It’s a matchup for the ages, up there with Ali vs. Frazier, the Hatfields vs. the McCoys and Athens vs. Sparta.

Well, let’s not get carried away.

But it’s fair to say that with “Barbie” vs. “Oppenheimer,” Hollywood hasn’t captured the popular imagination in this way for quite some time. On Thursday night, the two wildly mismatched Hollywood mega-movies arrive in theaters after weeks of internet self-deprecation and questionable marketing connections. (We’re looking at you, Barbie-inspired Burger King sandwich with what looks like chewed gum.) Together, the films could generate the biggest crowds at North American multiplexes in four years, numbers not seen since before the pandemic, box office. office forecasters said.

“‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ are basically the perfect enemies at the box office this weekend,” said Turner Classic Movies host Dave Karger. “Yes, they’re technically competitors, but they mostly go after different audiences, and the Barbenheimer boom only seems to be helping both films.”

Greta Gerwig’s candy-coated “Barbie,” which cost about $145 million to make, not including marketing costs, has the potential to earn $100 million in the United States and Canada by Sunday, according to analysts who track audiences and use complex formulas. to predict box office performance. Christopher Nolan’s landmark “Oppenheimer,” which cost at least $100 million before marketing, is looking at about $50 million at the domestic box office during the same period.

Warner Bros., citing advance sales of about $30 million, said it expects closer to $75 million in weekend ticket sales for “Barbie.” (Studios most try to downplay expectations.) The studio has ordered the PG-13 comedy on about 4,200 screens in North America.

Universal Pictures, the studio behind “Oppenheimer,” an R-rated historical drama about the creation of the atomic bomb, declined to comment. It will develop Nolan’s film on about 3,600 home screens.

“Barbie” has a running time of just under two hours. “Oppenheimer” extends three, limiting the number of screenings theaters can squeeze into the weekend. “Oppenheimer,” however, has the advantage of playing on most of North America’s large-format screens, which come with a ticket surcharge of up to $12 in New York. IMAX dedicates its total footprint to Nolan’s work for the next three weeks (to the chagrin of Tom Cruise, who hoped his “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One” would continue to play on some of those screens after opening last week).

AMC Entertainment, the world’s largest movie theater chain, said Monday that more than 40,000 people bought tickets to see “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” as double features, up from 20,000 last week.

Hollywood desperately needs a weekend that exceeds — or even meets — expectations. This was the year when moviegoing was finally supposed to bounce back from the pandemic, which closed many theaters for months and accelerated the growth of streaming services in homes. Finally, cinemas would reclaim a position of cultural urgency.

But box office sales in the U.S. and Canada for the year to date (about $5 billion) are down about 20 percent from the same period in 2019, according to Comscore, which compiles box office data. Hopes, including strong sales for the innovative “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” and the hyper-violent “John Wick: Chapter 4,” were dashed by disappointing results for expensive franchise films like “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Fate.” , “Anteater and the Wasp: Quantum Mania”, “Shazam! Fury of the Gods” and “Fast X”.

The latest movie “Mission: Impossible” arrived last weekend with solid results, but below what Hollywood expected.

Ticket buyers seem to be tiring of new installments in decades-old franchises. What succeeds? Mostly, characters that haven’t been on screen in recent memory (“The Super Mario Bros. Movie”), new chapters in series that aren’t as well-worn (“Creed III”) and movies that cater to audiences ignored by Hollywood. (“Sound of Freedom”, which was promoted by the right).

In all her world domination, Barbie has never had her own big-budget movie before. “Oppenheimer” is based on the biography “American Prometheus” (2005) by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. “Both studios went all in on original films, directed by famous auteurs with an interest in pushing the envelope,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior Comscore analyst. “These are not the tried-and-true safe bets that are the hallmark of the summer movie season.”

“Barbie” features major movie stars – Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling – while “Oppenheimer” starred the lesser-known Cillian Murphy in the title role. “Barbie” targets women, while “Oppenheimer” has the edge with men. One represents what many moviegoers loathe about Hollywood: movies based on toys. The other was written and directed by one of Hollywood’s most serious cinephiles.

Comedy versus drama. The brightest side of human imagination versus the darkest. Creating worlds, destroying worlds.

The contrasts are irresistible.

Although rare, such box office matchups are not without precedent. Just ask Nolan. In July 2008, his ominous Batman film “The Dark Knight” (Warner Bros.) went head-to-head with Universal’s silly, sun-soaked “Mamma Mia”! His was #1 that weekend, but both films became runaway hits.

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