Movie theaters hope a TikTok-ready ‘Twisters’ booth will be this summer’s ‘Barbie’ box

A long line to get into the theater is fairly standard for a hot movie in its opening weekend. A long line just to engage with a film’s lobby display, however, is not standard at all. It’s the kind of marketing coup executives dream of.

In the case of Barbie last July, it was also proof of an imminent phenomenon. Social media posts about the film racked up an estimated 1.2 billion views on TikTok during its opening weekend alone—aided along by the ubiquitous life-size Barbie boxes decorating many movie theaters. Ticket-buyers had a hard time resisting such premium social media content. Even Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai got in on the action. The Barbie boxes transformed the act of seeing a movie into a highly shareable celebration of moviegoing itself, and played some small part in the film’s $1.4 billion box office haul. No wonder studios are giving other movies, like Universal’s upcoming July release Twisters, next-level TikTok-bait to populate lobbies this summer.


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♬ Tornado Warning – Niña Coyote Eta Chico Tornado

The Twisters booths, which debuted last month at CinemaCon, an annual exhibition for theater owners, are vertical wind tunnels that lightly mimic the feel of a tiny tornado. Closer to a theme park ride than a typical lobby standee, they are the most aspirationally TikTok-worthy activation to hit theaters since Barbie’s box office run. If they’re going to provoke a similar reaction when they arrive in theaters, though, they’ll certainly have their work cut out for them.

The appeal of the Barbie box

What made the Barbie box such a social media smash might not be easy to replicate. Not only do the boxes represent a nostalgic element of the iconic doll, inseparable from its overall brand, a life-size version of the box also figures into a key scene from the movie. While this pristine photo and video opportunity wasn’t the first idea creative agency Midnight Oil had for promoting the film, once it was on the table, company president Bill Rosenthal was sure it was a winner. 

“What made it so effective in theaters is that people knew exactly what it was right away,” he says. “It encouraged them to interact and engage with it, without needing to spell anything out.”

The box’s success was telegraphed before it even began showing up in movie theaters. Daniel Loria, editorial director at Boxoffice Pro, which has covered moviegoing since 1920, recalls the unprecedented response the box provoked at CinemaCon last April.

“I’ve been attending since 2014 and I’ve never seen anything like the lines of people waiting to take a photo in that thing,” Loria says. “These are weathered veterans of this industry, attending this professional convention, and they were genuinely excited to be part of this.”

What ultimately turned the boxes into a perfect storm on social media, though, was something Midnight Oil hadn’t anticipated. Much like with Black Panther or a Taylor Swift concert, fans dressed up to go see the movie. It was partly due to the doll’s inherent association with fashion, and partly because of the “Barbenheimer” of it all, which inspired some moviegoers that weekend to proudly declare which team they were on. In any case, hordes of fans arrived in theaters sporting festive hot-pink ensembles, only to find the Hellenic ideal of a venue for showing them off. (That is, if they didn’t know to expect it—according to Rosenthal, the boxes had already garnered a billion views on TikTok a full month before the movie came out.)

Drawing back moviegoers

Barbie’s tremendous success, and the attendant Barbenheimer hoopla, couldn’t have come at a better time for studios and movie theaters. Both are still reeling from moviegoing habits that changed during early-pandemic, when the theatrical window broadly shrank to between 30 and 45 days, along with an apparent case of superhero and franchise fatigue. The abundance of fans cosplaying as Barbie inside a gleaming box at a theater was surely a sight for sore eyes throughout Hollywood.

It would be foolish to expect a similar social media response, though, just from a splashy lobby display alone. That would be like if Regal Cinemas hired Laura Dern to cut an ad about how heartbreak feels good in a place like theirs too, and expected the same results as AMC’s high-camp Nicole Kidman clip.

Not that studios shouldn’t try—or haven’t been trying—to build on Barbie’s creativity.

“You’re seeing significantly increased attention in these lobby activations,” Loria says.

To that end, agencies have been stepping up their social media-friendly efforts lately. October’s Exorcist reboot—which originally shared a Barbenheimer-like release date with Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour movie before Universal pushed it back a week—had a motion-activated standee that played the film’s spooky theme music when people walked by. The Mean Girls musical this past January had one that invited fans to appear inside the film’s burn book for picture-taking purposes. And then, of course, there was Dune 2’s provocative popcorn bucket in March—part of a parallel trend of theater-exclusive novelty merch—which caused a stir on TikTok even before SNL parodied it. Practically every aspect of the movie theater lately is destined to become content.

Obviously, Barbie did not invent the idea of a social media-soliciting strategy. Agencies have been trying to turn consumers into mini-marketers for ages.

“The reality is that billboards and standees are only seen in a select number of locations, but when you can create something that is unique enough for people to take photos or video of it and share it online, it gets much more reach than it would otherwise,” Rosenthal says.

Displays made for TikTok

In addition to the Barbie boxes, Midnight Oil also created the TikTok-friendly Oppenheimer billboard that went up over Los Angeles’s bustling La Cienaga Boulevard 10 months before the film came out, and counted down the seconds until a mysterious date. (It wasn’t the day of the film’s release, but the anniversary of the nuclear Trinity Test depicted in Oppenheimer.) A version of that billboard showed up in theater lobbies, but these did not tend to have people gathered to broadcast the moment their countdown finally ended.

The Twisters booths, however, foretell a step change in movie marketing—the moment the goal officially moves from being Instagrammable to TikTokable. While fans could certainly record themselves posing inside a Barbie box or getting to third base with the Dune 2 popcorn box—and many did—a photo would have sufficed. Those windy tubes are exactly the opposite. A photo will give a flavor of what they’re intended to do, but it would be a steak without the sizzle. These booths simply demand to be filmed, and they were designed that way intentionally. If they get anywhere near the Barbie box’s virality and the movie becomes even kind of a big hit, expect to see more video-forward lobby activations next summer and beyond.

Ironically, while movies now have to compete with TikTok for the attention of young viewers, the promise of TikTokable content may increasingly become what gets them into theaters.