What can the publishing industry learn from Barbenheimer?
The success of these two blockbuster films come with a message for executives who profit off of creatives.
I won’t recap the entire Barbenheimer phenomenon (read more here if you’ve somehow missed out on the hype) but in short: a fantasy-comedy IP movie about the world’s most famous doll and a three-hour dark biopic about the father of the atomic bomb just shattered all kinds of records last weekend. There’s been no shortage of analyses on why exactly this happened, how these two films are not only “saving Hollywood,” but reviving a general love of cinema, not to mention actually stimulating the economy.
I was reading Kathleen Schmidt’s latest post this morning about the book publicity landscape in 2023, and it got me thinking about what lessons publishing houses might learn from Barbenheimer. At the risk of sounding cynical, I’d bet they’re going to take exactly the wrong lessons from all of this, as massive corporations are wont to do (just look at Mattel, who are reportedly planning 45 more IP movies including Uno, Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, and Magic 8 Ball, when—spoiler alert!—the Barbie movie was in fact NOT a success simply because the toy is popular)…but we can always hope publishers won’t make the same mistakes, right?
Anyway, one of Kathleen’s excellent points in her post was “everyone must understand that the status quo no longer exists in publicity…Cookie-cutter campaigns don’t do much these days.”
Barbenheimer was anything but cookie-cutter. It’s my sincerest hope that when publishers look at this phenomenon and ponder what they might take away from it when it comes to publicity and marketing for their books, this is what they see.
Quality, originality, and substance get people to open their wallets (regardless of genre).
Barbie and Oppenheimer have very little in common as films. Vastly different genres and target audiences…yet a staggering number of people made it a double-feature weekend, which is a huge part of the reason both films outperformed expectations financially. A lot of dudes who never would’ve gone to the Barbie movie, and a lot of young girls who never would’ve gone to see Oppenheimer, did. Why?
I think it’s because these two movies do have a few things in common, and all of them were made clear from the trailers and marketing plans.
Quality. With Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig at the helms, most people knew even before the trailers dropped that these movies would be high quality. If Oppenheimer had been a dry, dull biopic, or if Barbie had been an easy IP cash grab, this whole phenomenon wouldn’t have happened. There was already a buzz around both movies that would have existed had they not shared an opening weekend. The fact that they did just amplified the buzz for both.
Originality. Both films, in their own ways, take risks with storytelling, format, and design. Both films had incredible casts that were encouraged to take risks in their roles. Perhaps the biggest risk of all was the lack of CGI in two films with premises that seem destined for the reliance on the VHX most studios use (and abuse) today.
Substance. The filmmakers of both movies have spoken at length about their visions, what they wanted to say, and how they went about saying it. Across the board, critics and fans are saying their efforts paid off. It goes almost without saying that Oppenheimer’s message is going to sit with you for a long time, but it’s a pleasant surprise that so many people are saying the same about Barbie.
Publishing takeaway: It would be foolish of me to say publishers should stop caring about trends. But the industry is all about risks—literally every book contract, every advance against royalties that may never be earned out, is a risk—and I would love to see more risks taken on books that could be trend-setters, rather than trend-followers. I’ve lost track of how many “crash and burn” stories are out there about debut authors getting six-or-seven figure deals for books that were very clearly derivative of a huge hit in an effort to reach those fans, and the disappointing sales basically tanking their careers before they could really get started. Publishers, please take note of the lesson I believe Mattel is about to learn: you can’t throw Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots at the Barbie crowd and expect the same results. But you CAN keep an eye out for outside-the-box submissions from aspiring authors with Gerwig-esque potential.
Customized marketing pays off.
Personally, I couldn’t have cared less about the Barbie movie until I saw that first teaser trailer. You know, the one that plays on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and clearly says “this isn’t just for kids, it’s also for adults who loved playing with Barbie, and maybe just for anyone ready for a fun-as-hell summer popcorn flick” without giving away a single thing about the plot?
It’s easy to imagine a cookie-cutter Barbie marketing plan aimed mostly at girls/young women. And certainly, that audience flocked to see the film. But that’s not the route Barbie took, because the movie itself was anything but cookie-cutter.
Publishing takeaway: Books that are aimed at the same audience won’t always benefit from the same marketing plan. There are countless rom-coms, thrillers, picture books, etc for readers to choose from, and our algorithms bombard us with relevant ads in all the usual places to the point where it’s all just noise. I know publicists and marketing teams are already looking for ways to make books stand out (that’s the whole job!), but from an author perspective, we’re all being told to do the exact same things to promote our books. So on behalf of literally every author I’ve spoken with in the last two years…
Please stop asking us to get on BookTok.
For the love of all that’s holy, I’m begging publishers to stop expecting all authors to chase that grail. It simply does not work. The TikTok craze in publishing right now is a perfect example of a failing cookie cutter approach. For proof, please see all the romance/suspense authors on the platform desperately trying, and failing, to become the next Colleen Hoover.
