With ‘Barbie,’ Greta Gerwig breaks a box office record for female directors

Globally, it far surpassed “Wonder Woman’s” debut with over $337 million versus $228.3 million, though “Captain Marvel’s” global launch was higher at $455 million.

Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig posing together

Margot Robbie, left, and writer/director/executive producer Greta Gerwig arrive at the premiere of 'Barbie' on Sunday, July 9, 2023, at The Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

“Barbie” didn’t just break the opening weekend record for 2023; It also shattered the first-weekend record for a film directed by a woman.

With $162 million in ticket sales from North American theaters, according to studio totals Monday, “Barbie” catapulted past both “Captain Marvel,” which was co-directed by Anna Boden and opened to $153.4 million in 2019, and “Wonder Woman,” Patty Jenkins ’ 2017 film that debuted to $103.3 million. Boasting a reported price tag of $145 million, “Barbie” also cost less to produce than “Captain Marvel” ($152 million) and “Wonder Woman” ($200 million).

Globally, it far surpassed “Wonder Woman’s” debut with over $337 million versus $228.3 million, though “Captain Marvel’s” global launch was higher at $455 million.

“Barbie’s” debut, $7 million higher than estimated on Sunday, is also significant because its audience was 65% women — not a surprise in and of itself, but as far as box office history is concerned, movies that open over $100 million often have a majority male audience (including both “Captain Marvel” and “Wonder Woman”). This, many have noted, is perhaps less a rule and more of a lack of big films that have been made and promoted with a blockbuster female audience in minds.

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A close, but imperfect comparison is “Fifty Shades of Grey,” which was directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson, and made $85 million in its first three days. The R-rated adaptation opened on Presidents Day weekend in 2017 for a five-day haul of $93 million.

“Barbie” also earned the title of the third biggest July debut ever, surpassing Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises” — not adjusted for inflation — and trailing only the live-action “The Lion King” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.”

Gerwig co-wrote and directed “Barbie” which is intended to be the first of many Mattel-inspired spinoffs. And in just one weekend it’s already surpassed the domestic grosses her last two films, “Little Women,” which earned $108.1 million and “Lady Bird,” with $49 million. In 2018, Gerwig also made history by becoming the fifth woman to be nominated for the best director Oscar (for “Lady Bird” ). As of 2023, there have now been seven women nominated for best director, and some are already predicting that Gerwig will notch another nod for next year’s ceremony.

“Barbie” and Gerwig’s success was celebrated widely online with many in Hollywood pausing to reflect on the moment. Reese Witherspoon posted “way to go, GG!” on Instagram, while director Ry Russo-Young wrote that “’Barbie’ and its success looms as a beacon of hope” amid the strikes and widely shut-down productions.

“It’s wildly original, feminist, giant in scope and swing, and feels singular to a perspective,” Russo-Young wrote. “These are rare qualities for big movies these days. I hope to see more made like this in the coming years.”

Filmmaker Nancy Meyers also celebrated the “triumph” on Instagram, but bristled at the focus on the glass ceiling aspect asking if “Christopher Nolan has ever once in his life been referred to as a male director.” Meyers and Nolan are among only a handful of writer-directors who have had two or more of their original films gross over $100 million domestically.

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“Greta Gerwig’s ‘Barbie’ accomplished something so profound,” Melissa Silverstein, the founder of the blog Women and Hollywood and the artistic director of the Athena Film Festival, wrote in an email Monday. “The fact that she made a funny, entertaining feminist critique and broke so many box office records with a movie about a doll that has been such a lightning rod in our culture is a monumental feat that should not be underestimated.”

Now it’s a question of how high “Barbie” can go and if it can outgross other top films directed by women. In North America, to get the No. 1 spot, “Barbie” will have to earn more than “Frozen II,” co-directed by Jennifer Lee, which tallied out with $477.4 million. “Captain Marvel” is in second place with $426.8 million.

With good reviews and audience scores in its arsenal, word-of-mouth enthusiasm and watercooler buzz, as well as no direct new competition on the calendar, it’s likely that “Barbie” will have “long legs,” a common phrase in the exhibition business that means a movie will continue selling significant numbers of tickets far past its opening weekend.

“This film is working everywhere,” said Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros.’ head of domestic distribution. ‘This historic result reflects the intense heat, interest, and enthusiasm for ‘Barbie.’”

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