For many Americans, the light at the end of the tunnel after Sept. 11 came from a movie projector.
Audiences found the kind of escapism films have provided during every national crisis of the past century. When the going gets tough, Americans go to the movies, a phenomenon older than Scarlett O'Hara and as modern as Harry Potter.
The psychologist Robert Simmermon, of the Haystack Group media consultants in Atlanta, views that enduring allure as a two-fold emotional process.
"One of the things we like to do when the world gets scary is count on the old reliables," said Simmermon. "Most people's associations with films are good ones. There's almost a regressive element where we can go back to where we used to feel good.
"The other thing that happens is a paradox. Movie theaters are one of the very few places where people trust each other enough to come and sit in the dark. They all kind of agree that they will sit in the dark and share a dream, a fantasy. The paradox is that when we're feeling very threatened, that's one place where we're willing to go."
With those elements combined, theater owners have posted record ticket revenues while other amusements slumped. In a climate of terrorism, war, Enron and dot-coms, the movie exhibition industry was practically bulletproof.
"We were very nervous about what the future would hold for our business," said John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners. "We didn't know if the same kind of movies would sell, or if people would cocoon themselves and watch CNN all day long."
No problem, after an initial post-attack slump. Nearly 1.5-billion tickets were sold at U.S. theaters last year, the highest total in 42 years. That added up to $8.41-billion in sales, a record, thanks to higher ticket prices than ever. Most of that money goes to studios for the rights to show their movies, but more customers equal higher concession sales, where exhibitors make their profits.
The good news was delivered recently at the ShoWest convention of theater owners by Motion Picture Association of America president and CEO Jack Valenti, reassuring exhibitors ranging from the world's largest chain, Regal Theaters, to rural mom-and-pop operations.
In his much-anticipated annual state-of-the-industry address, Valenti, like an emperor or at least an Ebert, gave the industry a hearty thumbs-up:
"After 9/11 there were those who, with visible despondency, predicted that theaters would soon be empty, that Americans would shun the movie experience and stay home to nurse their raw and abused nerve edges.
"But that did not happen. What did happen was a confirmation that Americans, even in a time that tries their souls, will not be cabined and confined in their homes. Going to the movies is the American remedy for the anxieties of daily life."
The post-Sept. 11 box office numbers support Valenti's claim, but Hollywood has proved its emotional support in nervous times before. The lean years of the Great Depression and World War II actually were the most profitable in screen history. As many as 80-million tickets were sold each week, more than three times today's weekly average. Prices were much lower, of course, ranging from 10-cent matinees to 50-cent shows that could even include a set of dishes to take home.
The 1939 classic Gone with the Wind, for example, grossed less than $200-million on more than 283-million admissions, including re-releases. Adjusted for inflation, those box office receipts are worth $1.3-billion today, twice the domestic gross of the official all-time champ, Titanic.
"While we were in a raging economic depression, the movies had switched into Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and lifestyles of the rich and famous," said Stuart Fischoff, professor of media psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. "People looked to escape their painful, mundane lives and look into the world of those who could dance their way through life. It provides a kind of polar opposite to circumstances outside the theater."
Simmermon noted the coincidental post-Sept. 11 timing and popularity of such fantasy films as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
"They're mystical and magical and potent," he said. "It's the split between omnipotence and impotence. We were feeling very impotent after 9/11 and (those films) take us through those mythical depths but out of it springs some sense of potency and some sense of hope. Jung called it synchronicity, when the external world parallels the internal world. Boy, we needed some magic there for a while."
However, professor C. Samuel Craig of New York University's Stern School of Business believes that quality, not emotional support, leads to box office records.
"Recession or no recession, unless there's good content, people aren't going to flock to movie theaters," said Craig. "When they've had good years, they've had great movies."
Fithian, speaking on behalf of theater owners, suggested that 2001's box office bonanza was a result of better films rated G, PG and PG-13. Each of the top-10 highest-grossing films last year fell into those categories, led by Harry Potter, the Rings epic, Shrek and Monsters, Inc.
"There was a substantial amount of quality product that families could appreciate," Fithian said. "When you see that 17 out of the top 20 films last year were not rated R, that's what sold. It was the animated features, the family features and the PG-13 film that a couple of years ago might have been an R. That's the stuff that sold."
Yet, some theater owners, such as Phil Zacheretti of Phoenix Theaters in Knoxville, Tenn., still believe there's something healing about the movies.
"We're a fantasy business," said Zacheretti. "We don't show newsreels any more because people have CNN. They want to forget what's out there.
"They're coming to us to escape for two hours, to sit in the dark and watch things that are probably never going to happen to them in their real lives, whether it's singing at the Moulin Rouge or swinging from skyscrapers like Spiderman."