Great escapes: A tanking economy means big bucks for Tinseltown

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As investors look for opportunities beyond the traditional recession hedges of lipstick, liquor, and ice cream, it may be worthwhile to take another look at entertainment. If previous economic downturns are any indication, the next few years promise to be very good for the dream factory.

In media histories of the Great Depression, two things loom large: society gossip and cinema. While millions of Americans found themselves scrambling for food and work, they discovered a newfound love of escapist entertainment.

In fact, when it comes to movies, The Great Depression was a great thing. Some of America's most enduring classics, including Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and The Wizard of Oz, pandered to the entertainment needs of a desperately depressed populace. With that in mind, it hardly seems surprising that, while many pundits have been tolling the death knell for Hollywood, the economic slowdown has brought big business to movie theaters.

Even as some analysts argued that the recession will hurt Hollywood, Regal cinemas watched its fourth-quarter earnings jump by 30% last year, and this year's Presidents' Day was the biggest in cinema history. Ticket sales are up 16%, mirroring the 1980s recession, and it's pretty clear that the downfall in the general economy is only benefiting the movies.

The reasons for cinema's increasing popularity are fairly clear. While Netflix and streaming movies are easy ways to watch a film, they are no substitute for the theater experience. In some ways, the very convenience of the methods mitigate against their entertainment value. Watching at home, it is possible to view a movie on one's laptop and pause to go to the bathroom. The thing is, a tiny screen can't block out the world. The ability to turn off a film at will means that it is, by definition, less powerful.

When a population wants to escape, there is a lot to be said for a darkened room with a big screen. Moreover, as some cinema theorists have argued, the movie theater can directly trace its heritage to the Stone-Age campfire, around which cavemen grouped for comfort and security. While the theater encourages silence, it also builds a sense of community, and the screams and laughter of the audience, although sometimes annoying, can also be reassuring.

As famed gossip columnist Walter Winchell ably demonstrated, the excesses of the rich provided a heady distraction from the depredations of poverty. Similarly, the movies' ability to transport viewers to distant worlds made it possible for them to forget about the miseries of this one.

Regarding gossip, it would appear that Winchell has been replaced with Bravo. The NBC/Universal-owned network seems to have a lock on telling the tales of America's rich, morally-compromised demimonde. As James Poniewozik recently noted in Time magazine, the channel has scarcely left a stone unturned in its exploration of the seamy, shallow side of the tracks. For years, Bravo has covered almost every aspect of the privileged life; even in the midst of the current recession, programs from Project Runway to Real Housewives to The Millionaire Matchmaker are setting ratings records for the cable channel.

Even as this year's scaled-down Oscars represented an attempt at restrained spectacle, Hollywood's execs are giving themselves fat raises. While this may be another example of Wall Street-style self-cannibalization, it seems far more likely that studio chiefs see a bright future ahead for the entertainment industry.


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