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  • Writer's pictureThe Pendulum

The Cinema Price Index

The economy is a mysterious thing. That sentence alone deserves some sort of understatement superlative. After all, most of us have heard the economy explained by teachers, parents, an impassioned stranger in the elevator, even. With GDPs, subsidies, and a million ratios, such conversations quickly sour, though, into harrowing ordeals. Alternatively, what if one was to look at the economy with altogether different indicators? As it turns out, some of these indices can be found right in your local movie theatre.

There is a growing body of research linking actor, movie, and genre preferences among a population to the economy. Much of this leg work has been carried out by Terry Pettijohn of Coastal Carolina University and University of Georgia’s Abraham Tesser. According to a theory termed the “Environmental Security Hypothesis,” in economically unstable climates, people prefer actors and actresses with more mature features, which convey strength and leadership in times of uncertainty. During fiscal turbulence, small eyes, thin cheeks, and large chins dominate. When the economy is on the upswing, the opposite is favored. So, is the difference between the US’s current economic recovery and the Great Depression summed up by Michael Cera and Spencer Tracy? 

Certainly in other arenas, society tends to favor the “tall, dark, and handsome.” These actors also happen to be categorically tied to drama films (compare the works of Woody Allen and Jack Lemmon to those of Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando, for example). Looking at box offices pulls and film awards correlating to periods of economic booms and busts, there’s actually a duality in genre preferences that’s also expressed by the thoughts of Tesser and Pettijohn. While a population may seek actors with hardened features, most popular genres actually oscillate between the extremes of drama and comedy: people in economic difficulty seek the escapism of laughs as often the inspirational catharsis drama.

The relationship between media and economy, moreover, remains so tricky to unpack because it is by nature incredibly tangled. A report conducted by Pricewaterhouse Coopers reported that Summer of 2014 suffered a 21% decrease in box office revenue from Summer of 2013. That is astronomical, but not at all surprising if 53% of the firm’s survey-takers cite ticket price as a major deterrent. Additionally, the rise of popular historical films like 12 Years a Slave and Selma have served to highlight that the demographics of the voters for the Academy Awards remain extremely homogenous. Consequently, the accuracy of a population’s representation in box office sales and film awards remains hazy at best.

Several things to consider: The state of the economy determines, in part, our psychological preferences for the movies and actors we want on the silver screen, yet this demand is challenged by increasingly high movie-going costs, and a disproportionate representation in the arena of film accolades. Yes, more research needs to be done on this intersection, but, if we can’t yet fully comprehend the relationship between the economy and cinema, we can at least appreciate the various processes at work in forming it. In the meantime, though, I’m going to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. 

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