Social Mood on the Silver Screen

Movies are not only a major industry but also arguably America’s premier cultural export, shaping its image abroad. An army of creative Hollywood talent is itself directly affected by social mood and it also tries to tap into the mood of the movie-going public when choosing the films it will produce.

On both the creative side and the business side of the film industry, assessments of the audiences’ emotional temperature may be conscious and explicit or they may be unconscious and intuitive. In either case, such judgments by writers, actors, directors, and producers inform the filmmaking process and shape its outcome. And the mood of audiences affects which movies they decide to see and which movies will succeed financially.

As an important cultural medium, motion pictures tell more than narrative stories. A grand meta-story of society’s mood flickers on the screen for those who look for it. Not every movie is aligned with the dominant mood of a particular time. But major trends in films are instructive.

Film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his memoir, Life Itself, "If you pay attention to the movies they will tell you what people desire and fear."  The nature of those desires and fears is very different during periods of positive versus negative social mood. Negative social mood elicits fearful insecurities and s desire for safety, along with fantasies of revenge and punishment. Positive social mood brings more joyful dreams, hopeful ambitions, and desire for adventure.

Changes over time in the themes and tone of motion pictures reflect the same alternations in collective mood that propel the stock market. This is evident in the progression of blockbuster sequels, changes in the types of movies produced by individual studios, and even changes within specific movie genres over time. Examples of each are examined in the articles in this section.