From ‘Barbenheimer’ to Taylor Swift, here are the most important films of 2023 and why they worked

From ‘Barbenheimer’ to Taylor Swift, here are the most important films of 2023 and why they worked

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 J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, was event cinema, boasting specialty screenings of the film in 70mm.

The meme-worthy trend of seeing both in the same day drove hundreds of thousands of people to cinemas over the opening weekend.

Domestically, “Barbie” tallied $636.2 million during its run in theaters and “Oppenheimer” snared $326 million. Globally, “Barbie” secured $1.44 billion, and “Oppenheimer” scored $952 million worldwide.

‘The Super Mario Bros. Movie’

Chris Pratt and Charlie Day voice Mario and Luigi, respectively, in Universal and Illumination’s “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.”


The success of “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” which reached $574.9 million domestically, is part of an impressive streak of animated box-office hits for Universal. Last year, “Minions: The Rise of Gru” generated nearly $940 million globally and “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” snared nearly $500 million worldwide.

Meanwhile, Disney has seen its animated content lag at the box office in the wake of the pandemic. Neither Pixar nor Walt Disney Animation has seen a film top $480 million globally since 2019’s “Frozen 2.”

Some analysts have blamed the sluggish ticket sales on confusion in the marketplace over which Disney films were streaming exclusives and which had wider theatrical releases. Others said Disney has done a poor job of marketing its animated films to the public.

Meanwhile, Universal is looking to capitalize on its goodwill with parents and kids as “Migration” continues to play in theaters and ahead of the 2024 debuts of “Kung Fu Panda 4” and “Despicable Me 4.”

The Taylor Swift effect

Taylor Swift changed the music industry — and then she came for cinemas.

In October, the multi-hyphenate pop star debuted her filmed Eras Tour concert in theaters. The nearly three-hour event drove millions to theaters at a time when the actors strike forced many would-be blockbusters to flee the calendar.

The opening broke records for a theatrical concert release and became the second-highest film opening in the month of October.

In the excitement, movie theaters designed specialty popcorn buckets, crafted boutique cocktails and even set up friendship bracelet-making tables for Swift fans, recreating a staple experience of attending the live concerts.

In total, Swift’s film generated nearly $180 million domestically and nearly $250 million worldwide. That global figure is just shy of the record $262.5 million that Michael Jackson’s concert documentary “This Is It” secured back in 2009.

Taylor Swift singing at her The Eras Tour.

Buda Mendes/tas23 | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

Perhaps the most shocking part of Swift’s trip to movie theaters was her distribution partner: cinema chain AMC.

Swift bypassed Hollywood studios, many of which had tried to bid on the rights to release the film under their banner, and inked a rare deal. The singer reportedly split 57% of ticket sales with AMC, while 43% remained with theaters. Still, Swift is expected to have kept a large chunk of that share, according to industry insiders.

The deal is likely what led Beyoncé to work with AMC to distribute the documentary of her “Renaissance” album and tour.

The theater industry is no stranger to alternative content. Cinemas often show taped concerts, plays and musicals, as well as live sports from organizations such as the National Football League and Ultimate Fighting Championship. Then there are showings of classic films, anime screenings and live-broadcast Dungeons and Dragons games.

But none have ever come close to generating the fervor of Swift’s Eras Tour film.

A new Hollywood model

“Sound of Freedom” also broke the Hollywood mold this summer.

The film came from a relative Hollywood newcomer called Angel Studios, which uses a Kickstarter-style method of generating funds. In this case, the studio raised $5 million to distribute the film after 20th Century Fox, which previously held the rights to it, was bought by Disney and shelved its release. “Sound of Freedom” wrapped filming in 2018 and tells the story of Tim Ballard, a character inspired by a real-life government agent who quits his job to rescue a young girl from sex traffickers in Colombia.

The Jim Caviezel-led thriller shook up norms in an industry still trying to find its footing after Covid lockdowns. It snared more than $180 million at the domestic box office during its run, outpacing big studio films such as Warner Bros.’ “The Flash,” on a budget of just $14.5 million. It made nearly $250 million worldwide.

Part of the film’s box-office success was the result of a unique campaign by filmmakers to encourage ticket sales: Moviegoers could pay for and essentially donate tickets to be claimed online by those who may not be able to afford them. Angel Studios calls the model “pay it forward.”

The studio rose to prominence in 2019 when, under the name VidAngel, it crowdfunded and released the hit biblical series “The Chosen.” However, the July release of “Sound of Freedom” raised the studio’s profile even further.

Jim Caviezel stars in Angel Studios’ “Sound of Freedom.”

Angel Studios

“Sound of Freedom” isn’t the only Angel Studios title to exponentially overperform its budget. “His Only Son,” a biblical drama released in early 2023, cost $250,000 to make and generated $12.4 million at the box office. A crowdfunding campaign in partnership with Angel Studios raised more than $1.2 million for prints and advertising costs. The small-budget-big-returns formula is reminiscent of what Blumhouse is doing for the horror genre.

Coming in 2024 from Angel Studios is “Cabrini,” a film about the Roman Catholic missionary and future Saint Francesca Cabrini, and “Bonhoeffer,” which tells the true story of German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who stood up to the Nazis during the Third Reich.

Universal-Blumhouse tag team

The combined efforts of horror studio Blumhouse and Universal were in full swing in 2023, starting with the January release of “M3GAN.”

With a modest budget of $12 million, not including marketing costs, the flick about a fashionable, murderous doll powered by artificial intelligence snared $180.7 million at the global box office. It’s the latest success in a string of lucrative theatrical runs for the horror genre.

While Hollywood’s big-budget blockbusters typically get the most attention, the consistently strong performance of scary movies at theaters is good news for the cinema industry.

A lifelike doll programmed to be a child’s greatest companion and a parent’s greatest ally turns murderous in Universal Studios and Blumhouse’s “M3GAN.”


The horror genre continues to be a major driver of foot traffic for cinemas, as its fans aren’t as preoccupied with the star power behind the films, but rather how scary and bloody — and fun — they are.

The tag-team of Blumhouse and Universal also released a film based on the horror video game “Five Nights at Freddy’s” in late October, just in time for Halloween.

While the film followed the same distribution path as the last two installments in the Halloween franchise and was made available on Comcast-owned streaming platform Peacock the same day it arrived in theaters, it still generated significant buzz and ticket sales.

With a budget of $20 million, not including marketing costs, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” tallied $137.2 million domestically and $289.3 million worldwide.

Both “M3GAN” and “Five Nights at Freddy’s” also had the distinct honor of becoming cultural memes. A particular dance sequence in “M3GAN” was spoofed across social media as well as on “Saturday Night Live.” Meanwhile, “Five Nights at Freddy’s” saw video and audio clips go viral on TikTok.

Blumhouse has four films slated for release in 2024 and three so far for 2025, including sequels to “M3GAN” and 2021’s breakout hit “The Black Phone.”

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.

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