Moviegoers dressed as Barbie outside the Lake Theatre in Oak Park on July 22, before viewing the new film. | Todd A. Bannor

Buzz doesn’t even begin to cover the excitement surrounding “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.” The atmosphere of anticipation generated by the movies and their shared July 21 release date could only be described as a roar. 

The cinematic spectacle of the two pictures has resurrected the movie theater experience, raking in a combined $235.5 million at the box office over opening weekend. But are local theaters feeling that success?

“Absolutely. And then some,” said Chris Johnson, CEO of Classic Cinemas, the Illinois-based, family-run theater chain, which operates the North Riverside Luxury 6 at North Riverside Park Mall. 

“Barbie,” currently playing at all 16 Classic Cinemas movie theaters, had brought in $1.32 million for the company as of last week. “Oppenheimer,” and its considerable three-hour runtime, has generated $429,038 for Classic Cinemas, playing in 13 of its locations.

Even Classic Cinemas’ smaller theaters are doing big numbers, proving there’s still room for movie theaters in the age of streaming. Lake Theatre in Oak Park has made $113,978 and $45,355 in ticket sales to date for “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” respectively.

Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in Barbie. | Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture – © 2023 – Warner Bros

“We’ve been sold out since they came out,” said Taylor Griffin, who works the box office at Lake Theatre. 

 Griffin admitted she’s seen “Barbie” three times, but she’s not the only one enamored with the feature film featuring the tiny-waisted, long-legged doll played by Margot Robbie.

“Barbie” has been quite popular with audiences at the North Riverside Luxury 6, too, amassing $116,042 in ticket sales to date. “Oppenheimer” is not playing in North Riverside, due to a limited number of screens. Jason Ibarra, the Luxury 6 assistant manager, contributed to Lake Theatre’s “Oppenheimer” sales by catching the film over there.

Ibarra has been too busy to see “Barbie” but plans to as soon as he can. Nor is he the only man taking an interest in what could easily be written off as a “chick flick.” While the Landmark was interviewing a mother and daughter about to see “Barbie” in North Riverside, both in matching “Barbie” T-shirts, a male moviegoer interjected his thoughts on the movie that reportedly caused a shortage of pink paint.

“It’s a good movie,” Mario Agatti told the mother and daughter. 

“Barbie” has been a family viewing experience for many, including Agatti, who also saw it with his own daughter – and did so wearing a pink shirt, which has become something of an unofficial requirement. 

Katrina Diaz, the maternal half of the mother-daughter duo seeing “Barbie,” appreciates that more men than expected are seeing the film, which has been alternatingly praised and criticized for its pro-feminist theme. 

“I love that men can come see it and put their pride to the side,” said Diaz. “It’s not just for women. It’s women’s empowerment, but it’s still a good show.”

Diaz played with Barbie dolls growing up, then passed them onto her daughter. Now 11-years-old, Diaz’s daughter had been waiting all day for her mom to get off work, so they could go see the movie. 

A resurgence in movie theater ticket sales has been a blessing for movie makers and theaters alike, as both struggled to draw audiences back to cinema’s post-pandemic shutdown. 

Now, thanks in no small part to “Barbie” and to a slightly lesser extent “Oppenheimer,” the fear of the movies being another casualty of COVID-19 feels less acute. “Oppenheimer” director Christopher Nolan agrees. 

“I think for those of us who care about movies, we’ve been really waiting to have a crowded marketplace again, and now it’s here and that’s terrific,” Nolan told media publication IGN.

Adding to the bomb and “Barbie” blockbuster experience, Classic Cinemas has been investing in its theaters, with the addition of alcoholic beverages at concession stands and replacing traditional seats in the company’s theaters with luxury, heated recliners, which are available at both Lake Theatre and Luxury 6 Theatre. 

Johnson said Classic Cinemas is doing better this year than it did in 2019, just before the threat of viral infection drove people out of theaters. From Labor Day 2022 to the present, more than 3.8 million people have seen shows at its theaters.

“We’ve been selling more than we have for years and years, and then you lay over that the ‘Barbenheimer’ success, and it’s just been invigorating,” said Johnson.

Their shared release date and the public’s giddiness has positioned “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” movies not as competitors, but as partners, giving rise to the “Barbenheimer” portmanteau and making for one strange double feature, immortalized in internet history through memes and silly social media posts. Those involved in the films have joined in the fun as well, publicly supporting their cinematic counterparts. 

“Oppenheimer” star Cillian Murphy said he couldn’t wait to see “Barbie” and was interested in starring as a Ken doll in its unconfirmed-but-hoped-for sequel. Robbie, who easily stepped into her character’s plastic high heels, posed with “Barbie” director Greta Gerwig in front of an “Oppenheimer” poster, showing off their tickets to the historical drama. 

The opposing narratives of the films, one starring a beloved or infamous toy, depending on who you ask, and the other about the creation of the atomic bomb, inexplicably complement each other, not unlike mixing M&M candy into movie theater popcorn. Explosions of pink married to literal explosions – that’s the magic of “Barbenheimer.”

“It’s really resonating with people,” Johnson said. “And we’re just happy to be a part of it.”