Recession-themed films? Not at the multiplex

Although the recession officially ended in June 2009, you’d never know it thanks to a national unemployment rate still hovering near 10%, a shaky housing market and more people living in poverty than at any time in the last 15 years. And last week’s elections pretty much confirmed that the state of the economy was the No. 1 subject on people’s minds.

Yet as far as Hollywood is concerned, the economic downturn is not multiplex material. More than two years into the worst financial meltdown since the Great Depression, filmmakers have essentially ignored the stories of average Americans who have been downsized or lost their homes in the collapse of the housing bubble. Instead, when the crisis is addressed, the focus has been on the masters of the fiscal universe, those venal yet somehow glamorous folks who caused the crisis — like the subjects of Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” or the recent documentary “Inside Job.”

Other films, mainly such nonfiction features as “Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer” and Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: A Love Story,” have dealt with the conditions that created the meltdown but barely mention its effects on average people. And even though last year’s Oscar-nominated “Up in the Air” featured George Clooney as a man who helps to downsize companies, the film was about him and his lifestyle, barely touching on the people whose jobs he eliminates.


Which makes “The Company Men,” opening Dec. 10, an anomaly. The film stars Ben Affleck, Chris Cooper and Tommy Lee Jones as well-paid corporate executives who are laid off by their shipping firm and forced to reconfigure the economics of their lives. Despite the relative affluence of the key characters, writer-director John Wells’ picture is universal in its portrayal of the anger, depression and financial difficulties these men experience and of how the loss of their jobs also means a loss of identity.

“I just got interested in the human cost of what was going on,” says Wells (“ER,” “The West Wing”). “It was something that happened to my brother-in-law. He was a VP of marketing and sales, and his company was bought out by a Swiss firm, and 5,000 people were let go. He wound up living in my parents’ basement six months later. I think there really is a place for cinema that is about what is happening to people, and people do want to see their experiences reflected in film.”

Indirectly, the film also raises interesting questions about the nexus of mass entertainment, politics and economics. Now dependant more and more on “franchise” films and sequels, many of them based on comic books, youth-oriented novels and video games, the big Hollywood studios, which usually take much longer to greenlight a film than they did in the pre-TV era, are not particularly interested in socially conscious work. And independent films have not really taken up the slack. Although several recent pictures, such as 2008’s “Wendy and Lucy” and “Frozen River” and this year’s “Winter’s Bone,” deal with people in dire economic straits, the recession seems to have little to do with their problems. By contrast, a number of TV shows, including “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Simpsons” and the just-debuted “Downsized” on WETV, have dealt with the downturn either allegorically or head on.

Hollywood’s output during the Depression in the 1930s was significantly different. Although the era is known for glossy entertainments that aimed to keep filmgoers’ minds off their economic troubles, it also produced a number of films directly addressing the Depression and its consequences. Within four years of the country’s economic collapse, for example, the studios had released such pictures as “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang,” with its imagery of out out-of-work veterans forced to steal for a living; “Wild Boys of the Road,” in which a group of teens become hobos; “American Madness,” an early Frank Capra movie featuring a run on a bank; and “Gold Diggers of 1933" and its unforgettable “Remember My Forgotten Man” number, which includes a scene of former American doughboys standing in a breadline.

“This was the period when there was no Social Security, no unemployment insurance, and when you don’t have them, you’re aware of what might happen to you,” says Philip Hanson, author of “This Side of Despair: How the Movies and American Life Intersected During the Great Depression.” “The movies were relatively new” at that time, Hanson adds, “and if you’re selling a product and the people you are selling to are rabid to find out what’s happening to them, you can sell movies drenched in working-class suffering, because the people who will show up for your film are in these films.”

“Hollywood always tries to anticipate what people want to see,” adds Craig Forgrave, author of “Movies We Love in Times of Depression.” “Back in the ‘30s, they were trying to be authentic to what they saw in society. I don’t think today’s Hollywood thinks you can take real people and talk about what their struggles are and attract people to the theaters.”

There are several reasons for this disconnect between the 1930s and today. Possibly the most important is that unlike the 1930s, today there are many more forms of entertainment. And even though studios today are generally headed by political liberals who tend to give a lot of money to Democrats, they are now part of media conglomerates, less and less beholden to the artistic and business visions of a few moguls. There’s also the fact that many of the early industry leaders, like Jack Warner and Samuel Goldwyn, had immigrant backgrounds, and despite the wealth they acquired, were emotionally closer to the working class than today’s college-educated studio heads.

“From that perspective, they were sensitive to injustice,” says Hanson. " Warner Bros. became the social-consciousness company. You have people hyper-aware of injustice and hyper-ready to respond to it.”

That, and the fact that the Great Depression — during which as much as one-quarter of the workforce was unemployed — affected a greater percentage of people than the current crisis. Eighty years ago, the struggles of poor working people were simply more all-encompassing.

Filmmaker Stone understands this. In the original “Wall Street,” the father ( Martin Sheen) of Charlie Sheen’s financier on the make was the president of a blue collar union at an airline that corporate raider Gordon Gekko ( Michael Douglas) wanted to purchase, in order to sell off its assets. In the sequel, that working-class connection is gone.

“It’s almost like any working-class character would have been passé at this point,” says Stone. “What would you have, some independent contractor?” If audiences want to see the effects of the financial meltdown on real people, adds Stone, you might have to “go to a documentary.”

The fiscal crisis itself contributes to this lack of interest in recession tales. It’s harder to raise money for film projects across the board. In fact, Wells says he was lucky that he had his financing in place when he started shooting “The Company Men” in late 2008, because “three months later, I don’t think we would have gotten it financed. Credit just completely eroded.” (Much of it was financed through guarantees from foreign sales.)

This credit crunch also means that financiers have become more risk averse, so if it’s worked before, it will probably get financed again.

“I don’t think the industry is interested in movies for which the audience is adults,” says producer Anthony Bregman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), voicing a familiar complaint. “Most movies made by the studios are geared toward boys and young people in general, and they’re not interested in going to movies about working people. They’re interested in seeing movies in which robots blow things up. The message that the film financing and distribution people have been sending out is they want escapist fare instead of movies that address the [current] situation in realistic or issue-oriented ways.”

“Adults are really hard to find in the movie theaters, and historically, they’ve been hard to get out on opening weekends, and opening weekends have become more critical,” says producer-director Marc Abraham (“Children of Men,” “Flash of Genius”). On average, nearly one-third of a film’s total gross comes on its opening weekend.

“Also, because of TV tackling a lot of drama, and because dramas have not been able to deliver on any consistent box office basis, you can hardly get a drama made at a studio level,” adds Abraham. “So look at it this way: You are asking people who are hard to get into the movie theater to go see a movie in a cynical time that is a mirror of their personal pain. That’s a very rough thing to accomplish.”

It’s not that the studios don’t turn out the occasional socially relevant drama — “The Social Network,” about the origins of Facebook, is a prime example.

And filmmakers such as Wells believe that people do want to see reflections of their own lives on screen. “I think everyone is short-sighted in how sophisticated the audience is,” he says, “and that they’re prepared to look at other things. There is a general belief that people just want to be entertained, and they want to pretend none of this is ever happening. If that were the case, no one would have made ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’”

Freelancer John Anderson contributed to this article.