Friday, January 9, 2009

About Entertainment in the Last Depression

Some of you have asked for some insight into where I think the market might be going. It's a bit early for my conclusions, but I thought I would share part of an email discussion Alicia and I have been having over the last few days.

People tend to think of stories as light or dark, but there's another element that comes into play, which is, for lack of a better term, bigness. A big story can be funny or gloomy. The size stems from things like the shock factor in the plot events, the severity of the characters' reactions, and similar. You can have a big funny story, and a small dark paranormal. Big stories provide better escapes. They demand attention. They're cathartic.

In any event, Alicia and I were talking about movies because movie attendance stayed high during the depression. Books and movies were the most common forms of commercial entertainment back then. I've had several people comment to me recently about Depression-era publishing, and in particular, about the success of Gone With the Wind during that time. People seem to think this is evidence of why publishing will be recession-proof this time around. But, in fact, for whatever reasons -- the Borders situation, the severity of the economic climate, more variety in commercial entertainment options, whatever -- we're not recession-proof this time.

What movies became popular against the setting of the depression? The screwball comedies, and also all the movies about rich people in ballgowns drinking champagne. All the Fred and Ginger movies, and Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, and so on -- people wanted to forget about money trouble and be high-spirited. Not carefree, but something else, something that would allow them to experience a real belly laugh and a new set of problems. That's not the same as "light." Something can be deeply funny rather than light and funny.

I think the key to the screwball comedies was their outrageousness. They really pushed the envelope. Every scene would introduce some new complication, usually something so inventive as to be almost unbelievable, but that was what audiences wanted. They wanted the bigness of the guy who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt charging up the staircase while two little old maiden aunts quietly poison every man who wanders up their sidewalk.

It's cathartic. And I really think that's the key. Whatever the emotion, it will have to be big enough to be cathartic.

And don't forget, Scarlett O'Hara was obsessed with money and fighting against the demon poverty. The book was big in number of pages, but also big in plot and character and emotion, and her struggles were something readers could relate to -- lost affluence, crushing poverty and hunger, and reputation as a function of wealth.

eyeball-deep in work


Ian said...

I tend to write 'big' stories. I hope they'll translate into big SALES someday soon. Excellent points you make about escapism and screwball comedies.

Evangeline Holland said...

*g* You may be on to something. Which is why I'm heavily influenced by the multitude of screwball comedies I've seen and loved for the past year and a half. And I feel you on the "big" story--I have trouble confining my stories solely to the romance between the hero and heroine; I need rich historical backgrounds, real people and situations, etc.

Edittorrent said...

Evangeline, are we talking about different things? When I say "big," what I mean has more to do with plot and conflicts than with setting or level of detail. Drawing on real history can enhance bigness, but it's not what creates it to begin with.

Hmm, I smell a new post coming on.


Julia Weston said...


My mother said last week that book and movie consumption increases during a recession. I thought, "that sounds good. I'll go with that."

You just burst my bubble.

(Seriously, though, thanks for the reality check.)

Riley Murphy said...

Sorry to hear that you are in the 'proverbial' weeds :( ...But, such is life, eh? I've been under water chewing on some seaweed myself, lately, so I do sympathize.
In your post, the words ‘high-spirited’ and ‘outrageous’ - said a lot to me and so did the phrase: ‘not carefree’. There is a definite line that can be drawn between these points. When I think of the first two words and how they would relate to creating a story - clever wit comes to mind, maybe wrapped in a plot, steeped with scenes that are chock-full of outrageous twists and turns to reach many people on several different levels.
Now, carefree, on the other hand, makes me think of a situational comedy. In that, instead of carrying the reader/audience away in its one thematic element, it only boxes in the experience - because it’s kind of one dimensional (maybe that’s not the right word) specifically driven?
I think you are right, in that a writer needs a ‘big enough’ story to garner the attention of the reader that is now desperate to escape to happier times- for an hour or two. Or, capture an audience full of people who perhaps, need something more than, just the standard light-hearted fare to entertain them. Let’s face it. With the way things are today, the more opportunities we can present to the reader/audience to carry them away - the better, right?

