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'Barbenheimer' fever comes to Charlottesville, sells out theaters

Dresses in hot pink, suits in gray flannel, Hawaiian shirts, lab coats, fedoras: odd clothes for a typical Saturday afternoon but appropriate for the record-breaking opening weekend of both the “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” films.

The clever marketing, star-studded casts and delightful mashups have many moviegoers doing double features of Greta Gerwig’s nostalgic live-action comedy and Christopher Nolan’s historical drama, a phenomenon the internet is calling “Barbenheimer.”

It’s confirming what movie theaters both locally and nationally have asserted ever since the pandemic arrested their operations and launched the industry into near-existential crisis: People still want to go to the movies.

“It’s so faith affirming to see how people have come back,” James Sanford, field marketing and creative manager at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Charlottesville, told The Daily Progress. “It’s proving what we’ve been saying all along: that sitting at home on the couch and watching it on your TV is not the same as seeing it at the theater.”

People must have taken off work for the occasion, Sanford said. Alamo Drafthouse sold out tickets for multiple showings of both movies Thursday night and throughout the day Friday and Saturday.

So did the Violet Crown Cinema on the Downtown Mall, which had more than 1,200 tickets in presales Saturday, a record in recent memory and comparable to the openings of “Avenger’s: Infinity War” and “Endgame,” manager Cade Wiberg told The Daily Progress.

“This just feels like the first time we’ve had non-superhero movies this publicly attended,” Wiberg said. “It feels like this weekend is a part of a huge cultural weekend that you’ll look back on and tell your kids, ‘I was there for that.’”

Charlottesville’s theaters are taking full advantage of all the excitement. Alamo Drafthouse is selling Barbie lunchboxes, T-shirts and stationery in its lobby, and the theater held a pajama party showing of the film on Saturday — sold out, of course. Violet Crown is offering a Barbie “cupcake and rosé” special for the occasion.

“We’ve been selling a lot of rosé,” Wiberg said. People are making a day of it: Groups of women in their 20s and 30s are renting out Violet Crown’s theater for birthday and costume parties.

Wiberg himself sported a blue “Ken” name tag, an added flourish for the staff at Violet Crown who got to choose between Barbie, Ken or Allan. In the midst of other pink-clad Barbie fans was Anna, who declined to give her last name but said she has been preparing for this day “my entire life.”

“I’ve been a Barbie stan from day one,” Anna told The Daily Progress before the screening at Violet Crown, having seen “Oppenheimer” that morning. “I could never top regular Barbie, but I could be a bargain-brand version of her.”

For Sanford, who has spent years in several branches of the film industry, “Barbie” is a sign that Hollywood should produce more films that appeal to women.

“My personal feeling is that Hollywood, in recent years, has really underserved women,” Sanford said. “We’ve had a lot of superheroes, we’ve had a lot of kid’s movies, we’ve had a lot of action. But anytime we get have a romantic comedy, anytime we get a movie like this, it’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, finally!’”

But that doesn’t mean “Barbie” isn’t drawing plenty of men, too. “They’re not being dragged,” Sanford said. For his own part, Sanford found a lot of thought-provoking points in what he thought would be a goofy, fluffy film: themes of how individuals define themselves and are defined by others, as well as the roles of men and women in society.

As for “Oppenheimer,” Sanford said he learned a good deal from the film, a biographical depiction of the physicist integral to the Manhattan Project developing the atomic bomb during World War II. Wiberg called the film a “masterpiece” by Christopher Nolan.

But for all the films’ differences and wildly different audiences, there is plenty of what Sanford called “cross-pollination.”

“I think at first people thought it was a joke,” Sanford said. He recalled when the studios announced more than half a year ago that both films would open on the same weekend, a move that turned out to be a “brilliant” bit of counterprogramming. Moviegoers at one film hear about the other through trailers and word of mouth, deciding it’s worth the watch.

That’s not to mention the rise of “Barbenheimer,” which has taken the internet by storm.

“‘Barbenheimer is not a joke,” Sanford said.

“There’s two wolves inside of us: Barbie and Oppenheimer,” Anna said on Saturday. “I’m doing both of them today.”

“It is truly shocking how many people are watching both movies,” Wiberg said. “They’re completely different in every possible way, but they’re truly just the best version of what they each sought out to be.”

Emmy Monoghan and her friends wore pink to a Friday morning showing of “Barbie” at Alamo Drafthouse and returned the next morning to see “Oppenheimer” for the full “Barbenheimer” experience. Even for someone who goes to the movies as often as Monoghan, she said it was the first “big, theatrical movie experience” she’s had in a while.

“There were so many movies when we were kids that you would dress up for or go at midnight and wait in lines for,” Monaghan told The Daily Progress in the afternoon sunlight after surfacing from Nolan’s three-hour drama. “This is the first experience of that that I’ve had in a very long time.”

Across the board, crowds of pink- and fedora-clad moviegoers said they are enjoying themselves. It’s a moment that is going to last, with screenings at Charlottesville’s movie theaters expected to last through August, both Sanford and Winberg said.

“This sends a signal to the studios that there’s a real community of film lovers and movie-goers in Charlottesville,” Sanford said. “When we first opened here, I was dealing with studios that were saying, ‘Charlottesville doesn’t need a third movie theater.’”

Sanford recalled Alamo Drafthouse’s tumultuous, 6-year-old history with a global pandemic not long after opening. After long stretches of closures and periods of near-empty theaters, the industry was told to prepare for its end. But seeing the turnout from “Barbenheimer,” Sanford said he was so glad to have stuck out for the cinema.

“It’s not the same when you’re seeing it at the theater and having people laugh all around you, or having discussions in the lobby after ‘Oppenheimer’ with people that you just met,” Sanford said. “The community feeling. The public feeling. That’s something you just don’t get at home.”


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