The blockbuster age, it’s usually said, began with the release of “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” But you could argue that the blockbuster mentality didn’t fully kick in until ordinary moviegoers began to fixate on the question of what was doing well (or not) at the box office. It’s hard to hang that development on any particular date or movie, but it probably coincided with the rise of “Entertainment Tonight” (which premiered on Sept. 14, 1981), the first show to beam the weekend box-office report into a jillion homes, and the one that popularized the winners-and-losers, here’s-what’s-number-one! school of breathless inside-Hollywood-for-the-masses financial babble.
It didn’t take long for other media outlets, notably newspapers, to pick up on it. The weekend box-office report soon became a national spectator sport, a way for all of America to look into the world of movies and decide who was up and who was down. The popularization of the box-office report heightened the dynamic of people wanting to see hit movies because they were hit movies. It accelerated the trend of a certain kind of movie (a “crowd-pleaser”) being the main kind of movie that Hollywood makes. As a result, I was never personally thrilled with the way that the box-office report got turned into a “meaningful” ritual of American culture, a kind of weekly high-school popularity contest for cinema.
At one point in the late ’80s, I was talking to a colleague before a screening, and he mentioned how “disappointing” the box-office performance of a recent movie had been. I said, “Really? Why are you disappointed?” I got what he was meant: that the film had performed below expectations. Yet it struck me that there was something faintly ridiculous about a person who wasn’t in the industry discussing the box-office tally of a film as if he was the one who’d produced it. Why did we have to be disappointed? And when a picture broke the bank, were we now supposed to be as happy about it as Mary Hart? The whole culture was being encouraged, by entertainment media, to think of movies from the point-of-view of a studio executive.
More to the point, we were being encouraged to think like a corrupt studio executive. Bottom-line thinking has always been essential to Hollywood, because movies are too expensive to afford any other kind of thinking. But the blockbuster mentality, with its high-roller fixation on shooting the moon with oversize budgets (you’ve got to spend a record fortune to make a record fortune), suggested that the monetary motive was taking over completely — that the desire to make movies that made money had become the only desire. The elevation of the weekend box-office report (“I’m so excited! ‘Tommy Boy’ is number one!”) was a celebration of that syndrome.
Over the last three months, though, the ritual has been taken away from us. And I admit that it sometimes leaves me feeling like a junkie without a fix. (Horrible redesign of boxofficemojo.com, we hardly knew ye!) Part of it is force of habit, and the fact that my own point-of-view is as tainted as anyone else’s. I can get all caught up in the horse race, rooting for the movies I like to do well.
Yet in the end, the box office does have a meaning. It tells us something about what people are responding to at the movies. There’s a good side — an honest side — to box-office obsession, just as there’s a bad side, one that looks at aesthetics through the reductive lens of commercial performance. And in the last three months, as the very existence of the box office has been swept away by Covid, I’ve actually been amazed at how much I miss it. Movies are still being released (on home-viewing platforms), but with rare exceptions we no longer have any idea how they’re performing. And that’s an alienating thing. You could also say that it’s a little sinister.
Why don’t we know how well movies are doing on streaming services? Because a decision has been made, at the corporate level, not to reveal those numbers. It started with Netflix, the company that set the template for the new era. Netflix was all about subscribers, rather than the performance of any individual film or series, and so, to bolster that image, they mostly kept those numbers under wraps. Once in a while, when Netflix produced a hit, it would go public with the numbers because it had a chance to crow about them (“‘Bird Box’ seen by 80 million Netflix subscribers!”). But mostly they left us in the dark.
And now that the pandemic has created a preview of what some are saying is the post-theatrical, all-streaming-all-the-time era, we’re seeing what it’s like not to know how well the films on streaming services are performing. Yes, there are exceptions: Universal, taking a page from Netflix, made a big show of touting the fact that “Trolls World Tour” had made $100 million on demand. But what if that film’s returns had been disappointing? (There’s that word again.) What if it had made only $40 million? Would the company have revealed that number?
Universal’s second major on-demand release is “The King of Staten Island.” As of now, I have no idea how many people have seen that movie. And speaking of Netflix, how is Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” performing? It certainly got dream reviews, not to mention a burst of awards chatter for Delroy Lindo. So was it sought out by viewers as eagerly as Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”? I’m not pretending the two situations are equivalent: one film in theaters, the other available on a subscription service. Yet there’s some way to measure how much viewer interest there is in “Da 5 Bloods” (or “The King of Staten Island,” or “Artemis Fowl”). And in all three cases, with three different companies, the films might as well have vanished into the box-office equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle.
In the streaming era, when movies drop, they make a silent sound. People are watching them, but how many people? What’s the buzz, the word-of-mouth? Are those now, in fact, outdated questions? The box-office report has only ever been a raw indicator of something, and as movie theaters begin their slow process of re-opening, it will, of course, come back. For a while, it will be meaningful in a different way. When Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” opens, the fact of limited screen numbers, and the reduced seating capacity required by social distancing, will mean that the film has little chance to break the bank — and no one will be expecting it to. Yet even with our expectations readjusted, the box office will still be a crucial barometer of how eager people are to return to the movies.
And once movies truly get rolling again (which I believe they will, though these days you look foolish if you don’t say, “Who knows?”), I’ll look forward, more than I thought I would, to knowing how they’re doing. The massification of the box-office report started out, in the late 20th century, as a (mild) corruption of the religion of moviegoing, but in hindsight it almost looks like the standard-bearer for a certain kind of sincere populist impulse. To know how many people are seeing a movie is to learn something predictable, or interesting, or maybe vital about it. To not know how many people are seeing a movie is to live in a world of controlled information where even entertainment appears to have its own deep state.