top of page

Barbenheimer and the cost of Living with COVID

"The Pandemic Is Officially Over" is the headline for the world wide opening of two blockbusters this past weekend.

Two movies have captivated the minds of audiences worldwide over the last week – Barbie – a kids friendly option based on the famous fashion doll character and Oppenheimer – a biographical science thriller aimed at more mature audiences.

Together, the movies have grossed $235 million in the opening weekend. And their enormous appeal to movie going audiences is widely viewed as the culmination of the precautions for the COVID-19 pandemic when indoor experiences were viewed as risky by many.

However, the pandemic is far from over. Though many prevention and treatment options are available today, Long COVID and other consequences of COVID are still being understood.

Today, we review what "Barbenheimer" means in terms of the ongoing pandemic.

Barbie & Oppenheimer – the plot

Barbie opened at 4,243 theaters in the US and Canada and was viewed by an estimated 12 million people in the first 3 days across approximately 80,000 screenings. It's a 2 hour movie with a light hearted storyline that appeals to younger audiences that enjoyed the experience with loud cackles.

Oppenheimer opened at a fewer 3,610 theaters and was viewed by an estimated 6 million people in the first 3 days in 40,000 screenings. It is a serious 3 hour movie about science and history that appealed largely to more mature audiences.

COVID in the times of Barbenheimer

COVID is in resurgence across much of the country making movie theaters potentially unsafe – their ventilation systems may not be able to provide adequate Indoor Air Quality to an audience spending hours in close proximity to each other and rebreathing each other's exhalations.

Over the Barbenheimer weekend, we at Hubbub had estimated COVID-19 prevalence across the country at 0.7% of the population by aggregating the Local Prevalence in each community. Interestingly, a fun poll we ran on Twitter got a very similar popular opinion for the month. Though there is wide variation in COVID prevalence and equally wide disparity in popularity of the two movies across the country as in the graphic, we will assume no interdependencies between the two to simplify inference.

Interest in Barbie vs Oppenheimer. Source: Google via Twitter
Interest in Barbie vs Oppenheimer. Source: Google via Twitter

Loud open mouth vocalization like singing, laughter and screaming in excitement cause higher exhalation
Loud open mouth vocalization like singing, laughter and screaming in excitement cause higher exhalation

Exposure Risk for the audience at the movies is dependent on the cumulative volume of air exhaled by the audience which is a product of both the duration of the movies and the excitement level of the audience. While the Barbie movie was 1/3 shorter in duration than Oppenheimer, the exciting comedy in the movie and the younger audience profile would have made effective exhalation of aerosols for both movies about the same.

The C-bomb at Barbenheimer

COVID at Barbenheimer

Now let us estimate the effective spread of COVID from Barbenheimer. We have a cumulative audience of 18 million of whom 0.7% i.e., 125,000 were likely COVID positive – meaning 1 in every screening. These were surrounded by about 8 people each of whom would have had sufficient exposure to exhalations of the COVID positive person adding to a total of 8 per screening and a total of 1 million across all screenings over the weekend.

While not every exposure results in a dose sufficient to trigger an infection, a secondary attack rate of 14 - 50% has been estimated for Omicron variants in households. Given the 3 hour movie theater exposure duration, it would be reasonable to assume an attack on the low end of the spectrum at 10%. That would have resulted in at least 100,000 new COVID infections among the audience who would have taken it back to their homes and families.

Barbenheimer – the fallout

Much of the population currently low immunity from prior infections or COVID vaccines making them very susceptible to new virus variants. The 100,000 new COVID infections from the Barbenheimer weekend will likely result in further spread among their households and workplace this and next week adding up to potentially an additional 1 million infections by end of July resulting in at least 1 million lost workdays – equivalent to $300 million – which is higher than the combined Box Office revenues of the 2 movies.

Further, given the estimated 30% incidence of Long COVID following COVID infections, we are likely to also see 300,000 people experience Long COVID to various extents. The immediate wage loss and health care costs of these Long COVID patients could add up to another $300 million.

Though COVID treatments are now widely available, still 0.5% of the infected are hospitalized for COVID meaning Barbenheimer could contribute to 5000 hospitalizations. At a median price of over $11,000 per hospitalization, this would amount to a total of $60 million in healthcare costs.

On top of all this, given the fatality rate for COVID, the 5000 hospitalizations could possibly lead to 400 deaths giving Oppenheimer's famous quote "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”, a whole new meaning.

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds

Beyond Barbenheimer

Now, how can we be better at "Living with COVID"?

💉 Vaccines

Fall COVID boosters are set to roll out in September and would top up immunity to variants that have emerged since last year's booster. Get boosted, when available for you.

Project NextGen hopefully will deliver newer vaccines and treatments over the coming years that are more durable and variant proof.

💨 Indoor Air Quality

Movie theaters with their dense seating of the audience for extended durations should employ top of the line Indoor Air Quality solutions as per recommendations from CDC and ASHRAE at 12 ACH or equivalent. This could be a challenging proposition given the permissible noise levels in movie theater. Nevertheless, movie theaters and the entertainment industry at large should strive for solutions that ensure the well being of their movie going audience.

😷 Masking

Masks are still the inexpensive and variant-proof solution to minimize COVID Exposure Risk in a movie theater or any public indoor environment.

My Hubbub

My Hubbub gives you a quick snapshot of COVID prevalence in your area with the /area index.

For movie watching, we also provide the estimated number of contagious people that you would interact with in an hour in a public setting in the /hour index.

Checkout your local stats before you go to the movies or other such venues as the present surge continues.

The pandemic continues on its fourth year due to the lack of suitable durable prophylactics, inadequate environmental controls and lack of interest in easy prevention tools like masking., with every event like Barbenheimer giving the pandemic another boost to drag on.

Be the change you want to see.

Together, we create A Safer World


bottom of page