NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Could it really be? Could it be that over the past 50 years there's been an eerie correlation between the ups and downs of the stock market and the kinds of movies that are big at the box office and that win Oscars? (Cue spooky music.) The answer: Maybe. But, maybe not.
Presented for your consideration: During the severe recession in the 1970s, the Best Picture statue went to "The Godfather, Part II" (1974) and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975), both rather grim movies, and very different from the uplifting "Rocky" and the comedy "Annie Hall," the next two years' winners, as we came out of the recession and the stock market popped up again.
A more recent example is the Best Picture of 1991, "The Silence of the Lambs" (and its box office counterpart, "Terminator 2"), which came out during a period of extreme economic anxiety and wavering stock market performance.
One complicating factor is the production time involved in making a movie. Most movies take two to three years to make, so the movies that are available for public consumption at any given time will usually reflect what producers thought people wanted to see two years before. "Unless it's a long-standing conflict like World War II or Vietnam, whose effects we saw on the movies for years, most recessions are too small to really impact the content of movies," says Peter Rainer, movie critic for New York magazine.
But the economy can affect whether people want to go see a movie when it finally hits the screens, and a desire to just forget a lousy economy can be a factor. "The so-called height of the movie business was in 1938 to 1941, during the Depression, just before World War II," says Chris Dixon, Entertainment and Media analyst for UBS Warburg. "Movies reflect the times we live in, but it's the audience's desire for escapism that brings us to the movies."
"Escapism is always big," says Jay Cohen, president of Cosmic Entertainment, a movie production company. "People go to the movies for hope. There's no way we could take 'American Beauty' this year, for example. We're still too frail, psychologically speaking."
Not everyone agrees, however. "It's a myth that the movie business was booming during the Depression," says Rainer. "For one thing, there wasn't as much repeat business back then. A movie came out, played theaters for a while and then that was it."