The internet is having a blast right now, speculating which upcoming high-profile summer movie is going to win its respective weekend. Will it be Christopher Nolan’s gritty WWII period piece/biopic Oppenheimer, or will it be Margot Robbie in hot pink in Barbie? The term “Barbenheimer” has already become a thing on social media. Are the studios out of their gourds releasing two such expensive movies on the same weekend? One will surely cannibalize the other’s box office, right? Well, not so fast. It wasn’t always like this.
Once upon a time, big Hollywood movies frequently opened on the same weekend. The hope was, if someone didn’t see the movie one weekend, they’d just see it the next. Or the next. Imagine that! Most listed here are from the ‘80s, if only because that was the last time Hollywood wasn’t so skittish about this practice. Now, it’s almost unheard of. For those worried that Oppenheimer and Barbie will cancel each other out, the films below proved two big movies can have the same opening weekend and go on to great success.
The Empire Strikes Back and The Shining (May 21, 23, 1980)
Of all the same weekend openers on this list, we dare say the first is maybe the most legendary. On Wednesday, May 21, 1980, The Empire Strikes Back, or “Star Wars II” as some folks called it then, was released on hundreds of screens nationwide. At the time, it was the most anticipated film ever made. Two days later, premiering on a mere ten screens in major cities, you could also catch Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. (It would get a larger rollout weeks later). Four decades later, both movies are considered titans of their genre, and among the greatest films ever made. Who doesn’t know “I am your father” or “Come play with us, Danny. Forever and ever?” They are both part of the cultural fabric.
If one was lucky enough to be in the right city in 1980 that weekend, they simply could have had the best day at the movies ever. Interestingly, a few other fun facts tie Empire and Kubrick’s Stephen King adaptation together. Kubrick repurposed most of the fake snow used for The Shining from the Hoth set from Empire. They shot both films at Elstree Studios in the UK, and a fire on The Shining set delayed shooting on Empire for weeks. Although Empire was the clear box office winner, The Shining did respectable business for an ’80s horror movie. Today, one can make the argument that these are two of the most memed movies ever.
Poltergeist and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (June 4, 1982)
1982 was a banner year for nerd cinema. It’s perhaps the greatest geek movie year of all time. And here are two perfect examples as to why. On the weekend of June 4, 1982, you could go to the movies and take your pick of two stone-cold classics — Tobe Hooper’s suburban haunted house thrill ride Poltergeist, and Nicholas Meyer’s space opera Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Both the Star Trek sequel and the PG-rated scare-fest were big-budget, special effects extravaganzas, aimed at the same target demographic. Today, no studio would ever think of pitting them up against each other, for fear one would inevitably fail as audiences could only choose one. But both movies did incredible business, with neither one hurting the other’s box office.
Blade Runner and The Thing (June 25, 1982)
Hey, remember how we just said that 1982 was a banner year for geek cinema? And how Poltergeist and Star Trek II went on to great success financially even though they opened on the same day? Well, we can’t say the same for these two iconic films from the same month in the same year — John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Both of them hit theaters on June 25, 1982. And at least at first, both landed with a giant thud.
In this case, it wasn’t one movie that killed the other at the box office. It was Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which opened two weekends before and absolutely crushed them both. Today, most consider both of these sci-fi films among the greatest of their genre, but in 1982, average moviegoers wanted cute and cuddly sci-fi, and not anything too bleak or dystopian. Something that both Blade Runner and The Thing very much were. History has been very kind to both films since, however. Box office, shmox office.
Ghostbusters and Gremlins (June 8, 1984)
If you were an ‘80s kid, and you happened to see these two films opening day, then this weekend might have formed an essential core memory for you. On June 8, 1984, Columbia Pictures released the horror-comedy Ghostbusters, while Warner Bros. released their own horror-comedy, the Steven Spielberg-produced Gremlins. Both films were absolutely massive at the box office, playing for months and months. And both movies also sold a ton of merchandise to kids (and adults) everywhere.
Ghostbusters was ultimately the bigger hit, topping the box office for six straight weeks. The comedic power of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Harold Ramis could not be slowed down in 1984. And it had a very catchy theme song on the radio playing 24/7. But on opening weekend, Gremlins was only #2 at the box office by a (Mogwai) hair, and also had an incredible run. To this day, both movies remain iconic, symbolic of their era. Ultimately, opening on the same day didn’t hurt either film one bit. To put it simply ‘twas a different time.
Batman and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (June 23, 1989)
The lead-up and hype for 1989’s Batman was something never seen before in Hollywood. In the summer of ’89, the Bat symbol was everywhere, one of the shrewdest pieces of movie marketing of all time. Many pundits thought that any movie to go against Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Keaton’s Caped Crusader was foolish to try. But Disney decided to release their Rick Moranis family sci-fi comedy Honey, I Shrunk the Kids on the same weekend anyway, and it was a gamble that paid off.
Batman might have sucked all the air out of the room that summer, steamrolling through box office records, but Disney’s little movie (pun intended) went on to make $222 million. It later received two more sequels, a TV series, and a long-running Disney Parks attraction. Not to mention, it became a Disney Channel staple and a favorite of Millennial kids. Despite its success, for much of the next decade, two big tent pole movies rarely opened on the same day in the following decades. But, there were a handful of exceptions to that rule. But Batman and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids felt like the end of an era.
The Matrix and 10 Things I Hate About You (March 31, 1999)
Back in the spring of 1999, no one saw The Matrix coming. The last cyberpunk movie starring Keanu Reeves, Johnny Mnemonic, had tanked. Besides, the summer of ’99 was only going to be all about The Phantom Menace, right? Well, the Wachowski siblings’ innovative sci-fi action flick blew the collective minds of everyone, and it was a big hit with critics and audiences. Regardless of one’s feelings about its subsequent three sequels, the original film has stood the test of time. But few recall that another iconic movie of a different genre had the same release date.
Teen comedies were also all the rage as well in the late ‘90s, and on the very same weekend, the rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You hit theaters. Starring teen faves like Julia Stiles and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, it introduced America to Heath Ledger. Back then, Ledger was viewed as just another teen heartthrob, no one knew he’d become an acting powerhouse. Even with The Matrix being an unknown quantity, most still expected a sci-fi action movie to crush 10 Things. But the film found long-term success, especially with teen Millennials. And Neo dodging bullets in the adjacent movie screen didn’t dent Heath Ledger’s appeal to teen moviegoers at all.
The Dark Knight and Mamma Mia! (July 18, 2008)
The Oppenheimer/Barbie fight is not the first time Christopher Nolan has found himself in this position. Back in 2008, his much-hyped follow-up to Batman Begins hit theaters, and was the talk of that entire summer. Meanwhile, in a shrewd bit of old-school counter-programming, Universal opened their adaptation of the Broadway hit musical Mamma Mia!, hoping female audiences not as into men in tights punching each other would flock to hear ABBA tunes in wondrous AC comfort.
This particular strategy paid off; Mamma Mia! was an enormous crowd-pleasing hit. And it very nearly outmatched the overseas grosses for The Dark Knight, which we all know went on to be one of the biggest films ever made. This was perhaps the last time two such high-profile movies attempted to launch on the same weekend. And it’s now been 15 years. Can history repeat itself, and allow both Oppenheimer and Barbie to find box office gold? We’ll find out soon.
Barbie and Oppenheimer open on July 21.