Jul 24, 2023 - Podcasts

"Barbie" makes history at the box office

The movie "Barbie" brought in at least a whopping $155 million in its opening weekend, making it one of the biggest movies of 2023, according to early Sunday projections from Comscore. Does this signal America’s return to the movies?

  • Plus, Russia’s port attacks in Ukraine deepen worries over world hunger.
  • Alabama lawmakers defy the Supreme Court on voting rights.
  • And, the latest on UPS workers' fight for better pay.

Guests: Axios' Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath and Sara Fischer.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Emily Peck, Alexandra Botti, Fonda Mwangi and Ben O'Brien. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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EMILY PECK: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Monday, July 24th. I’m Emily Peck, in for Niala Boodhoo. Today on the show: Barbie makes history at the box office. Plus, Alabama lawmakers push back on voting rights. But first, how Russia’s latest attacks in Ukraine are destabilizing the world’s food supply. That’s our One Big Thing.

Russia’s port attacks in Ukraine deepen worries over world hunger

It's been a week since Russia pulled out of the Black Sea grain deal, which ensured the safe export of over 32 million metric tons of wheat, corn, and other food products from Ukrainian ports to 45 countries. Since then, Russia has been bombing Ukraine's port cities, treating grain ships as military targets.

MARTIN GRIFFITHS: For many of those 362 million people, it's a matter of threat to their future and the future of their children and their families. Some will go hungry. Some will starve. Many may die.

EMILY: That's UN Relief Chair Martin Griffiths briefing the Security Council on Friday. Axios' Laurin-Whitney Gottbrath is here with the big picture.

So, LW, it's my understanding that the grain deal was a success in that it kept the price of wheat down and staved off what had looked like a huge crisis, at least at the start of the war. So, I mean, why did Russia pull out?

LAURIN-WHITNEY GOTTBRATH: Russia says that it's pulling out because a list of demands that they have, aren't being met among those is, sort of easy access to different financial mechanisms. So that it can, uh, sell its fertilizer and green and other products, and still be able to access the money from those sales. And Russia is saying that it can't currently access those funds. We do have to remember that, Western sanctions don't affect those types of products. Russia is really keen on getting access to SWIFT again, which we saw it cut off, as sort of the beginning of the war and other things, that's why, they decided last week to pull out, or at least that's what they're saying.

EMILY: What's happened since they pulled out of the deal? Which parts of the world are feeling the biggest impact from Russia's decision so far?

LW: I think it's a little bit early to know exactly, how this is going to play out, in the parts of the world that humanitarians in particular, the UN are, incredibly worried about where millions of people face, high levels of food insecurity and hunger, particularly in the Middle East, which we know is incredibly reliant on wheat and corn, uh, and other products coming from both Russia and Ukraine, as well as parts of Africa, particularly Eastern Africa.

We did see in the last week sort of consecutive days of wheat futures, spiking, uh, which I think has the U. N. quite concerned, there have been a lot of economists who are sort of cautioning that it may not be as bad as it was prior to this grain deal, being implemented, but still, there are hundreds of millions of people facing hunger worldwide.

These people also can't afford, even the smallest increases of wheat prices of corn prices, et cetera. So I think that is sort of the big, big warning here from not just the UN, but humanitarian groups around the world who are on the ground and seeing, just how folks are being affected by hunger and, and food insecurity.

EMILY: So what comes next after this? Last Friday, Russia said it understood the concerns Africannations might have. Are they planning on doing anything?

LW: Yeah, I mean, I think there is hope that Russia will return to the initiative. In terms of what that looks like, considering some of these ports have suffered quite a bit of infrastructure damage, we don't know, but, you know, Russia has said that it's open to rejoining if its conditions are met. So I think could there be another deal? What that would look like. I think there's a lot of question marks and exactly what Russia wants in return.

And then on top of it, humanitarian groups are struggling because of funding shortfalls. So we've seen, even UN agencies, have to make really difficult decisions in terms of what to cut and who to actually give their aid to. So if wheat prices are up or, you know, the supply of wheat or other grains diminishes, that could really contribute to the amount of aid they're able to provide. And sadly, I think Martin Griffiths is right, there will likely be more dying in the face of all of this.

EMILY: Axios World News Editor Laurin- Whitney Gottbrath, thanks so much.

LW: Thank you for having me.

Alabama lawmakers defy the Supreme Court

EMILY: In case you missed it: Alabama lawmakers on Friday agreed on a new congressional map…one that seems to defy a ruling by the Supreme Court.

