordinary scope” with studio bosses.

While the writers' strike, which kicked off in May, was resolved in September, SAG-AFTRA were struggling to reach an agreement with studios, with whom they were arguing over pay, conditions, and the use of artificial intelligence.

The rules of the strike were strict - no on-camera work, no red carpets, no social media promotion, no award show attendances. It didn't come as a surprise when studios were forced to delay the release of monumental titles for the sake of what makes a movie especially triumphant: promotion.

Some of the more notable films pushed back to 2024 - to the horror of fans - were Denis Villeneuve's hotly-anticipated sci-fi spectacular Dune: Part Two, Ryan Reynolds' popular superhero comedy Deadpool 3, and Luca Guadagnino's tennis romance Challengers, starring Zendaya, which was meant to headline the Venice Film Festival.

But was the strike as impactful to British cinema as we might think? It turns out the biggest battle remains the lingering ramifications of the pandemic.

Dune: Part Two is one of the highly-anticipated projects delayed by the Hollywood strikes. Credit: Warner Bros

"I think the strikes were (more) an unhelpful addendum to what we're already challenging," Mr Clapp explained.

"The underlying issues are still post-pandemic issues.

"It's particularly true that whatever impacts the pandemic had on the big titles, the impacts of the pandemic of the mid-market and smaller titles is even more marked, because the companies that produce those, by and large, have less financial resources going into the pandemic than the big studios.

"The difference between a good and a great year for the UK cinema sector isn't the overall performance of a small handful of very big films.

"It's all the other content that feeds it, the films which draw in a broader and more diverse audience, the film's that draw an audience at times of year where the studio's typically aren't releasing their big films."

Why UK cinema needs "glue" films

Mr Clapp described these films as "glue" - the smaller productions that keep cinemas ticking until the blockbusters descend. When "glue" films are doing well, British cinema is in bloom.

He hopes Taika Waititi's sports comedy Next Goal Wins, or One Life, where Anthony Hopkins stars as child-rescuer Sir Nicholas Winton in Nazi Germany, prove to be the glue that held 2023's shining setlist together.

Taika Watiti's Next Goal Wins debuts in cinemas at the end of December. Credit: AP

He believes Rye Lane, a low-budget romcom backdropped by Peckham, London, was endearing enough to tick the glue film checkbox. But it "probably deserved a bigger audience" than it received.

David Sin is head of cinemas at the Independent Cinema Office, which looks after around 23 independent cinemas across the country. Many of them show films for cultural purposes, and are found in art centres.

Mr Sin told ITV News that glue films are starting to get swallowed up by streaming platforms.

"There are a lot of mid-range, Hollywood films or high-budget indie films, that used to exist and used to attract big audiences in cinemas," he said.

"And before 2019, they used to go straight to cinemas, have a run in cinemas and then appear on Blu Ray and DVD.

"Now, since the pandemic accelerated the rise of the streaming platforms, those films are appearing on Netflix and Amazon Prime. Their life in cinemas is much more limited than it used to be.

"So that type of film, the content itself, is still being made. But it's being made for a different use."

Nearly half of all UK households subscribe to TV streaming services like Netflix. Credit: PA

How worried should the UK cinema sector be about the rise of streaming?

"Has (streaming) been detrimental to cinemas? Yes, of course it has," Mr Sin said.

"But I think what cinemas have to do is adjust to the reality that streamers exist now. And I'm trying to build audiences in this new environment in which the streamers exist."

Mr Clapp added: "Post-pandemic streaming is not the threat to cinema that people think it is for two reasons.

"One, because streaming is a very different experience - no matter how big your television is and how big your living room is, it will not replicate a big screen.

"I can guarantee that people will not get the same experience watching Barbie on streaming that they would have got from watching in a cinema.

"People who are the biggest consumers of film on streaming are also the most frequent cinema goers. They love film, and they'll choose to watch some films in cinema, and they'll choose to watch some films on streaming.

Mr Clapp added another reason streaming is not the threat we might consider it to be is because streaming platforms are working with cinemas to release titles on the big screen before they drop online.

"Streaming and cinema can live alongside each other perfectly happily."

The Barbenheimer effect

So, what does drive people to the cinema?

On July 22, Greta Gerwig's hot-pink Barbie spectacle, starring Margot Robbie in the titular role, was released, the same day as Christopher Nolan's grizzly war-time biopic Oppenheimer.

The buzz surrounding both movies became a phenomenon itself, their contrasting genres and protagonists the perfect recipe for a competitive showdown - but, to the surprise of movie bosses, they shared an audience.

Dubbed Barbenheimer, the double-feature broke records. Barbie, surpassing one billion US dollars in global ticket sales, became the most-watched film of the year. It contributed more than £80 million to the UK economy and created nearly 700 jobs.

Oppenheimer, Britain's second most-popular movie of the year, was not far behind. Its global sales amounted to a total of around $945m (£744m).

It spawned thousands of memes, viral cast moments, and even prompted councils to make "Barbie or Oppenheimer" ballot bins to tackle litter.

Fans made mash-ups of both of the films' trailers, as well as creative Barbenheimer poster art, and shared their plans to see them on the same day - catching Oppenheimer in the morning and Barbie later on.

Cillian Murphy plays physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Credit: AP

It could have changed cinema forever, thanks to the unique nature of its promotion - something studios will be endeavouring to replicate in years to come, Mr Clapp said.

"No one did predict or could have predicted the individual and collective success of those films, both in the UK and globally. They were such a cultural moment," he said.

"Whether it's changed the industry forever... I strongly suspect, probably fear a little somewhere, people are trying to think: 'What film can we put our film up against to produce the same kind of moment?'

"I don't think you can manufacture these things."

But what exactly made it work so well? The answer is us - the audience.

"Colleagues at Universal with Oppenheimer and Warner Brothers with Barbie did a very good job in writing those films, but they would be the first to admit that what added the real rocket fuel to the experience and excitement was the way that the public took and ran with the marketing," Mr Clapp added.

"And I think, outside of whichever audience has been drawn in, that will be part of the lesson from this year - colleagues on the studios' distribution side will do all they can to market films, but you just need to engage people in a way they feel they're part of the experience, rather than just receiving marketing."

Fans around the globe committed to a double-feature of Barbie and Oppenheimer on the same day. Credit: AP

What does 2023 tell us about the wants and needs of UK cinemagoers?

Young people have always been the key demographic for cinemas, Mr Clapp said - they were the ones getting back to the big screen when lockdown restrictions eased.

But since 2022, an older age group is beginning to return, and the need for a varied range of releases has become even more crucial.

"If you look across the top 10 films, it's a it's a horribly cliché thing to say, but there was genuinely something for everyone," Mr Clapp added.

"It's not as if a particular genre or particular demographic has been left out."

However, 2023 marks the first year in nearly a decade where a Disney film has failed to gross $1 billion in the international box office.

Are we finding there's a growing fatigue when it comes to superhero extravaganzas like the kind you find in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or Disney's live-action remakes of our fan-favourite animations, like The Little Mermaid?

"I think there's a very vibrant, younger audience, which is very adventurous and is responding to more interesting, challenging films," Mr Sin said.

"I think that that's an audience that independent cinemas will try to nurture."

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