Bethel joins ‘Barbenheimer’ buzz, even before ‘Oppenheimer’ arrives

a movie theater
Residents in line for tickets at Bethel’s first screening of “Barbie.” (Sunni Bean/KYUK)

Western Alaska was no exception to last weekend’s “Barbenheimer” wave of Hollywood buzz, linking an unlikely movie duo in what became Hollywood’s hottest box-office weekend since before the pandemic.

The films at its core could hardly be more different: a reimagining of the iconic blonde doll “Barbie,” paired with director Christopher Nolan’s broody biopic “Oppenheimer” about the creator of the atomic bomb.

The day before the premiere, Bethel’s Suurvik theater announced that it would be showing “Barbie” on its opening weekend, although “Oppenheimer” had yet to arrive in town — tangled in cargo delays.

But that didn’t dim the excitement.

“On Facebook, this movie got a lot of responses. We saw a lot of likes, and people tagging other people and saying, ‘Hey, we should go at this time or this day,'” said Natalie Mikesell, the Lower Kuskokwim School District’s director of secondary education. At the premiere, she worked the cash register and concessions. The town’s movie theater is at the local school.

Ten minutes before the first viewing, 13 customers stood in line. For many viewers across the globe, part of the Barbie-going experience was choosing an outfit and joining the movie-going mania. In Bethel, nobody wore the characteristic pink garb. Customers waited quietly for tickets and popcorn.

Mikesell said getting movies upon release isn’t something residents assume will happen. Sometimes the theater has had to cancel screenings at the last minute when shipments hadn’t arrived. Getting movies to the screen relies on getting both a hardcopy of the film and a digital key before showtime.

“All of the companies are located (Outside), and so they ship things two-day air. And they think, ‘Hey, it’s two-day, it won’t be a problem to get to you,” said Mikesell. “And we’ve told them many, many times that two-day air doesn’t mean anything to us. But they just, it’s big name. You know, it’s Paramount. It’s Universal. It’s the big companies that distribute the movies. And they do it on their schedule, not our’s.”

Suurvik had ordered both “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” but wasn’t sure if both would make it in time to join the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon.

“So it was kind of rushed,” Mikesell said. “And we weren’t sure that the movie would come in time with the runway work that they’re doing at the airport. A lot of cargo keeps getting delayed. And if we don’t get the movie in time to run it, and they call it ‘digest it’ on the theater servers, then we can’t play them in time.”

Many Bethel resident who watched the “Barbie” movie last weekend said they had played with Barbies themselves. Fans, like Ariel Andrew and Charlee Myers, were happy to get to see the colorful feminist comedy.

“Growing up with friends playing Barbies, I always wished we had a movie,” Myers said. “And it finally came up. I love the Kens. The Kens and one Alan.”

They laughed.

“Poor Alan,” they said.

“I had a weird Barbie. I think we all had a weird Barbie,” said Andrew.

“We all had a weird Barbie,” added Myers. “One weird Barbie and one really perfect one.”

Others like John Sargent, the City of Bethel’s grant manager, were following the buzz.

“I bought Mattel stock on the hype, and I’m hoping the stock goes up, so I’m contributing to my own stock increase by going to the movie,” Sargent said. He said he was also excited to see the film.

Nobody seemed too bothered that “Oppenheimer” wasn’t on just yet. They were hoping it would be on for this upcoming weekend, but the schedule was released with “Barbie” and “Mission Impossible” again. While other theaters bolstered sales by having “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” as a double feature, people said that not doing so might be better for Bethel.

“That way, people don’t have to make a decision between the two in one weekend,” said Mikesell. “Because, you know, going to the movies is a special treat for a lot of families.”

People in Bethel are used to it.

“We’ll get it,” said Sargent. “If we don’t get it, I’ll see ‘Oppenheimer’ sometime. You know, when it comes on stream.”

But they were happy Bethel got to be part of the “Barbie” buzz.

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