Last month, the court ordered Alabama to redraw its congressional lines, saying the existing map — with just one majority-Black district — diluted the power of Black voters in a state where 27% of voters are Black.

But despite an order to create TWO majority-Black districts or something equivalent, the new map pushed through by Republican lawmakers still only includes ONE.

The new proposal still needs to be approved by a federal court… a hearing is expected August 14th.

In a moment, a blockbuster movie weekend.

Barbie's big weekend

EMILY: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Emily Peck in for Niala Boodoo. The Barbie movie brought in at least a whopping 155 million in its opening weekend, making it one of the biggest movies of 2023, according to early Sunday projections from Comscore, and numbers were still expected to jump significantly from there.

Meanwhile, Christopher Nolan's biographical thriller Oppenheimer took in some 81 million. It sort of feels like the pre pandemic days of blockbuster summer movies and sold out theaters. But as Axios's Sarah Fisher tells us, the domestic box office isn't back yet, and the Hollywood writers and actors strikes will affect the rest of the year.

Sara, can you put this into context for us? How big is this Barbie opening?

SARA FISCHER: It's massive. I mean, it's the biggest opening for a female-directed film. It's the biggest opening for a film that's not a superhero movie, or a sequel, or something like that. And it's definitely the biggest opening of the year. But, one of the big things to keep in mind with this film is that it had the added benefits of coming to theaters before Hollywood has essentially shut down due to these writers and actor strikes.

And as a result, Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling and other big actors were able to promote this film so heavily. For all the future films that we've got coming out in 2023 because of these strikes, actors are not going to get to promote them. They're not going to get to appear on red carpets. So I wouldn't expect to see any sort of blockbuster numbers like this for this temporary future.

EMILY: Oppenheimer also came out this past weekend. That added to the weekend's box office success too, right? Though, smaller numbers.

SARA: Yeah. The two films debuting in the same weekend actually helped to propel their momentum together. You had a lot of people that went in ahead of time bought tickets to see both in a double header. I would not expect to see an opening weekend again like this in 2023.

EMILY: Sara, what brought so many people to the theaters, why all the hype? Why all the excitement? Why all the money spent on tickets?

SARA: For years, there wasn't this level of fandom and marketing leading up to a film that wasn't like a superhero show. Barbie's a little bit more relatable. I mean, it's not meant for just a female audience. It's meant for all demographics and all ages. But more importantly, the theme of the movie is really happy. I mean, it's meant to be something that is cheerful and delightful. And then, juxtaposed against Oppenheimer, it wasn't surprising that that type of film would be doing well in the middle of the summer, when the news cycle is a little bit slower, and America feels to be coming out of its sort of bad news malaise.

The other thing is that Warner Brothers Discovery, the parent company to Warner Brothers Pictures, which put out this film, invested so much in marketing partnerships, unlike anything we've seen in recent memory for a movie. You know, there was Barbie collaborations with Hot Wheels. There was Barbie dream houses being rented on Airbnb. Anything that you can imagine was put out there. And that helped to drive the Barbie buzz.

EMILY: You write in your piece that domestic box office numbers overall are still way down from where they were before the pandemic. So what's going on there?

SARA: the box office in North America is still down 20% from its highs pre pandemic in 2018 and 2019 when it brought in You know, well over 11 billion for the year. We don't expect that to happen. And even if it weren't for the writers and actors strike, we still weren't going to be anywhere near that total. Part of that is because a lot of films now are being debuted on streaming. Part of it is because the window in which theaters had exclusivity for films has shrunk.

So people are willing to wait before going to theaters. But I think broadly speaking, the culture around movie going has just changed a little bit. You'll see for big movies like this, people will show up and they'll go to the big opening weekend debut and they'll get excited about it. But there are fewer movies like this that can really hit big that aren't superhero movies.

I think moving forward, you're going to start to see a little bit more of them given Barbie's success. But we're not at the point where we're minting as many big hits constantly as we were pre pandemic.

EMILY: Sara Fischer is the Senior Media Reporter at Axios. Thanks, Sara!

SARA: Thank you, Emily.

UPS closer to striking

EMILY: One final note for your Monday: Shipping giant UPS and the union that represents 340,000 of its workers are headed back to the negotiating table tomorrow, with just one week before their current contract expires. The union has said if there’s no deal by then, they’ll strike. And if that happens, it would likely be the largest work stoppage in the US in decades…and could cost the US economy billions.

And that’s all for today –

I’m Emily Peck. Thanks for listening, stay safe, and Niala Boodhoo will be back here with you tomorrow morning.

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