WASHINGTON - Dolls in neon pink dreamhouses, scientists at Los Alamos, or both?
"Barbie" and "Oppenheimer" hit North American movie theaters on Friday, in what is expected to be among Hollywood's biggest weekends of the year - inspiring a frenzy for the diametrically opposed films.
But as fans of the iconic toy and history buffs interested in the father of the atomic bomb flocked to cinemas, actors and writers remained on strike, casting a pall over the outlook for the film industry.
For now, both movies are off to strong starts with the cotton candy-hued "Barbie" bringing in $22.3 million from previews and "Oppenheimer" $10.5 million, said Daniel Loria, editorial director at Boxoffice Pro. For the weekend, "Barbie" could take in $150 million, according to estimates, exceeding December's opening of "Avatar: The Way of Water."
"The expectations are just so big that we're trying to figure out not if it's going to be a success, but how big of a success it's going to be," Loria said.
Millions of moviegoers are set to see both films through Sunday, with more than 200,000 planning to catch both in the same day, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners. Excitement over the parallel opening - a phenomenon dubbed "Barbenheimer" - has sparked memes featuring frantic transitions between viewing both movies and moviegoers showing up at theaters in outrageous outfits.
Hoping to cash in on the global "Barbenheimer" craze, PVR Inox set up countdown timers for the first time at several locations and started screening "Oppenheimer" at midnight on Friday, the day of its U.S. release date.
It also cut snack prices - which movie goers have often complained about for costing more than the ticket - and is offering unlimited popcorn refills on weekends.
For the opening weekend, some theatres will also run an "Oppenheimer" movie marathon, with back-to-back shows over a 24 hour period. Combined advance sales for both movies for Friday to Sunday was 900,000 tickets, the highest for any film outside the Marvel or "Avatar" series, said company co-CEO Gautam Dutta.
The online buzz surrounding same-day viewings drew salesman Eric Adams, 27, to the cinema in New York on Friday.
"I just wanted to be in on it and the theater was full at 10:30 in the morning, so that was pretty crazy," he told AFP.
He added that he had trouble finding tickets to "Barbie" and settled for a late screening.
Another moviegoer, 23-year-old actor Dara Weinstein, added: "Because it's such a funny juxtaposition that those two movies are coming out on the same day, it definitely created a lot of buzz around them."
Viewers finally have "a weekend of choice," said Loria of the parallel opening, which adds to hits like the latest installment of the "Mission Impossible" franchise and "Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny." For a multiplex model to work for theater owners, such diversity in films is needed, he said.
Colorado-based Emma McNealy, 35, said she would typically have waited to stream "Oppenheimer" at home, given its three-hour runtime and serious subject matter. But chatter online about people planning to see both on the same day intrigued the account manager.
On "Barbie," she said: "I think a lot of women like that a Barbie is getting more layers in this telling; it's not just candy-coated fluff."
The excitement around recent movie releases has also seen celebrities promote each others' films.
Although director Christopher McQuarrie's "Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One" opened around a week before "Barbie" and "Oppenheimer," actor Tom Cruise earlier tweeted about looking forward to both films.
In turn, "Barbie" director Greta Gerwig and star Margot Robbie showed photos of themselves posing with tickets for the "Mission Impossible" movie. The movie industry has a very healthy record of accommodating two big pictures," said David Gross of Franchise Entertainment Research.
"The studios are very experienced and they don't step on each other," he added, noting that both movies generally attract different audiences.
"Oppenheimer would be more male-oriented and older, and Barbie will be more female-oriented and younger," Gross told AFP. "But I think everybody is going to both, and it's a fit."