Social media likes and shares in big numbers aren’t as impressive as we tend to think. In my opinion, a certain political party in the United States right now is still learning the hard way that viral tweets don’t translate to actual votes. We’ve had a few “surprise” election results in recent years that weren’t actually surprising at all if you took out the Twitter (or rather, the more aptly named X) of it all and looked at real life statistics and polls instead.
Likewise, Insta likes and TikTok views don’t translate to sales for authors. I’m not saying authors shouldn’t have some kind of online presence. But most of us could put 40+ hours a week into said social media presences and it will not result in sales. Worse, it’s taking away valuable time from what we’re supposed to be doing—creating stories.
Realism, authenticity, and the human touch are essential.
As mentioned earlier, Barbie and Oppenheimer are unique in that they both have premises that beg for CGI, but use little to none.
Nolan famously favors practical effects, but to use them to imitate a literal atomic explosion is brilliant marketing all its own—I know I’m not the only one who immediately thought “how the heck are they going to pull THAT off? Now I need to see it…”
Gerwig also went for practical effects and real sets, drawing inspiration from several Golden Age films like The Wizard of Oz, The Philadelphia Story, and The Red Shoes. I mean, the Barbie film set caused a literal world-wide pink paint shortage. Again, the glimpses we got in trailers and promotional videos served as incredible marketing all its own.
Let’s compare that to the last few Marvel releases, many of which have had disappointing openings and received lackluster reviews (which is putting it kindly). The CGI has been, um…
…not their best work? (And the blame lies not with the animators, but with the Disney executives who overwork, underpay, and exploit their VFX artists.)
Turns out no matter how big the IP, that’s just not enough to draw a crowd. Marvel fans aren’t going to show up just because it’s Marvel. Quality and substance matter. Look at how incredibly well Into the Spiderverse and its sequel did, both in terms of box office numbers and critical reception. The writing and voice acting are top notch, and the animation was nothing short of groundbreaking. When a Marvel movie flops, it’s not because people are tired of superhero movies. It’s because they’re only going to show up for a film that looks like it was made with actual effort and care.
Vision, creativity, and ambition—stories with these qualities resonate with us. They draw a crowd and get that organic world-of-mouth that no marketing strategy can effectively mimic. Films like Barbie and Oppenheimer succeed because the quality is there at every stage, from writing to costumes to soundtrack to casting to set design. Without all of the people who do that often thankless work, we wouldn’t have great films at all. (Now’s a good place as any to drop a link for the Entertainment Community Fund, along with other non-financial ways you can support the artists participating in the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike.)
It’s only a matter of time before that strike—and what’s at the root of it—reaches publishing. Actually, it already has.
Publishers want to “train AI” on their authors’ work. Hmm. I’d love to hear their reasons for this. I’m sure they’ve got a great spin to make it sound as if it’s actually going to be beneficial to authors in some way.
Or maybe there is no spin. Hollywood execs certainly seem to be saying the quiet part out loud.
Publishing takeaway: Considering studio executives are publicly stating their plan is to let writers start losing their homes before setting up any further meetings to negotiate a deal, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that publishers aren’t looking out the best interests of their authors when it comes to AI either. And let’s set aside the fact that we’re talking about executives already making millions off the work of underpaid and undervalued creatives. They wouldn’t be so hellbent on avoiding any AI-related negotiations if they didn’t have even more dollar signs in their eyes.
And how short-sighted is that?
Because this might be the biggest takeaway from Barbenheimer: people respond to authenticity. It’s almost like, I don’t know, humans respond to humans? AI is really cool, and I honestly think it has the potential to be beneficial to art and artists, if properly used and regulated. But ultimately, art needs visionaries.
Do you see what I’m getting at? Barbenheimer didn’t happen because of Barbie and Oppenheimer. It happened because of Gerwig and Nolan. There’s no creation without creators. I know that sounds glib, but executives in both Hollywood and publishing seem to have forgotten that over the last, I don’t know, several decades. The current reckoning has been a long time coming, and these AI contract clauses were the final push.
AI can mimic a storyteller’s style; it can’t create a new visionary storyteller. It can follow trends; it can’t set them. Blockbusters are trendsetters.
Let’s be real: if Disney could legally use AI to write, film, and edit Marvel movies, while using AI-generated actor likenesses and voices, would they do it? Of course they would.
A better question is: would fans show up? Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I don’t think so. I’ve seen some cool AI-generated trailers on YouTube. They’re a fun way to pass ninety seconds. I wouldn't sit through a whole two hours. And maybe some people would, but I think the novelty would wear off pretty quick.
Barbenheimer showed executives how to really rake it in, both financially and in terms of recognition, reviews, and accolades—by investing in talent. If publishers want readers to open their wallets, the best place to start is decent advances and fair contract terms for authors, and meaningful marketing for the books they create.