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Burn The Record Books: The Post-Crisis Movies Will Need New Ways To Count

Talk about box-office drama. As the July 4 weekend unwinds, IFC’sThe Truth might be slugging it out with Homewrecker from Dark Star and The Outpost from Fathom for the honor of ranking somewhere in the 300s, near IFC’s own Wiener-Dog, among all-time Independence Day performers. (Who can say for sure, as release dates have become as fuzzy as the numbers, and simultaneous on-demand and digital availability clouds the picture?)

Meanwhile, a handful of drive-ins are packing them in for catalog films like Zootopia and Jurassic Park. With luck, Zootopia might beat its own past performance, four months after its original release, over the July 4 holiday in 2016.

As for overall ticket sales, they are approaching $1.8 billion, down from last year’s level of—oh, what’s the difference? Racked by virus and unrest, the movie industry has largely abandoned its favorite past-time, keeping score. There are barely enough ticket sales to bother counting.

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But you also have to wonder: What becomes of the record books when this crisis begins to ease?

The current disruption isn’t just a pause. On the other side, things are going to be different. Widespread and more immediate streaming will be a fact of life, as will the accompanying lack of information as to viewership. (Data-watchers are waiting to see whether Disney chooses to say how many are watching its streamed Hamilton.) Theatrical releases will sputter for a long time. Seasonal patterns will remain broken. Windows will open and close in ways still unknown.

So it won’t make much sense to measure the performance of post-crisis movies against all those wonderful data points—Biggest four-day weekend of all-time! Best long-run multiple to opening! Worst drop-off for wide-release ever!—that made bird-watching at the box office more fun than fantasy baseball.

Along with inevitable changes in distribution habits will come a new approach to the Oscars. The next ceremony, delayed until April 25, will stretch eligibility deadlines to Feb. 28, muddling all those granular comparisons between the films of this year, plus some of next year, and those of last year, or of a presumably shortened 2021.

Beyond that, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has promised to impose new representation and inclusion standards for Oscar eligibility. The revised rules haven’t been set yet. But if they are strict enough to change hiring and perhaps content in the movies, they will also alter the field of contenders, much as the rapid international expansion of Academy membership has already done. The newer Best Picture nominees will be apples; those of the past remain oranges. They might not belong in the same basket of data.

Similarly, a break in measurability may apply to the closely followed television ratings of the Oscar ceremony. Another ratings crash in April, stoked by the box-office collapse and coming behind this year’s dismal performance, would probably signal a new era, in which the show must be judged by some metric other than how many viewers watch it on ABC. An index that includes foreign audience, social media references, and polling approval or disapproval of on-stage messaging might be an option.

In any case, we’re going to need more than just an asterisk for the year 2020. The future, when it finally gets here, will require new benchmarks and new methods of counting. Maybe we’ll have to designate box-office records as “BC” or “AC,” for Before or After the Collapse. In tallying Oscar wins and nominations, it may be meaningful to note whether a past film met current standards. Maybe “AAC” for Academy Aperture Compliant—incorporating the film Academy’s label for its  inclusion program—would do the trick.

Or maybe we’ll have to do little less counting and a little more watching in the years to come.

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