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Barbenheimer may have saved the movie theater experience

At-home movie premieres during quarantine gave people a sense of joy and normalcy. While it was not the same, people still enjoyed some of the thrill of the movie theater experience. This has majorly affected the movie industry even after the lift of COVID-19 restrictions, as many theaters lost profit during the height of the pandemic and were unable to recover. 

In the last year, multiple blockbuster movies have executed master marketing strategies. These include the Barbenheimer collaboration, where Margot Robbie stunned every red carpet with an outfit recreating a classic Barbie Doll, and numerous memes were shared between the cast of the two movies. The "Dune 2" popcorn bucket and the stunning viral vintage Mugler red carpet look by Zendaya also generated publicity, therefore likely helping to increase movie ticket sales.

Barbenheimer inspired people to create and partake in dozens of viral trends, including wearing glam and pink to see "Barbie'' in theaters. Some "Dune 2" fans have taken to recreating Paul Atreides's theme from the movie, creating viral videos with millions of views online. 

As movie theaters become more active in movie marketing, are we seeing the resurgence of theater culture? Or will this wave die when the buzz of Barbenheimer wears off? 

How did quarantine and streaming services affect the movie theater industry? 

According to the 2020 Motion Picture Association yearly report, the global theatrical entertainment market reached $80.8 billion, the lowest figure since 2016, and experienced an 18% decline from the previous year. Theatrical entertainment also saw a decrease in revenue, going from $42.3 billion in 2019 to $12 billion in 2020. 

Domestically, the U.S. accumulated $32.3 billion from theatrical, home and mobile entertainment, 11% less than the $36.1 billion in 2019. However, streaming services introduced new platforms and content and gained millions of new subscribers. Global digital entertainment saw a 31% increase in revenue, and online video subscriptions saw a 35% increase from the following year.

With major theatrical releases in 2021, movie theater owners saw some hope after a challenging year. 

Variety spoke with Mark O'Meara, a Virginia-based movie theater owner, who saw a packed theater with the release of "Spider-Man: No Way Home." The movie earned $1.05 billion globally in its first 12 days and reminded us that theaters offer an experience that streaming services cannot replicate. 

"I think we filled up because other theaters were sold out," O'Meara said. "We're not as well known, and a significant number of people said they had never been to our theater before."

John Fithian, chairman of the National Association of Theater Owners, also told Variety

"This is such a good harbinger for the future of the theatrical business coming out of the pandemic ... It's fantastic news for the rest of the year and into 2022. We think this is a turning point for us."

This notion would turn out to be true. Globally, the theatrical, home and mobile entertainment industry saw a total profit of $99.7 billion, a 24% increase from 2020 and beating 2019's total profits of $98.1 billion.

Movie theaters would yet again see promise in 2023. The domestic box office surpassed $9 billion in total revenue, but it was still $2 billion short of the yearly ticket sales pre-COVID. 

How have trends like Barbenheimer impacted movie theaters? 

Both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” premiered on the same day, with the former grossing over $150 million and the latter $80 million in their opening weekend. Lindsey Bahr of the Associated Press characterized the event as "box office gold."

This global phenomenon saw a resurgence of domestic moviegoers in the U.S. One theater, Film.Ca Cinemas, had its CEO Jeff Knoll talk about how 'Barbenheimer' kept business busy in its premiere month. 

"These two films reach two very distinct demographics, so we're seeing a whole lot of friends and locals coming back to the movies, which has been amazing for us," Knoll said in an interview with Global News. 

Knoll also mentioned that the only way for movie theaters to recover would be for the public to come and support movie theaters.

"We survived television, we survived video on demand,“ said Knoll in the interview. "Every generation there's another threat to movie theaters, but we survived. If people want to support us, and I hope they do, they need to vote with their feet and enjoy movies the way they're meant to be seen." 

Barbenheimer ruled the box office and created numbers that hadn't been seen since before the pandemic, "Dune 2” may mark a permanent upward peak. "Dune 2" almost reaching the $500 million mark, surpassing its predecessor, shows the creation of a theatrical experience is part of what is driving people to the theaters. 

The release of the "Dune 2" limited edition popcorn bucket has created a greater demand for movie theaters by creating a limited souvenir and viewing experience that can only be achieved in a movie theater environment. The sandworm popcorn bucket has taken social media by storm with live reactions from the "Dune 2" cast and excitement from many members of the fandom, even having its own "SNL" skit. Videos of the bucket have spread like wildfire on TikTok, with one video having 8.5 million views. 

The release of the popcorn buckets created publicity for the movie, along with engaging with fans to get them hyped for the movie. The popcorn buckets now sell for hundreds of dollars on online vendors like eBay. 

AMC theaters have been collaborating with other movies to create custom popcorn buckets, some more favored than others, to help promote the movies and attract more customers to their theaters. This increases sales at concession stands, where theaters make the majority of their revenue. 

In addition to the creation of the "Dune 2" sandworm bucket, a hot-pink convertible equipped with a free Barbie doll was released with the premiere of "Barbie." However, many fans did not believe it was worth the $65 price tag. 

"Scream VI" was also given its own Ghostface mask popcorn buckets. "Wonka" had custom concession memorabilia, including limited-edition drinking cups, blankets, regular popcorn buckets and a Wonka hat-shaped popcorn bucket. 

In Athens, movie goers can see new films at the Athena Grand, 1008 E. State St., for $5 a ticket, or at the Athena Cinema, 20 S. Court St., for $6.50 a ticket. The Athena Cinema, which has been undergoing construction and re-opened one of its three screens in January, also offers deals like $4 Tuesdays, where tickets are just $4 each for any film, or Free Popcorn Wednesdays, where the purchase of a ticket comes with a free small popcorn for most events.

Movie theaters may not be seeing the same revenue post-COVID, but innovative ideas are slowly bringing customers back. Barbenheimer and popcorn bucket marketing may be proof that a new golden era of movie experiences is ahead of us. Movie theaters are not only alive and well, but unshakable. 


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