Shifts in social mood can change the types of movies in which major directors and actors decide to participate. Steven Spielberg directed memorable movies about a cutely loveable extra-terrestrial in E.T. and friendly space visitors in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The films evoked the wonders of interplanetary communication with childlike aliens.
In the buoyant atmosphere of the mid-1990s bull market, Spielberg could not countenance even the possibility of doing a darker treatment of otherworldly creatures: “I could never make an evil, aggressive alien movie," he said in 1996.
But his mind changed 180 degrees during the sharp downturn in social mood associated with the 2000-2003 bear market. In its wake he directed War of the Worlds, which depicted an invasion by hostile space invaders intent on destroying humanity, released in 2005. Even Spielberg’s aliens had come down with a bad case of negative social mood. The story was also a panic-inducing radio play by Orson Welles during the Depression in 1938.
As Newsweek opined in 2009 regarding the bearish first decade of the century, Hollywood had created numerous dystopian worlds for “moviegoers beaten down by a surfeit of grim fantasy visions over the past decade, including the dour Matrix films, the discontents of Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, and War of the Worlds, Alfonso Cuaron’s relentless Children of Men, and even the Harry Potter films, which dwell much more on the rise of evil than the eventual triumph of good.”
Similarly, The Road (2009) depicted a brutal struggle for survival in a bare, post-apocalyptic world where some of the survivors are driven to devouring each other. Newsweek noted “The Road seems to suggest that mankind is on a dreary march to endless pain” and the grim surfeit of Hollywood doom and gloom was “starting to feel like Misery Porn. No one is immune. A 'feel-good' movie now means you have to feel your way through two bleak hours before you get to the 'happy' ending.” Cinematic utopias are in scarce supply in bear markets.
The movies in which major actors choose to reunite also can be influenced by social mood. Hollywood duo Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet starred in the 1997 bull market movie Titanic that was an enormous critical and commercial success. The epic romance became the highest grossing film of all time and won 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture.
Critics opined that the movie reflected “a return to romanticism and hope” and “The country is losing its heart to a movie that is 100% cynicism free”. Newsweek wondered, “Why are we all sobbing with pleasure?” We were sobbing with pleasure because 1997 was a reprise of the happy bull market environment of the 1920s and mid-1960s.
This A-list acting couple reunited in the movie Revolutionary Road in the severe bear market of 2008. Now the collective mood was much different and so were the movie characters. The actors portrayed the bleak lives and emotional desolation of a young suburban couple.
Movie critic Claudia Pulg wrote, “Now is the winter of their discontent. And ours, after watching this devastatingly sad film. This is a grim tale of shattered dreams and mounting despair...a haunting, heartbreaking study of a disintegrating marriage and a couple’s debilitating sense of hopelessness.” Here the socionomic formula is: Negative social mood --> Discontent + Despair -->Bear Market + living on Revolutionary Road.
Kate Winslet won Golden Globes for two movies in 2008, one for her performance in Revolutionary Road and a second for The Reader, for which she also won an Oscar for best actress. In The Reader she played a former Nazi concentration camp guard who ultimately hangs herself. Unlike bullish 1997, not a trace of titanic hope or “sobbing with pleasure” could be found in Kate Winslet’s roles during the bear market of 2008.
In just the single bear market year 2002, additional examples of parallel shifts in social mood and well-known actors’ movie choices included Jennifer Aniston, who gained fame as the playful, upbeat Rachel in the mid-1990’s bull market Friends TV series. Her character in The Good Girl in 2002 was a bored, depressed wife and would-be criminal who betrayed her drunken, dim-witted husband and experienced an unwanted pregnancy.
In the same year, perennial funnyman Robin Williams played a bad guy in three movies, including One Hour Photo in which he portrayed a creepy, unbalanced loner who becomes obsessed with a handsome family whom he terrorizes. And genial Tom Hanks, known for nice-guy roles, played a hit man who murders a victim in front of his son and is himself gunned down in Road to Perdition. Successful actors, directors and producers seem to have a knack for choosing roles and movies that are aligned with the mood of the times.
Are you tired or fed up with the current direction of movies? Then watch the stock market. It will provide the earliest signal that a change is “coming soon to a theater near you.”