A "Barbie" movie poster hangs outside of the Grand Lake Theater. Credit: Amir Aziz

Last weekend, people all over the country flocked to their local movie theaters to watch the latest blockbuster: “Barbenheimer,” as many on the internet and social media have come to refer to the film tandem of Barbie, inspired by the famous Mattel doll and directed by Greta Gerwig, and Oppenheimer, about the so-called father of the the atomic bomb, directed by Christopher Nolan.

Moviegoers in Oakland waited in long lines at both the Grand Lake Theater and The New Parkway to be some of the first to catch these new releases. 

Given how some local movie theaters have struggled to attract patrons in an age of digital streaming, we reached out to Allen Michaan, owner of the Grand Lake, and J Moses Ceasar, general manager at The New Parkway, to find out how the weekend was for them. 

Ceasar declared it was “the busiest weekend ever in the history of the theater.” The New Parkway screened Barbie in one of its two theater rooms over the weekend—it showed other films and the women’s World Cup in the other—with all but one of the Barbie showings selling out from Thursday through Sunday. He said the last time the theater had similar crowds was when Wakanda Forever premiered last November. 

The sold-out shows caused long lines at the concessions and long waits to get food delivered to customers inside the theater, something that Caesar concedes is “not how the experience at the theater should be.” 

“We’re probably 90% of where we want to be staffing-wise. It felt like we were stretched very thin on many occasions,” he said. “That was challenging, operationally.”

Despite the delays, Caesar is grateful for the enthusiasm Barbie fans brought to the theater. He hopes it’s the beginning of more people coming to the New Parkway.

Over at Grand Lake, Michaan said it was the “best weekend we’ve had since Black Panther premiered five years ago.”

The theater has had five daily screenings of Barbie since Thursday, and Michaan said about 90% of the shows have sold out. 

Barbie has brought in more customers than Oppenheimer, he said, partly because the latter is a three-hour movie that limits the number of screenings possible. 

When he first programmed Barbie, ahead of its release, he didn’t expect to see the kind of crowds that attended. It wasn’t until Michaan saw the advance ticket sales that he realized how busy the theater would be. 

Like Ceasar, Michaan hopes that the success of the “Barbenheimer” blockbuster weekend marks a positive shift with more people choosing to come out to the movies.

“We’ve been lonely at the theater in the last couple of years,” he said. “It’s been sad that people just do not go into the movies like they used to.”

Michaan’s wife, Yvette Michaan, also hopes that the excitement from the weekend changes the tides.

“There was an upbeat rhythm to Barbie that we haven’t seen in movies. It created a whole upbeat mood,” she said. “The director tapped into that pulse that the young people need to go back to the movie theater.”

Barbie at Grand Lake Theater
Thanks to the Barbie movie, the Grand Lake theater had its best weekend since Black Panther premiered five years ago. Credit: Amir Aziz

What’s City Hall watching?

Normally when our newsroom reaches out to elected officials, it’s to ask them about the city budget or have them remark on a contentious issue having to do with housing, the police, or our public schools. But electeds watch movies too, so we decided to reach out to see if they’ve also caught on to the latest film phenomenon.

We contacted the mayor and councilmembers to see if they’d visited a local movie theater last weekend and received responses from several. Councilmembers Rebecca Kaplan, Carroll Fife, Noel Gallo, and Treva Reid did not return our request for comment.

Mayor Sheng Thao told the Oaklandside via Pati Navalta, her communications chief, that she didn’t watch either of the films this weekend.

Councilmember Dan Kalb told us via phone that he didn’t get to go to the movies this weekend but looks forward to watching Oppenheimer. He also said he hasn’t been out to see a movie since 2021, when he attended the Jewish Film Institute’s Winter Fest at Fort Mason in San Francisco. During the pandemic, he also paid a visit to the West Wind Solano Drive-In in Concord.

“It was nostalgic to go back to a drive-in,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll be going to the theater sometime this summer.”

Besides having a busy schedule, Kalb said he hasn’t felt entirely ready to be indoors in a packed theater. 

“We still wear a mask in planes. I’m not sure that we’ll go into a crowded movie theater anytime soon,” he said. “But we want theaters to thrive, and as long as they’re showing good films, they are going to thrive.”

In an email statement, Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas said now that the City Council is on recess, she looks forward to watching more movies at the Grand Lake Theatre. She last movie she watched was The Wisdom of Trauma at the New Parkway Theater as part of an event there put on by MISSSEY, a local organization supporting Black survivors of sexual exploitation. 

Councilmember Janani Ramachandran told The Oaklandside via text that she “unfortunately” did not go to the movies this weekend. Still, she’s looking forward to watching Barbie. The last time she was at the movies was in May for “A Night Celebrating Oakland’s Filmmakers” at the Grand Lake Theater, where some of her friends screened their films.

Councilmember Kevin Jenkins is one councilmember who hasn’t fallen for the “Barbenheimer” craze and won’t be watching either of the films. He believes the last time he was at the movies was at AMC Bay Street in Emeryville to see The Addams Family in 2019.

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.