Home Entertainment Will Oppenheimer’s Rare Success at the Box Office and Oscars Change the Hollywood Film Industry?

Will Oppenheimer’s Rare Success at the Box Office and Oscars Change the Hollywood Film Industry?

by Scott Kacsmar
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Oppenheimer

While superhero movies were bombing left and right in 2023, Oppenheimer did the unthinkable. It made over $960 million at the box office and took home 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, despite being a 3-hour biopic about the father of the atomic bomb.

Director Christopher Nolan is a filmmaking genius, but he likely never imagined Oppenheimer would be a commercial and critical success like this. It was the 3rd-highest grossing film of 2023 behind only Barbie and The Super Mario Bros. Movie, a couple of intellectual properties (IPs) that have been family favorites for decades.

J. Robert Oppenheimer? He’s down in the history books as the “Now I am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds” quote guy. Not the easiest to sell to the mass public.

Oppenheimer made $962 million at the box office, which is on par with the $965.6 million box-office haul for the previous 6 films to win the Best Picture Oscar combined (The Shape of Water, Green Book, Parasite, Nomadland, CODA, and Everything Everywhere All at Once).

COVID-19 did have an impact on numbers from the early 2020s with theaters shutting down or patrons not feeling safe enough to attend like usual. But this is still a staggering difference from the lower-budget and lower-grossing films that have been winning Best Picture Oscars in recent years.

Oppenheimer’s budget was $100 million. The only Best Picture winners in the last 20 years to even top a $45 million budget were The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003 ($94 million budget) and The Departed in 2006 ($90 million budget).

But only the final installment of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy has recently had the kind of budget, gross, and Oscar success that Oppenheimer just pulled off, and that was for a beloved fantasy franchise.

Will Oppenheimer’s rare success at the box office and Oscars change the Hollywood film industry for the better –and your experience betting on its awards–, or was this just a perfect set of circumstances unlikely to be repeated again?

The Growing Disconnect Between Critical Success and Box-Office Success

There was a time not long ago when the movies people went to see the most were also loved by critics and voters at award shows.

It was called the 1990s.

For example, Forrest Gump won Best Picture at the Oscars and it was the 2nd-highest-grossing film of 1994 at $678 million, only trailing the family-friendly phenomenon The Lion King.

A year earlier, Schindler’s List did a solid job to come in at No. 4 with $322 million at the box office despite it being a 3-hour, soul-crushing story about the Holocaust. Even in 1990, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves was 3 hours long and made $424 million, which was only $80 million off the year’s box-office winner Ghost.

But the 1990s were the last decade where the top box-office performers were largely original film ideas and not just another sequel, remake or reboot of an established franchise or IP.

Here is the breakdown of original film vs. established franchise/IP for the 10 highest box-office grossing films for each year in a decade since 1970:

  • 1970s: 80 original, 20 established (80% original)
  • 1980s: 70 original, 30 established (70% original)
  • 1990s: 66 original, 34 established (66% original)
  • 2000s: 45 original, 55 established (45% original)
  • 2010s: 16 original, 84 established (16% original)
  • 2020s: 10 original, 30 established (25% original thru 2023)

In 2022, the only film in the top 10 that wasn’t a sequel was The Batman, which was just the latest attempt to put everyone’s favorite caped crusader since 1939 back on the big screen.

What changed in the 2000s? Studios started seeing returns on making huge franchises with sequel after sequel after the success of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Matrix, Star Wars prequel trilogy, Spider-Man, X-Men, Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman and eventually the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with the 2008 release of Iron Man. Not to mention the rise of Pixar and animated movies in that style, or what Twilight (2008) did for future young adult book adaptations (The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Divergent, etc.).

The last year with more original movies than established IP in the top 10 at the box office was 2000. Every year since 2009 has had more established IP movies than original ideas in the top 10.

Looking Original Ideas

Generally speaking, award voters do not go for movies like this that are largely from comic books, the science fiction and fantasy genres and aimed towards younger audiences.

Granted, 2008’s top box-office success was Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and he was robbed of a Best Picture nominee so badly that year that the Oscars increased the field from 5 to 10 nominees starting the next year.

But there is a ton of logic and justification behind why the Oscars would prefer to honor a 2013 film like 12 Years a Slave instead of the top box-office successes that year in Frozen, Iron Man 3 and Despicable Me 2.

When Hollywood is so hellbent on pumping out the latest entry in a franchise, the original ideas with good money behind them get pushed to the side or never made at all. Moviegoers are also partially responsible as they continue spending their money on the safer franchise picks.

But maybe times are changing, and fatigue is setting in among audiences who are already overwhelmed at home with the selection on streaming services. In 2023 alone, The Marvels, The Flash, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and Shazam! Fury of the Gods all underwhelmed at the box office. Oppenheimer made more than every comic book movie last year.

