Reporter’s Notebook: The Weekend When Box Office Hit Zero for the First Time

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Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre box office on March 20, 2020 in Los Angeles.

Hollywood’s theater owners, film distribution executives, analysts and writers who pore over the numbers each week are reckoning with a full stop.

My alarm clock has awoken me between 5:45 a.m. and 6 a.m. on nearly every Saturday and Sunday for the past decade in order to cover box office for The Hollywood Reporter. My go-to coping mechanism — believe me, I am not a morning person — is to hit the snooze button two or three times, providing the illusion that I get to sleep in. By 7 a.m. latest, after coffee or tea, I’ve started writing and am prepared for the onslaught of grosses flooding my inbox.

And now utter silence.

As of last Friday — and for the first time in the 100-plus year history of the motion picture business — virtually all cinemas in the U.S. were closed amid the coronavirus pandemic, as well as in much of the rest of the world.

On Sunday, my heart skipped a beat when I received a 9 a.m. PT email from Comscore, the industry’s receptacle for grosses. Perhaps there were still enough locations open to make the effort worthwhile, but when I opened the attached excel sheet, it was empty and an inconceivable reminder that cinemas — like so many other businesses — have gone from full steam to no revenue in a “blink of an eye,” as National Association of Theatre Owners chief John Fithian told me during a recent interview.

He and I are among the numerous members of the box office tribe across the world, from the major Hollywood studios to the small distributors. Throughout the weekend, and especially on Sunday, teams of people collect data and blast numbers and analysis to reporters, studio chiefs, producers, directors and talent.

I can’t possibly count the number of times those of us on perpetual box office duty have commiserated about how nice it would be to have a break. We celebrated when we gained an hour in the fall and griped when the clocks turned back in the spring. Even during vacations, post-9/11 and personal crises — in my case, major cervical spine surgery last year which wiped me out for five weeks — all of us still peeked at the numbers flowing in sooner or later, even when “off” duty. Never could we have imagined a full stop.

Erik Lomis, a don of the distribution business who presently works at United Artists Releasing, is famous for waking up at 4 a.m., seven days a week. By 5:30 a.m., he sends out projected grosses for the previous day. That’s in addition to a detailed analysis on the weekends of how new movies and recently released titles have performed. Last Thursday night, he realized he had to let go. “I sat at my computer at 11 p.m.,” he recalls, “and saw that a rerelease of The Big Lebowski was the top-grossing movie from nine theaters.”

Emails dispatched late last week turned into missives of grief. “I have been reporting the grosses since we started using computers to get the data and while I can’t remember the exact date, the year was 1988. Prior to that we used to get the grosses by calling a central hub and writing them by hand or actually calling the individual theaters to get the grosses if you can imagine that,” Lomis said in a March 19 note. “Today in these wild and crazy times I don’t think that there is any reason to continue reporting until we make it through to the other side and return to some kind of normalcy. I believe that we are resilient and that we will make it through but it may take a little time.”

Or this from Walt Disney Pictures on March 18: “Given the current large number of theater shutdowns around the globe, Disney will suspend global weekend reporting for the time being. Wishing you and your families the best during these testing times and please be safe.”

In happier times, I was always relieved when the new movie of the weekend belonged to Disney. Most studios announce their North American grosses by 7:30 a.m. Disney doesn’t generally send out their note until well after 8 a.m. — Hallelujah, one more tap of the snooze button! — since they include both domestic and global in the same memo. The rest of the studios issue their international numbers separately. (Universal is generally quickest, with overseas grosses following domestic.)

For those of us those covering box office, this separation between domestic and international means constantly updating the main story until 11 a.m. or later. In between, there are the calls to studio distribution executives in the hopes of gleaning a good quote and catching up on the most gossip. This past Sunday, calls went mostly unanswered. What was there to say, other than to commiserate about whether current releases being made available early on premium VOD did any business?

The first wave of frenzy for box office junkies begins around noon on Friday when studios begin privately estimating weekend grosses for the top five or 10 films. If you are lucky, sources will share this info. There are updates on Friday night, followed by Saturday morning stories on Friday grosses, and then the Sunday crush. And forget about having a break during major holidays (try explaining to your family year after year why presents can’t be opened until you finish your Christmas morning story, or why it’s tough to travel over Thanksgiving).

We are creatures of habit. When I went to bed on Saturday night, I stared at my iPhone, lost. What time should I set my alarm for? I decided on 7 a.m. to preserve some sort of normalcy. For Lomis, it meant getting up at 5:30 a.m. instead of 4 a.m. “It’s weird to look at the grosses and see nothing,” he told me on Sunday. For Comscore ambassador and box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian, it meant setting his alarm for 7:45 a.m. instead of 6:30 a.m. or so. He wanted to be prepared in case he received emails or phone calls from journalists. Mine was the first he received, and that was well past 10 a.m.

“Digesting numbers is baked into my DNA, so Sunday was a very strange feeling. I feel like a very lonely Maytag repairman,” Dergarabedian adds. “We are an ecosystem. And it represents more than the numbers going out, but a lot of hard-working people who are stuck in neutral like so many other businesses. Sometimes, we talk about what a bummer it is to have to wake up so early. Believe it or not, we will be very excited to set the alarm for 6:30 on a Sunday morning. All of us.”

I will be happy to say I’m a morning person after all.