Arts·Queeries

The day the numbers went away: A movie box office nerd mourns the loss of a lifelong obsession

It's obviously the least of our troubles, but reading those Sunday box office charts was a beloved tradition for many (especially Peter Knegt).

It's the least of our troubles, but reading those Sunday box office charts was a beloved tradition for many

A scene from Pixar's Onward, the last film to hold the number one spot at the North American box office before COVID-19 closed cinemas. The expression on the character's face is also a fair representation of the author's mood for the past 2 months. (Disney)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. 

On March 22, 2020, I woke up mildly hungover around noon, as one does on the second Sunday of existing in The Bad Place (let's stop with this "the new normal" nonsense and call it what it is). Particularly during those early days of quarantine, there was often a brief delay between first becoming conscious and fully reminding myself of the world I now lived in. And as I reached for for my phone to do something I had done every Sunday morning for the past 20 years, I remembered one specific element of that world: it was a world without a weekend movie box office chart.

I knew this was coming. The Sunday prior, the chart had already showed signs of crumbling as people stopped going to the movies. Led by the second weekend of Pixar's Onward, it was the lowest-grossing weekend at the North American box office in two decades. But a week later, there were no movies to even go to anymore as cinemas had all gone dark. So, for the first time since National Gross Service started to collate the weekend data in 1981, there was no weekend box office chart. 

The last box office chart before COVID-19 shut down cinemas across North America. (Box Office Mojo)

I understand your potential confusion about why — in the grand scheme of The Bad Place, at least — this would be considered remotely a concerning issue. But dear reader, you do not understand. For me, this marked the (temporary, we hope) death of a lifelong, full-fledged obsession.

In the early 1990s, I made my mother subscribe to delivered physical copies of Entertainment Weekly and Variety (which weren't exactly readily available at any store in my hometown of Trenton, Ont.) so I could know, in those pre-internet times, what had topped the box office on any given weekend. I would then memorize the charts and make my brother video record a weekly talk show I called Peter's Entertainment where I would recite those numbers in the most burgeoning homosexual demeanour possible. I even have proof! Lo and behold, a 1991 edition (the camera work for which you must excuse — my brother was then but a 5-year-old cinematographer):

I re-discovered this "episode" a few weeks ago when, on another box office chart-less Sunday, I started a quarantine project: I decided to start converting hundreds of hours of family home videos into digital files I could share with my family. This quickly became an obsession in itself: I barely slept for days, descending into borderline madness as I watched each and every minute of myself and my siblings' documented youth. On the one hand, this was a hopeful reminder of the family I still very much had (even if currently it was just in a group chat and occasionally over Zoom). But on the other, it made for a sleep-deprived analysis of how deeply pure I had seemed to be before society got to me — and, of course, just how deeply entrenched I was in my interest in the box office numbers.

There is also literally an entire hour of footage in which I am just entering data from almanacs my mother had bought me for Christmas into a Lotus 1-2-3 (aw, fellow nerds: remember Lotus 1-2-3?) spreadsheet that I kept for at least an entire decade. I would enter in every movie, the year it came out, and how much money it made, and then sort the data various ways for hours on end:

It was kind of heartbreaking to think of what seven-year-old Peter's reaction would be to the box office numbers ceasing to exist. He would have lost his little mind. At the same time, I also thought about how proud he would have been of how much I would ultimately continue the pursuit. The encyclopedic knowledge of box office data did me way more favours than I could ever have dreamed of. In undergrad, it was my party trick: name any movie released after, say, 1975, and I could tell you the month and year it came out and what it grossed in North America, give or take a couple million. And then after I graduated, it became my legitimate profession. When the film website IndieWire initially hired me, it was in part to write their weekend box office column, which I would continue to do every single Sunday morning for the 10 years I worked there (no matter where I woke up...and if I had a dime for every time I had to awkwardly ask a man I'd met the night before to borrow his laptop to write about how much money movies made over the weekend, I'd have a few dollars).

This is perhaps a ridiculous comparison, but given the whole Sunday element, I feel comfortable making it: these two months and counting where the box office charts have no longer existed is probably as close as I'll come to knowing what it feels like to be excommunicated. The church of the holy Sunday box office numbers has been my religion since 1990 — and thanks to COVID-19, I'm losing it.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag and interactive project Superqueeroes, both of which won him 2020 Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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