Barbie is already the kind of smash hit studio executives dream of when approving a big budget film with an internationally renowned IP. Greta Gerwig’s critically-acclaimed movie now owns the record for biggest debut weekend by a female director. It nearly doubled its expected opening box office in mere days. More impressive is that it already exceeded its $145 million production costs in domestic sales alone. And yet, reviews and tickets sold don’t paint the complete picture of the movie’s accomplishments. Because despite its outsized budget, critical acclaim, packed theaters, all-out-marketing, and branded subject matter, a movie about an iconic toy is also primed to become a modern day The Rocky Horror Picture Show-style cult classic.
There’s no universally agreed upon definition of what qualifies a movie as a “cult classic.” Some have tried, but it’s a distinction with enough exceptions to render a uniform designation almost meaningless. Certain parameters tend to apply to most of them, though. They often have either been box office flops, critically panned, or simply downright ignored when they arrived in theaters. Before you can become a cult movie you typically have to possess almost no cultural cache. Only by being outside the mainstream can a small, extremely devoted audience then elevate your standing. It’s why big successful movies like Star Wars or Star Trek aren’t usually considered cult classics despite swaths of cult-like fans.
None of which applies to an historic, pricey, instantly successful box office blockbuster like Barbie. Especially not one featuring some of the biggest stars in the world and made by Mattel, an international conglomerate. And definitely not when the film, though undeniably subversive and original, is still ultimately a love letter to the iconic toy. There is nothing niche or overlooked about Barbie. It’s a movie that serves as a defense of a problematic toy and has a marketing budget that dwarfs most films. It could not possibly be more in the mainstream.
And yet, anyone who has been to a theater (in good faith) to see it already knows the energy around the movie is entirely different from most blockbuster films. It’s not merely that people are showing up to see it in costumes. People do that for MCU films, too. Women also did it for Sex in the City and Magic Mike. It’s that long lines of pink-clad moviegoers, spanning generations and greeting one another with enthusiastic “Hi, Barbies!,” feels reminiscent of the communities that form around cult classics. Spiritually Barbie isn’t a successor to other event releases, like a Batman movie. The way it’s connecting with women is akin to the kind of connection fans have with The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
No one could have predicted that. I thought Barbie would be a big success even before I saw it. But I knew something was different when I went to my early screening. The audience consisted of press and public alike, and it was very easy to identify my colleagues in the crowd. Most of the non-press arrivals wore pink dresses, pink shorts, pink shoes, pink shirts, pink headbands, pink skirts, and any other article of pink clothing they could find. This was even more true the next night when I returned for my Oppenheimer screening. A second early Barbie showing taking place in the next theater saw so many women show up in pink it felt like it was a mandatory dress code to get in.
Even better was the pure excitement they arrived with. They weren’t there simply to see a movie in costume or even just to enjoy themselves for a couple hours. They were there in celebration. Whether it was to celebrate a toy they love, feminism, femininity, or one another, Barbie is offering something that was clearly desperately needed and wanted. It’s not just a film, it’s a communal event . And the fact it’s really good and giving its audience everything it hoped for is only feeding the energy that surrounds it.
That energy will only grow with time because something magical is going on with this film. It’s impossible to completely capture why, but it’s undeniable. As excited Barbie enthusiasts see it again and again, the community the film has already created will inevitably branch out from costumes and shared greetings. Eventually showings will include singalongs and interaction with the screen. They’ll resemble the joyous midnight showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Eventually (sooner than later) people will get up perform “I’m Just Ken” in aisles like they do with “Time Warp.” They’ll dance during Barbie’s big disco sequence and yell “Hi, Barbie” every single time a character does. Others will stand and recite America Ferrera’s great monologue when Gloria lets loose. And we’re all going to end up scream-singing the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine” each time it plays. Same with Rob Thomas’ “Push.” Eventually we’ll all end up liking that song so much we’ll become part of the joke. We’ll even cheer guys who bring guitars into the theater because they’ll obviously be in on the fun, too.
Something incredible is going on with this film. It’s engendering a feeling and connection no one can intentionally plan for or make happen because no one can consciously make a cult classic. Does that mean we have to completely reconsider what a cult classic is and can be? And does a Mattel-approved film becoming one ruin the very concept? Who cares! I promise you no one who loves Barbie does. Instead they’re already picking out their next pink outfit, Barbie or Ken costume, or striped Allan shirt for their next viewing. They only care about seeing it again with enjoying it alongside others who feel the same way.
That’s the best thing about loving a cult classic, a concept that transcends genres and can’t be fully defined because it’s more of an idea than something tangible. You don’t have to care what others think. The mainstream opinion—good, bad, or indifferent—doesn’t matter. All that matters is the feeling it evokes. All that matters is the experience of being a part of a movie that means something special to you and a community you’ve become a part of, the way The Rocky Horror Picture Show means so much to so many. So enjoy Barbie now as much as you can at sold-out screenings any time of day. That will make it even more fun someday when we’re watching it at midnight in a packed theater of people in pink.