Published in the Los Angeles Times
What do you want to watch during a recession? Hollywood is racking its brain to find out.
Foreclosure-free fare such as "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" has performed better than expected, and the conventional wisdom in Hollywood says to keep a light touch. "In a bad economy, people want to escape the harsh reality of the real world and escape into a movie that will make them laugh or where there is a thrill of action and the bad guys are given their comeuppance," says longtime producer Lauren Shuler Donner, whose "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" opens May 1.
But shows such as "Desperate Housewives" and "30 Rock" have been sprinkled with stories of economic hardship, and executives are ordering pilots such as ABC's "Canned," in which a group of friends are fired on the same day.
How to resolve this contradiction? The answers could lie far from Burbank. Psychologists and communications scholars have been studying this issue for decades, shedding light on where our eyeballs turn when times are tough and heads hang low. These researchers conduct studies that measure people's moods -- or induce certain moods -- and then see how they react to various forms of entertainment, from Simon & Garfunkel to "The Real World."
Since the 1940s, the prevailing theory in this field has been "mood management," which states that people want entertainment that will put them in a better mood. In addition, people want entertainment that will bring them back to an optimum level of excitation -- if they're bored, they want to be excited, and if they're angry, they want to be pacified.
"It's part of the human condition that we avoid bad moods," says Dolf Zillmann, a pioneer of this theory and professor emeritus at the University of Alabama. "Media consumption very often follows this line."
In Hollywood-speak, mood management means escapism, although Zillmann dislikes that term. "It's intelligent behavior," he says. "It's adaptive behavior. We are running away from problems about which we can do nothing."
Zillmann and others have done many studies that back up this theory. In one he co-wrote in 2002, subjects took a computerized test and were secretly given arbitrary, randomly predetermined scores, putting some in good moods and others in bad moods. After the test, when the subjects could listen to popular songs, the people in a bad mood were drawn more to energetic, joyful music than the people in good moods were.
As Zillmann's frequent collaborator, University of Alabama professor Jennings Bryant, explains, "We can only think about so many things at the same time, so if we invest cognitive effort in a TV program we're interested in, we're not going to pay as much attention to rehearsal of the things that make us angry."
So the recession makes people gaga for Kevin James and the Jonas Brothers, right? Not so fast. A number of recent studies have challenged mood-management theory.
For instance, if people always want to boost their mood, why do so many people watch sad movies? " 'Titanic' is the bestselling movie of all time, and it's overall very depressing," says Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, an associate professor of communication at Ohio State University who worked on the music study.
In another study she worked on with Zillmann, college students filled out a survey that included questions about their love lives, and then were able to listen to eight songs -- four "love-celebrating" songs, such as "Thank You for Loving Me" by Bon Jovi, and four "love-lamenting" songs, such as "I Wish" by R. Kelly. Those unlucky in love spent more time listening to the sad songs than the happy people did.
Zillmann explains that the usual mood-management process "doesn't work when the suffering is too severe. You can have problems -- and being dumped by a lover is one of those problems -- when telling jokes will not solve that problem."
Other researchers would go further, arguing that mood management is just one of the many reasons why people consume entertainment. A 2006 study, for instance, found that people who cheated on a romantic partner and felt regret preferred to watch cheating stories from MTV's "The Real World" more than other people did -- and it helped reduce their bad feelings.
"Watching entertainment about the life situation you're facing -- whether it's finances or illness or a relationship -- might help you feel better," says Robin Nabi, an associate professor of communication at UC Santa Barbara, who worked on the study. "You might find ways for how to cope, it might be a source of information, and it might also be an opportunity to see your situation a little differently."
In difficult financial situations, entertainment might be used for social comparison -- finding out how you're doing by seeing how you stack up to others. Mary Beth Oliver, a professor at Penn State University and the co-director of its Media Effects Research Lab, questions the good-mood/bad-mood dichotomy. She hypothesized that there is a certain kind of mood in which people aren't exactly happy or sad but a mixture of both, in a sort of bittersweet, "tender" state. She showed subjects of various moods trailers for movies such as "Punchline" (comedy), "Past Midnight" (suspense) and "The Prince of Tides" (sad) and found that people in this tender state were most likely to want to watch the sad movies -- more so than even the people in a sad mood. In subsequent studies, she found that people in this tender mood actually preferred meaningful films, sad or otherwise.
"We're watching these films to contemplate human life. That contemplation includes both joy and sorrow," she says. "In 'Field of Dreams,' when he plays catch with his father, it's happy, but it's sad at the same time."
Whereas all of these studies have involved experiments in a lab, others have used data on our actual entertainment choices -- with surprisingly consistent results. One study published last December looked at the top Billboard song for each year from 1955 to 2003 and compared them with social and economic conditions, as measured by the unemployment rate, change in the consumer price index, divorce rate and other factors. "We found that when times were more difficult, people did prefer the more meaningful songs," says Terry Pettijohn, an assistant professor of psychology at Coastal Carolina University and a co-author of the study. "They also preferred songs that they rated as more comforting, more romantic, slower and longer in duration."
Somber songs like "Bridge Over Troubled Water" (1970) and "Every Breath You Take" (1983) came out during tough years, while peppier songs like "At the Hop" (1958) and "My Sharona" (1979) came out during better ones.
Another study from 2000 looked at Nielsen ratings for the top 20 shows from 1960 to 1990, and compared them with similar economic and social factors. Again, during more troubling times, people favored the more serious shows.
Of course, when we get home from work, sit on the couch and start flipping channels, it's hard to believe that our decision to stop at a rerun of "The Jeffersons" is determined by, say, the level of suicides per capita.
But think of it this way, explains William McIntosh, professor of psychology at Georgia Southern University and co-author of the television study: One year a silly comedy like "Three's Company" might be No. 1, but in the next year it might move down to No. 3, and the more serious, wartime comedy "MASH" could take its place -- perhaps amid more serious events.
"It's not like everyone stops watching some dumb comedy and starts watching '60 Minutes' or 'CSI,' " McIntosh says. "It's a subtle shift in the viewership."
Quality still counts
But Zillmann cautions that these studies show only a correlation -- they do not prove that a recession causes us to desire serious entertainment.
Within Hollywood, where such academic research isn't widely known, many studios seem intent on selling escapism. Nancy Kirkpatrick, president of worldwide marketing for Summit Entertainment, said that her company decided not to sell the serious issues in the hit film "Knowing." "We wanted it to feel like a big action-adventure popcorn movie," she says. "We didn't feel the audience was looking to look at some apocalyptic, serious, introspective, thought-provoking, 'Oh my God what do I do if the world does end?' "
In the end, some studios might do best to ignore the economy altogether. Alan Wurtzel, president of research for NBC Universal, disputes the conventional Hollywood wisdom that people want froth -- but doesn't think audiences want particularly serious content either. "We've gone through many of these recessions," he says, "and we've never found there to be a rule of thumb."
Kevin Goetz, president of the worldwide motion picture group at OTX, a research firm that consults for Hollywood studios, believes that movie attendance is up this year because people simply want to gather collectively and experience strong emotions -- of any kind.
"There's not one type of genre that's doing better right now," Goetz says. "They want to laugh, they want to cry."