Arts·My Favourite Season

The stage is set for a very Barbenheimer Oscars — but will the strike ruin everything?

And the Oscars go to... Barbie and Oppenheimer? It's a very possible scenario, but the Hollywood strike threatens to devastate award season.

The movies are back in a big way, but the Hollywood strike threatens to devastate award season

Margot Robbie poses in front of a giant Oscar statue.
Margot Robbie backstage during the 95th Annual Academy Awards on March 12, 2023. (Richard Harbaugh/A.M.P.A.S. via Getty Images)

My Favourite Season is a monthly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that runs through the six-month "season" that is both his favourite and Moira Rose's. It explores all things awards in the lead-up to the big one: the Oscars, which are currently scheduled to take place on March 10, 2024.

We are somehow just a few weeks away from the launch of awards season, largely considered to begin at the end of August when a trifecta of major film festivals — Venice, Telluride and Toronto — all open within two weeks of one another.

This column was originally scheduled to return shortly after those festivals concluded, assuming there wouldn't be much to discuss until then. But as it turns out, the past month would end up serving up historic film industry developments like no July that came before it, for better and unfortunately also very much for worse. As a result, this upcoming awards season has seen its course altered dramatically before it even started.

This combination of images shows Margot Robbie in a scene from "Barbie," left, and Cillian Murphy in a scene from "Oppenheimer."
Left: Margot Robbie in Barbie. Right: Cillian Murphy in Oppenheimer. (Warner Bros Pictures/Universal Pictures/The Associated Press)

Let's start with the good news, which is obviously the fact that Barbie and Oppenheimer have combined forces to become a movie culture phenomenon unlike anything we've seen in at least a decade (if not two). In the 12 days since "Barbenheimer" was unleashed, the films have collectively made over $550 million in North America alone, with no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

Greta Gerwig's Barbie seems poised to easily become one of the 10 highest-grossing films of all time, not to mention the highest-grossing film ever directed by a woman. Oppenheimer, meanwhile, should become the biggest historical biopic ever by the end of this week (dethroning, thank god, Bohemian Rhapsody) and is well on its way to becoming Christopher Nolan's biggest film not starring Batman.

"Barbenheimer" has brought back the movies and the monoculture, and there's no way this won't translate into both films being rewarded by awards season. This seems all the more certain because most people — even film critics! — believe both films truly deserve that reward. I mean, these are extraordinarily crafted movies that go above and beyond what anyone has come to remotely expect from contemporary "blockbusters." They're challenging and audacious, and represent two of our greatest living filmmakers working at the top of their game and making Hollywood a boatload of cash while doing so. It's not hard to imagine a boatload of Oscar nominations (and even wins) following suit.

Unfortunately, there is one thing that is very hard to imagine: the ongoing SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes ending anytime soon. The big Hollywood film and TV studios have shown little interest in giving a fair deal to actors or writers in the month since both strikes have been simultaneously occurring.

You'd think that the wild success of Barbie and Oppenheimer would have propelled studio execs to do anything they could to keep that momentum going — but instead they've started pushing films off their fall release dates. By November, movie theatres could go from "Barbenheimer"-packed to something eerily reminiscent of peak pandemic times... just because a few giant companies care far too much about their own overflowing wallets.

The potential negative effects of the strike are far-reaching, but for the purposes of this particular article, I'm focusing on just one aspect (hardly the most important, but worthy of discussion nonetheless): how much it could damage awards season.

As we've already seen with the indefinite postponement of the Emmys, awards shows can't really go on during these strikes: there are no writers to write them, and there are no actors to attend them. This has the potential to essentially reduce them to press conferences, as the Golden Globes were during the 2007-08 WGA strike

Basically, awards season has been handed its greatest gift in decades by way of "Barbenheimer" — and the greedy studio execs might stop that from reaching its potential.

Cillian Murphy shrouded in firey orange smoke in a promotional image for the film Oppenheimer.
Cillian Murphy in the first poster for Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer. (Universal Pictures)

Viewership for the Oscars has been steadily declining for some time now, and while this year's well-received Everything Everywhere All At Once love-fest did mark a much-needed uptick from the two years prior, it's still far from the glory days of the 1990s and early 2000s, when over 40 million people would regularly tune in. (By comparison, 18.3 million watched this year's — up from just 10 million two years prior.) While the presence of Barbie and Oppenheimer wouldn't bring the Oscars back to their glory days, it certainly couldn't hurt! 

Let's briefly and hypothetically consider what that presence could look like. Both films seem all but certain to be best picture nominees (I mean, if Top Gun: Maverick and Avatar: The Way of Water could do it last year...), while director, screenplay and multiple acting nominations (Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr and Emily Blunt for Oppenhemer; Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling for Barbie) all seem very reasonable as well. Add that to what is bound to be their total domination of below-the-line categories — from production design (Barbie's basically already won this) to sound (and Oppenheimer this) to best original song (an elaborate "I'm Just Ken" performance is just begging to open the show) — and it's entirely feasible that both films will end up with more than 10 nominations each.

A woman drives a bright pink car with a man in the backseat.
Ryan Gosling and Margot Robbie in Barbie. (Warner Bros. Pictures/The Associated Press)

It's far too early to gauge how many of those either film could win, but personally I don't find it hard to see a world where Christopher Nolan wins best director and Barbie wins best picture. And in that world, millions and millions of people will be watching from home — most of them dressed in pink. It would be the moment of unification 2024 will need to help get us all through the rest of it!

Of course, for now, that's all still just a fantasy — but not one as far-fetched as it seemed even a few weeks ago, if only the strikes could be fairly resolved in time for us to potentially have this very nice thing. Perhaps by the time of this column's next edition in September, we'll have some optimism to work with.

Until then, enjoy what's left of the "Barbenheimer" wave in cinemas. It might be the last time the movies bring us all together for a sad long while.

Check back for our predictions for the 2024 Academy Awards, which will launch with the September edition of this column shortly after the conclusion of the Toronto International Film Festival.


Peter Knegt (he/him) is a writer, producer and host for CBC Arts. He writes the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and hosts and produces the talk series Here & Queer. He's also spearheaded the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt five Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the curator and host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @peterknegt.

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