Not a Fluke: Oppenheimer Delivering on a Big Budget

Led by Oppenheimer, 2023 was a fantastic year for top directors getting big budgets to create original films:

  • Following the success of her Little Women adaptation, Greta Gerwig was given a budget up to $145 million to turn Barbie into a big-screen feature, and she pulled it off with a film that made $1.445 billion at the box office to lead everyone.
  • Martin Scorsese had a $200 million budget from Apple TV+ to make Killers of the Flower Moon, a more than 3-hour biopic about the murders of the Osage in 1920s Oklahoma.
  • Bradley Cooper was given an $80 million budget to deliver his passion project Maestro for Netflix, a biopic about composer Leonard Bernstein.

Some of those films did not come anywhere close to making back their money for the distributor, but they were still worth doing. Would you rather bomb making a piece of art that people will enjoy for decades to come, or would you rather bomb with another Shazam! sequel? Those comic book movies have risks too.

The important part here is that only established directors are likely going to be given a sizeable budget to do interesting biopics or original film ideas that you just aren’t going to entrust to a little-known director. A lot of these movies are also much longer than usual with many easily exceeding 2 hours. That’s a change as well to the industry as TV series have become a dominant format for original storytelling that isn’t about a superhero or based on a comic book.

But if you give a visionary like Christopher Nolan $100 million to make Oppenheimer, he’s likely going to deliver on that. You can see the quality cast his team put together for that one, including Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, Casey Affleck, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Florence Pugh, Josh Hartnett, Rami Malek, Kenneth Branagh, Alden Ehrenreich, Benny Safdie, etc. That cast alone had to cost a good penny, but it certainly paid off with the performances they added to the film. Then you can talk about things like the score and the special effects to create the bomb test scene.

With that kind of cast and budget, it would have been a huge disappointment if Oppenheimer didn’t turn out to be a high-quality film that critics would love too.

But Was Barbenheimer a Fluke?

We’ll never know the answer to this, but how much money would Oppenheimer have made if it was released during Christmas week instead of in July on the same weekend as Barbie?

“Barbenheimer” became marketing gold as the cross-promotion between the films led to many people going to see both as a double feature. The movies could not be any different in tone or story, so this hype likely helped both make more money than the films would have made if they released in separate months or seasons. Summer is a golden time for U.S. box office numbers.

But there is no denying Barbie gave this 3-hour biopic about nuclear bombs a considerable boost at the box office. Nolan is a rare director who is a brand himself, but even a war picture like Dunkirk (2017) topped out at $530.4 million at the box office. His confusing 2020 film Tenet only made $365.9 million, so he wasn’t coming into Oppenheimer on a hot streak.

Timing is everything sometimes, and it is hard to see future films like this be able to have that Barbie tie-in to put it over at the box office. They can try, but nothing will likely work as well as Barbenheimer did in 2023. A true “moment in time” event.

Conclusion: This Oppenheimer Unlikely to Change the World

We are living in Oppenheimer’s world now, which is the sobering realization of what the atomic bombs did to put the world on notice when they were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945.

As for the film about Oppenheimer, it is possible it has an impact on things going forward in Hollywood. Maybe we see more money put into biopics with stellar casts and quality directors. That’s if they aren’t lost exclusively to streaming services that turn them into limited series that run 6-to-10 episodes in length and win multiple Emmy awards. That’s the route many of the A-list actors are going towards these days.

But those huge box-office numbers just south of $1 billion at the box office still feel like a Barbie-influenced anomaly that we won’t see again. That’s where Oppenheimer feels like an outlier in its success.

While Oppenheimer was the big winner at the Oscars this year, American Fiction, the directorial debut from writer Cord Jefferson, beat it for Best Adapted Screenplay. In accepting his award, Jefferson said one of the most important things of the night when he said instead of studios making a $200 million film, why not make 50 films at $4 million each? His film cost less than $10 million to make and it was excellent.

He is right on this. If a $4 million film can make $20 million, what’s so bad about that profit? A series of good films like that from quality filmmakers can help offset those huge box-office bombs when the latest Aquaman or Venom sequel doesn’t deliver the goods.

We can only hope the success of Oppenheimer leads to studios trusting moviegoers more. Entice us to go spend our money on something original. In 1993, 9 of the top 10 films had original ideas, and the only IP was The Fugitive, a movie loosely based on the TV series from the 1960s. Throw in an A-list actor like Harrison Ford as the lead, and that was a great film.

What do we get today? Probably a reboot of The Fugitive with someone like Kevin Hart or Jason Statham playing Dr. Richard Kimble in a Netflix movie with shoddy lighting, poor sound mixing, and not a single memorable quote or scene.

The future of film should be more than cheap imitations of the past.

author avatar
Scott Kacsmar
NFL football picks are Scott Kacsmar's expertise, serving as his main focus. He has contributed to various sports websites and blogs, such as NBC Sports, ESPN Insider, FiveThirtyEight, and, JoeWager. Originating from Pittsburgh, Scott maintains a love-hate connection with the Pirates.

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