What Barbenheimer’s Success Tells Us About ESG’s Popularity

Oct 17, 2023 11:00 AM ET
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This past summer a pop culture phenomenon descended upon us in a firestorm of physics and fashion. With both the Oppenheimer biopic and the live-action Barbie movie premiering on the same day, the internet latched on to the portmanteau “Barbeheimer,” creating enough double-feature hype to bounce the summer box office back to pre-pandemic levels.

It’s one thing to stir up chatter and inspire memes online. It’s another thing entirely to see the degree of real-world follow-through that Barbeheimer produced. Broken records don’t lie – there was a significant amount of public interest in what both of these films had to offer.

One of the more fascinating elements of the Barbeheimer phenomenon: the public enthusiastically engaging with these films around their common themes of how humanity grapples with social, environmental, and governance (ESG) issues.

ESG Themes in Barbenheimer 

Sustainability and the existential crisis of Barbenheimer 

From a business perspective, ESG is a framework that evaluates and addresses a company's environmental, social, and governance performance. It's a strategic approach that acknowledges the impact a company has on various stakeholders beyond just financial considerations. And yet it is a significant part of an organization’s financial reputation, attracting more investors and yielding greater long-term profits.

That’s the view from the C-suite. The view from the ground is a bit broader.

The intertwining themes in both Barbie and Oppenheimer touch on serious ESG issues, demonstrating how the acronym is – with a nod to the first nuclear test site – three aspects of one singular concept: sustainability.

The core idea of sustainability is to meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This means a hundred different things for each person, but as a whole, humanity has a powerful drive to ensure we are leaving a better world for those who follow.

Sustainability is woven deeply into the fabric of both films: death, life, progress, community, and individuality. Each of these subjects touches on that existential question: will there be a world left for tomorrow?

It’s no wonder that people the world over flocked to see these films.

Governance and its impact on social and environmental issues 

Governance was a central theme in both films, with Oppenheimer at the helm of the Manhattan Project and Barbie(s) running their women-can-have-it-all world. Each of these films clearly demonstrated the downstream impact of choices made by those in a position of leadership.

The real-world environmental and social consequences of the nuclear weapons developed by that team of scientists in the 1940s will be felt for countless generations to come. And the social issues faced in the world of Barbie act as a funhouse mirror reflecting very real issues impacting our society right now.

Even though governance comes last in the acronym, it is a fundamental part of the ESG equation due to the extreme power wielded by organizational leaders. In a report by PwC, governance had the greatest impact on both consumers and employees in terms of how they viewed an organization.

In fact, the intersection of governance and social was made clear by consumers citing “addressing the widening pay gap” as a factor that they wish to see more corporations taking action on.

Dollars Reflect Demand, and The People Want ESG 

Only a handful of months after their release, both films have shattered records, with Oppenheimer claiming the spot as the highest-grossing biographical film of all time, and Barbie standing tall as the highest-grossing global release in Warner Bros.’ 100-year history.

This outsized success should be a wake-up call for both Hollywood and corporations at large to take note of what these films deliver – because it is what the people want.

People are not only actively engaging with media that explores these important ESG themes, they are prepared to continue spending on sustainable products. The 2023 PwC report on ESG trends states: “More than 60% of people are basing their purchasing behaviours on sustainability and ethical criteria, and this is growing by 10% each year. They’re also prepared to pay more for ethically sourced, sustainably made products.”

The journey to sustainability begins with a single step. If you’re ready to deliver the future to a public ready to invest in hope, we can help get you started.