Barbenheimer, zombies and the power of uncontrollable marketing


The most talked-about hits of the summer blockbuster season are upon us. Both are expected to be behemoths at the box office, and yet nobody beyond the critics has even seen them yet. What’s the secret to the Barbenheimer hype?

When George A. Romero decided to change the title of his seminal classic Night of the Flesh Eaters to the much catchier Night of the Living Dead, the distributor made a small mistake when it produced new title cards for the prints. It failed to include a copyright notice. It was a mistake that would have far-reaching consequences that are still being felt to this day. 

Under US law at the time, such copyright notices on film prints were necessary for a film’s copyright to even exist, ergo Night of the Living Dead immediately entered the public domain, a status usually reserved for older works. Romero and his production company, Image Ten, would make next to no profits from the picture. Anybody and everybody could acquire their own print of Night and do with it what they wished – screen it themselves, distribute it, ‘colourize’ it, convert it to 3D, re-score it, remake it, animate it, re-edit it, release it to home video formats – perfectly legally and royalty-free. And all of these things have happened.

To copyright, or not to copyright? That is the question

It might have been a different story

But, most importantly of all, the film was made so much more accessible than it otherwise would have been. If Romero and Image Ten had been able to gatekeep the distribution of Night of the Living Dead – ensuring they were paid every penny they were owed and maintain their control over the film’s image and legacy – it might have been a markedly different story. Its distribution became, basically, a free-for-all – and, much like the zombie apocalypse it depicts, the film was picked up and spread through human contact like wildfire. 

Made on a budget of around $200,000 Night has raked in an estimated $30,000,000+ at the box office. It launched the successful feature-filmmaking career of George Romero (as well as, to a lesser extent, his Image Ten colleagues) enabling him to direct many more movies (including no less than five sequels to Night) and influence countless filmmakers and the horror genre as a whole in his wake.

So, while Night of the Living Dead never directly generated a cash profit for its creator, Romero was able to capitalise in other ways – reputation, goodwill, respect, even adulation – that have arguably been a much bigger boon to his bank balance in the long run.

Without that initial copyrighting error lighting the freewheeling touchpaper, Night of the Living Dead may well have become a more obscure, cult picture, and a lot of people would have made a lot less profit.

But what has this to do with Barbie ? Or Oppenheimer

Barbie has almost guaranteed a massive box office take with its carpet-bombing approach to marketing. Hot pink and glitter are everywhere – there’s even a pink TARDIS parked by Tower Bridge, presumably in the hopes of capitalising on the fact that the 60th anniversary of Doctor Who coincides with new Doctor Ncuti Gatwa’s role as a Ken in the film. It must have cost Warner Bros., the film’s distributer, an eye-watering number of dollars to achieve, despite the fact that Barbie as a brand could presumably sell itself.

Oppenheimer, on the other hand, is the summer’s prestige cinematic offering from celebrated director Christopher Nolan. Nolan is revered, has a huge fanbase, and a CV crammed full of ‘greatest films of all-time’. But he’s not necessarily a household name to the average man or woman on the street. Marketing has been slim and targeted, focussing mainly on the kind of cinemagoer that cares about things like IMAX frame ratios and avoiding the noise of open-mouthed popcorn munchers. The subject matter – an adaptation of a biography about a theoretical physicist who was instrumental in creating the atomic bomb – is poles apart from Barbie’s carefree life in plastic.

Both movies would doubtless have done perfectly well, thank you, with the brand-approved tight-leash approach to promotion we’ve seen from all the official channels. But both of them – together, as a pair – are likely to be a phenomenon that we’ll still be talking about in years to come. And that is entirely thanks to the uncontrollable, human-made free-for-all of today’s social media landscape.

The Barbenheimer phenomenon has already inspired a small army of online creators

What started as a rivalry

It’s possible that Warner Bros. dropped Barbie on the same day of release as Oppenheimer as an act of revenge on Nolan, who took his latest opus to Universal after he made it well known that he was offended by Warner’s treatment of his previous film, Tenet. Whatever the truth of that, it was the juxtaposition of these two very different, very big movies being released on the same day that captured the imagination of film fans on the internet. And that was the lighting of the touchpaper. 

What started as a rivalry online between film fans, became a joke on the wider social networks, and that became a trend, and then a viral phenomenon. Skilled creatives began to create their own poster designs – mashing the two titles into one, Barbenheimer – to share on Twitter. Not-so-skilled jokers began mashing promotional images together to make their own memes. And the more industrious – copyright issues be damned! – have even formed a loose kind of collective cottage industry selling T-shirts and other merchandise adorned by endless unofficial iterations of the Barbenheimer theme. All of it led by humans being humans, and totally outside the control of the copyright owners. 

Tom Cruise and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One director Christopher McQuarrie have their tickets for the Barbie/Oppenheimer double bill

Immeasurable, but probably huge

For the most part, it seems a blind eye or two has been turned in the direction of such piracy. This is free marketing. It’s authentic and engaging. Neither audience is dismissing the other – if anything they’re becoming one and the same. Everybody’s considering double bills. It’s organic. It’s humorous and fun. People respond positively to these qualities.

It’s also completely uncontrollable, and unintuitive to the kind of jobsworth moneymen, risk-averse board members and stiff shareholders who will squirm at the very thought. No official marketing strategy could have created – or even condoned – this mashing up of the two properties in the way that we’ve seen.

But the value of allowing potential audiences to own the properties in this way is immeasurable. Immeasurable, but probably huge – for both Warner Bros. and Universal – and will undoubtedly see increased ticket sales for both films as Barbie fans give Nolan a go, and vice versa. Who cares if a few chancers on Esty or the print-on-demand T-shirt sites make a small profit too? The cultural capital – the reputation, goodwill, respect, even adulation – will be far more valuable in the long run.

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