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Elizabeth Debicki, left, and John David Washington in a scene from 'Tenet.'Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP

Among my many discombobulations this COVID summer, here’s one I didn’t expect: I miss weekend box office reports, the industry tally of film grosses. I’m not one of those breathless, “best opening of a sequel in July if the 4th falls on a Thursday” statisticians. But since the 1980s, when box office reporting became a staple of entertainment news, the list was there every Monday morning. I absorbed it through cultural osmosis, and it gave me a sense of where things stood. Now all is quicksand.

In Hollywood, these numbers are crucial. They factor into studio chiefs’ decisions, they make or break producers’ careers: Do we write a sequel, do we hire that director, is that star worth her salary, can we justify a $200-million budget? It’s why hits and flops are reported with equal accuracy.

For movie lovers, the numbers are a comfort. “Human beings are herd animals,” Bernard Luskin, a media psychologist, told me in a phone interview. We like to know what others are up to. Box office numbers validate our tastes. They create FOMO – I have to see this movie! – and they’re an antidote to FOMO. Before COVID, if we wanted to reassure ourselves that we were in the right place at the right time, we just had to buy a ticket.

Over the decades, box office reporting has been honed – like baseball or hockey statistics – into a spectator sport. With their big swings and surprise misses, movie grosses have their own drama. When Titanic raked in $28-million (all figures U.S.) its opening weekend, that number sent a thrill down our collective spines: So many of us! When it stayed at number one for 15 weekends in a row, we could be confident that its references – the sapphire necklace, the floating plank – were now part of the lexicon.

Box office tallies help us feel that we’re participating in a cultural moment, something larger than ourselves. “The box office gives us data to help us gauge what we as a society are thinking and talking about,” said Shawn Robbins, chief analyst with Boxoffice Pro, the official publication for the U.S. National Association of Theatre Owners. So when Black Panther grossed $1.3-billion worldwide, we celebrated, because it opened doors for more Black stories, actors and directors – and my $13 was part of it.

Ditto for Wonder Woman’s $822-million gross, vis-à-vis women heroes and directors. If someone asked, “What was the most important film of 2017?” you could answer Get Out, and you had numbers to back you up.

“It’s a left brain, right brain scenario,” Paul Dergarabedian, the senior media analyst for Comscore, a global media measurement company, told me. “The box office figures let us apply statistical analyses to content that’s emotional. It’s a way to add another layer of interest to something you love.”

Yifei Liu in the title role of 'Mulan.'The Canadian Press

I’ve tried finding my fix elsewhere. There’s the file sharing site The Pirate Bay, which tracks what people are downloading illegally. But I won’t even glance there, because content should be paid for. TV ratings don’t mean much, since premium cable services don’t break out numbers for individual shows. You can find top 10 lists for VOD movies, but they don’t include earnings. And Netflix’s “most popular” lists are more about series than films.

“Streaming services are a different ecosystem, with its own dynamic,” Dergarabedian said. “Streamers will report if they’re up or down on subscriptions. But they don’t make revenue or viewership numbers available. They’re only forthcoming if it’s a knock-it-out-of-the-park scenario, like Disney Plus’s ploy to increase subscriptions by releasing Hamilton.” Even those numbers are meaningless, because streamers don’t distinguish between sampling and viewing – on Netflix, for example, watching a mere two minutes counts as a full viewing.

“Streaming and theatrical aren’t as directly competitive as they’ve been hyped to be,” Robbins said. “They’re two different types of experiences. Listening to someone on Spotify is not the same as a live concert.” Admittedly, he speaks for theatre owners, but I concur. Those watershed, touchstone moments happen when people are proactive, invested enough to travel to a theatre and plunk down money for a ticket. Many of us are keen to get back to that, as the skyrocketing numbers for drive-ins attest. Even Walmart is getting into the business: Beginning Aug. 14, it will transform 160 of its parking lots into drive-ins, running 320 showings of hit family films until Oct. 21.

Theatre owners love to tout the lobby effect, where people cluster together to dissect a title and create buzz. Since COVID struck, Twitter and other social media have become a virtual lobby, and the effect can be galvanizing: The avalanche of chatter and GIFs that heralded Hamilton and Netflix’s The Old Guard likely pushed you to watch them, too. But it can’t replace actual dollar figures.

I should get used to my unease, Luskin told me: It’s the seasick swing of a paradigm shift. “The closing of theatres [due to COVID] accelerated a change in behaviour that was already happening, as humans adapt to a screen-based, media-centric, new communication world, where we can access everything via the phones in our pockets,” he said. “By the time a vaccine arrives, we’ll have adapted even more to those personalized entertainments.”

Of course, all box office data for 2020 will have an asterisk attached to it, to distinguish it from other years. But the coastline has been shifting for at least a decade. “The expectation used to be, a movie comes out in theatres, generates buzz, sells DVDs, and eventually lands on a streamer,” said Bruce Nash, the founder and publisher of The Numbers, a movie industry box office tracking site. “Now the first question every studio will ask is, ‘Is this title better suited to a streamer?’”

Issa Rae as Leilani, left, and Kumail Nanjiani as Jibran in a scene from 'The Lovebirds.'The Canadian Press

Which is why everyone in the industry is laser-focused on three films. The first is Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s latest brain-bender. After much shuffling, it’s now scheduled to arrive in Canadian cinemas on Aug. 26, and in the U.S. a week later. Some analysts predict a large (ish) opening weekend with a quick taper-off – a similar pattern to pre-COVID titles, but with a much smaller payday. Others predict a slow build, with people waiting to see if the experience is safe.

The second title is Mulan, Disney’s $200-million live-action remake of its 1998 animated film, which drops Sept. 4 on Disney Plus – where subscribers who already pay $6.99/month can watch it for an additional $29.99. “Disney says it’s a one-off occurrence, but really it’s a test,” said Jeff Bock, a media analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co. “Prepare for a huge change. Because Disney will reel in 100 per cent of those profits, as opposed to splitting them with theatres 50/50. If 40 per cent buy it, that’s $600-million.”

This doesn’t mean that every Marvel or Pixar title will bypass cinemas, Bock continued. “But depending on how COVID works its way into the winter, Disney could do this again and again. Especially for family films – parents don’t want to put their kids at risk.”

The third test title, believe it or not, is Bill and Ted Face the Music, the 20-year reunion of the San Dimas dudes, starring Keanu Reeves. It’s slated to drop Aug. 28 on all formats at once: theatres, drive-ins and VOD. “If they release all those numbers, we can gauge what consumers want,” Bock said. “It could give us the definitive figures we need to make decisions going forward. So we can have summer 2021.”

That’s a chilling sentence, and it explains why this COVID time is so unsettling. Box office numbers don’t just tell us the past and present – they help predict the future. We no longer have a sense of the future. The pandemic has stolen it. We’re drifting in a weird fugue state where anything might happen.

Studios and theatre owners might revise their deals – instead of agreeing to keep films in cinemas for a set time, it might be week-to-week, title by title. The measure of a film’s success might flip from a huge opening weekend to months of longevity. A movie might begin streaming at $29.99, and drop to $15.99 in two months. But as some theatres inevitably close, we might not see a $10-billion industry, or a $500-million gross, for a long time. We have no idea how movies will be made, or how we’ll consume them – not just 10 or five years from now, but one.

“Not having box office numbers is like when the electricity goes out,” Dergarabedian summed up. “And we don’t know when it’s coming back.”

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