Julie Harrington said...

I've been thinking about this post since I first read it the other day. The funny thing about the Depression was - at least in terms of movie ticket prices - that it *lowered* the cost of tickets. During the Depression, ticket prices dropped to an average cost of 24 cents, and I once read that ticket prices didn't go over a buck until something like 1965.

Of course during the Depression the average salary was about $1,400, milk cost you 14 cents, bread 9 cents and round steak cost 42 cents a pound too. LOL.

I think the difference with the current economic woes vs. the Depression is... costs aren't going down. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Everything in becoming more expensive for less. Food packaging sizes are totally on the decline while the consumer pays the same or more. Butter and ice cream totally set that trend.

Cereal costs you $4 a box when it probably doesn't even cost $1 to make. I've talked to more women this year who now complain they can't afford to buy eggs and bread for their families (usually of 4) anymore. It's just too expensive. In some parts of the US, they've actually turned to buying chickens from the county so they can get their eggs supplied that way.

The last income statistics I saw said the average family of 4 income was approx. $50,000 in 2007. Milk is $3.35 a gallon. White bread will cost you $2.00. And eggs? Eggs just keep going up, up, up (on sale this week they cost $2.50). I just bought a pound of ground beef the other day and it cost me $5.21! Let's not even talk about gas, which is back over $2.00 a gallon here.

Yet for the people I know, their salaries are lucky to go up 1 or 2 percent a year... if they get a raise at all. When families can't even afford the staple foods of milk, bread, butter and eggs, there's something seriously wrong with the economy.

So for me, it seems logical that the first things to go are going to be movies (which average $7.20 a ticket in 2008), books, etc, and sooner or later, cell phones and text messaging. 9 year olds with their own cell phones will be a thing of the past.

Movies are also, in my opinion, going to have to be more about escapism and less about stark reality. I know that's why I go to a movie. But since movie tickets (for 2 people to go) cost me $9.50 a ticket and another $14 for popcorn (not even including drinks) and my mom always waxes nostaligic about how she could go to the movies for a quarter and then get popcorn and a drink for another quarter.... we don't go anywhere near as much as we used to.

Movie or a book vs. food or medication for the week.

Which do you think wins?

Riley Murphy said...

Okay, JewelTones, I'm putting down the glass...Now, is it half full or half empty? I bet that I can guess your answer.:)

As for movie or a book vs. food or medications for the week? A book or movie could win the battle. I mean, if the medication you were contemplating buying was a drug to help you with your food allergies...? You see where I'm going with this? Forgo the food, and there's no need for the medicine, right? And hey, whatcha got left but, a fist full of cash to spend at that movies and the bookstore. I call this, prioritizing. LOL

In case you were wondering, I’m: ‘the glass is always half full, ‘kind of a gal. Drives my black cloud, a.k.a.- the husband, nuts, but I’m happy - so that’s all that matters.;)

As for the economy? The second it became more expensive to buy a gallon a milk than a gallon of gas - I started shopping for a cow to ride around on. Cause then, I’d get the milk, the transportation and hey, when it died, I’d get to eat it...Gee, there’s a concept - maybe that’s what could save the auto industry!

em said...

I hope that people are still going to buy books. The thought that they won't is depressing:(.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, it's sneaky-- used to be a half-gallon of ice cream, now it's more like 1.5 quarters. Same price.

I just saw Slumdog Millionaire, which was "upbeat" as long as you didn't pay much attention to the dire poverty the kid started in, and the terrible choices that forced on everyone. The whole "how" part (how he survives and gets out of poverty, how he gets on the show) kind of gets glossed over. I think that in a way, the film was mocking its own "rags to riches" format.

Julie Harrington said...

Murphy -- I'm a closet optimist. I just protect her with a very hard, thick shell of cynicism. :D

Riley Murphy said...

I’m glad to hear it. Closet or otherwise, it is nice to know that I’m not alone. Some days it sure does feel like I’m all by myself in this...maybe that’s on account of the cow. You know? No one takes you seriously when you arrive on a black and white Holstein. Go figure.:)