Content is a pivotal force shaping the reputation of companies in the entertainment industry. The spotlight on blockbuster movies during the start of the 2024 awards season offers some insightful lessons on how the themes and communication strategies surrounding films can decisively influence their success by steering the media’s spotlight to the right combination of factors.

Awards ceremonies

In its 81st iteration, the Golden Globe Awards of 2024 underwent a historic shift, marking the inaugural edition no longer under the purview of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Its assets were acquired in early 2023 by Eldridge Industries and Dick Clark Productions, and a complex reorganization plan was put in place to ensure that the show would indeed go on.

The roster of nominees for the Golden Globe Awards featured prominent movies, such as Barbie and Oppenheimer, which held sway in news cycles upon their release. Signal AI data reveals that while Barbie triumphed in the box office arena, Oppenheimer garnered the lion’s share of media attention.

Both movies experienced zeniths in coverage in July, the month succeeding their release, with interest tapering off by 87% for Oppenheimer and 68% for Barbie by year-end.

Looking at headline mentions for each movie sheds some light on the reasons behind this discrepancy. The coverage for the Barbie movie was quite polarized, with positive and negative headlines evenly distributed, each making up a quarter of the total coverage. While this polarization fueled the media discussion around the film, it did so by sparking a conversation about how the topics explored in the movie intersected with broader political discussions, rather than by focusing on the artistic merits of the film.

Positive coverage predominantly emphasized surface-level themes, such as the movie’s polished aesthetics, clever advertising tactics (including adept use of social media and brand partnerships), and its influence on fashion, often overlooking the film’s cinematic innovations. This meant that the release of the Barbie movie  ended up being more of a  success for the Barbie brand, than for the actual movie.

The negative discussion was not centered on critical acclaim either, but created more buzz by focusing on how the movie, depending on whether one stood in the political spectrum, seemingly embraced an over-the-top feminist agenda, capitalizing on wokeism or how it pushed the boundaries of female representation in movies, highlighted the prevailing gender bias’s  grasp into movie plots and provided a positive role model for girls and women everywhere. 

This stands in stark contrast to the news coverage around the Oppenheimer movie, where both positive and negative coverage, although focused on different themes,  did not distract from its cinematographic prowess, but rather highlighted it. 

This is not to say that the media did not focus on exploring the societal implications of the broader themes present in the Oppenheimer movie. However, this discussion never reached the political polarization heights notable in the coverage of the Barbie movie. Instead, media discussions achieved a better equilibrium, encompassing topics such as the movie’s relation to other anticipated releases throughout 2023, the techniques behind some of its special effects, and its connection to broader historical and geographical discussions about warfare, atomic energy, and emerging technological trends like AI. This equilibrium is reflected in the proportion of positive to negative news articles for Oppenheimer, with positive reviews occupying twice the space in media coverage compared to the negative ones.

The success of these movies also benefited both their creators, Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan, and their lead stars, Cillian Murphy and Margot Robbie, the latter of whom received over three times as much coverage as her male counterpart.

But here too, the polarization about the specific themes discussed in the media was telling.

For both actors positive headlines about their performances in the films outweighed negative ones by approximately 40%, but for Cillian Murphy, discussions about awards and recognitions assumed a more prominent place in the overall coverage than for Margot Robbie, for whom the conversation leaned more towards the topics of social media and women in arts. 

Whereas headline mentions of Christopher Nolan’s movie made more evident its distinguished career as a movie director, equating Oppenheimer to previous blockbuster films like The Dark Knight, headlines about Greta Gerwig painted her as a breakout star.

Looking at news articles quoting the lead actor and director of each movie following its release and leading up to the end of 2023, our data shows that Barbie’s focus on a wider range of topics did indeed result in increased coverage – the female duo behind Barbie received 22x more mentions than the Murphy-Nolan duo. The themes to which they were connected, though, underscored the dispersion in coverage – with media discussions around awards and recognition for Oppenheimer being  nearly five times more frequent than those for Barbie.

In retrospect, these different focuses of media discussions around each movie appear as a tell-tale sign of how the awards ceremony would come to play out. 

In the end, despite garnering fewer nominations than Barbie, Oppenheimer emerged triumphant, clinching victories in five key categories, including Best Drama, Director, and Actor. Meanwhile, Barbie secured its accolades with wins in two categories – including the first-ever Cinematic and Box Office Achievement award. One was lauded as a movie event, the other as a pop culture moment.

Integrated in the wider industry, this reflects the overwhelming focus on content as a key theme driving positive coverage around studios in the entertainment space, with this topic constituting the core of the industry’s battleground around innovation.

But achieving the right equilibrium between thought-provoking content that aligns with the industry’s focus on content as a driving force for reputation in wider discussions about innovation, and the pull of topics like female empowerment and  DE&I as positive drivers of reputation along discussions about purpose remains a difficult (and polarizing) task. 

For both Barbie and Oppenheimer, the difference in the success at achieving this equilibrium are varied, but still revealing.

The simultaneous timing of their releases undoubtedly contributed to the heightened media buzz surrounding them. However, Barbie’s emphasis on collaborating with brands, creating immersive experiences, and fostering digital engagement (through UGC and collaborations with influencers) successfully captured both media and online attention.

For Oppenheimer, a distinct strategy has yielded a different representation of the movie in the news media. As the awards season progresses, this approach continues to reap rewards, with Oppenheimer taking the lead in BAFTA nominations over Barbie, and being touted as a top contender for the Oscars in March, alongside other noteworthy titles like Scorcese’s ‘Killer of the Flower Moon’ and Triet’s ‘Anatomy of a Fall.

While these might be unique paths to success, discovering the optimal blend of strategies that captures media attention while aligning with broader communication and reputation goals necessitates a keen and continuous awareness of the evolving dynamics of media coverage and its reflection in the public eye.