In 2006, a grim little thriller called "Red Road" won the Cannes jury prize for Advance Party, a collective of Scottish, Danish and Irish production companies. It's not a lot of laughs. The film's main character, traumatized by the loss of her husband and son, spends her nights looking through a CCTV camera, monitoring a feral Glasgow housing project. One reviewer described it as "grainy, rasping and bleak." It stands to reason; Advance Party is the brainchild of Lars von Trier, the Danish filmmaker behind the Dogma 95 manifesto, which advocated a dark, minimalist style using handheld cameras and on-location shooting.
That was then, when money was easier and art was tougher. Now that the entire global economy can be fairly described as grainy, rasping and bleak, Advance Party has established a new set of artistic rules for future projects. This cheap and cheerful manifesto stipulates that no budget should exceed €1.5 million; no script should run longer than 88 pages, or feature more than eight characters; and every film should be shot within an eight-mile radius. The kicker: "stories must make the audience laugh, make them cry and give them an uplifting ending."
It's probably the first time von Trier ("Dogville," "Dancer in the Dark") has ever been linked with the term "uplifting." In the business world, this sort of reassessment is called a flight to safety, when nervous investors run from risky assets to the shelter of dull but stable ones like U.S. Treasury bonds. In the entertainment business, tough times trigger a return to the familiar and the formulaic. Experimental and downbeat are out; proven and inspirational are in."Dog bites man" is the artistic order of the day. "In a recession, the first thing to go is risk," says David Foster, whose Opus 3 Artists manages classical music stars like Marin Alsop, Yefim Bronfman and Yo-Yo Ma. "The hardest thing to do in times like these is tell an audience why they should buy a ticket."
People need an escape from the reality of recession, so they are fleeing to forms of entertainment that represent the biggest break from their experiences: crime novels, over-the-top Broadway musicals, fantasy films, standard sitcoms and perennially popular operas like "Turandot"—anything that promises laughter and forgetting. "The feel-good phenomenon really does exist," says Mark Lawson, a cultural commentator for Britain's BBC. "It's become commonplace these days to criticize any new play or movie by saying, 'Not a lot of laughs in that'."
This phenomenon was clear on Oscar night, Feb. 22, with Hugh Jackman's bouncy turn as host marking a distinct departure from the snarky irony of other recent presenters. The Academy's heaping praise for "Slumdog Millionaire," which won eight Oscars, demonstrated that the only role for adversity in storytelling these days is for it to be triumphantly overcome. Just as alluring are films that avoid adversity altogether; this past Easter weekend set box-office records for the holiday weekend—about $130 million, up 14 percent over Easter weekend 2008—thanks largely to "Hannah Montana: The Movie," based on the aggressively unthreatening TV "zitcom," and "Fast & Furious 4," based on, well, "Fast & Furious" 1, 2 and 3. In addition to "Fast & Furious 4," four other movies have broken the $100 million mark already this year compared with only one by this time last year: "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" ($143.2 million), "Monsters vs. Aliens" ($141 million), the revenge thriller "Taken" ($140 million) and the comic-book spinoff "Watchmen" ($105.9 million). The French new wave this isn't.
Still, even Hollywood doesn't expect to cruise through the recession unscathed. Indeed, Washington used Hollywood's recent record-breaking box-office numbers to strip $246 million in tax breaks from the movie business as part of the economic-stimulus bill. Last week a group of studio executives invaded Washington to complain that Hollywood was being taken for granted. About 19,000 Hollywood jobs have been lost since last year. Indeed, a new study by LEK Consulting says that this recession will produce very few real winners in the entertainment industry—with the likely exception of cable-TV networks, videogame producers and low-cost video renters like Netflix and Redbox. For everyone else, the best-case scenario is that they don't lose too much ground.
At least audiences have something to smile about in the interim. Broadway hit some rocky times last year but now all's swell on the Great White Way—and it's not due to probing new dramas. A bilingual revival of "West Side Story," the great '50s musical that updates the tale of "Romeo and Juliet," is setting box-office records at Broadway's Palace Theater, earning $1.3 million for Easter weekend. "Billy Elliot," based on Stephen Daldry's 2000 film, has been joyfully recouping its investors' money, with its young star dancing his way out of Britain's coal miners' strike during the bad old 1980s. And a revival of "Hair," the classic '60s countercultural celebration, is playing to packed houses down the block. "The Broadway bloodbath is so overrated," says "Hair" producer Jeffrey Richards buoyantly.
London's West End, meanwhile, is a grinning hostage to "revivals of old hits, musicals in new clothes and anything having to do with the Beatles," says Nicholas Kenyon, director of the Barbican, London's music, art and theater complex. Indeed, the West End's current big hit is a borrowed trifle called "Calendar Girls," adapted from a Disney movie about a bunch of spunky dames who get naked to raise money for leukemia research, tee-hee.
Opera, with its blockbuster budgets, is under particular pressure to play it safe—especially in the United States, where the arts generally get by without the cushion of government subsidies. Public funding gets cut in hard times too, but is far less volatile than private and corporate contributions, the lifeblood for the arts in the United States. The Metropolitan Opera House has scuttled four new productions—including operas by Shostakovich and John Corigliano—while keeping hardy perennials like "Tosca" and "Carmen" in the rotation. "It's clear that the Met is moving away from risky projects, but I honestly can't say whether that's the right decision," says Alan Gilbert, who is about to take over as music director of the New York Philharmonic for the 2009–10 season. That season was programmed long ago, but Gilbert says he's not flinching from programming contemporary vocal music with large casts for the following one.
Not surprisingly, European orchestras and opera houses are breathing a little easier, even though their economies have been battered just as badly as America's. The mighty Berlin Philharmonic depends on ticket sales for just 60 percent of its budget, with government subsidies taking care of most of the rest. "It gives us the breathing space to take risks," says Pamela Rosenberg, the orchestra's director. By contrast, subscriptions account for about 90 percent of the philharmonic's 2,400 seats, and there's a long waiting list.
The book industry is turning to comedians to help laugh its way out of the recession. The U.K. nonfiction bestseller list is studded with autobiographies of popular comedians like Dawn French and Paul O'Grady. U.S. publishers are offering advances to big-name comedians who have never before put pen to paper (and may not, even after their contracts are signed). An apocryphal story going around literary circles has potty-mouthed comic Sarah Silverman—who was offered a $2.5 million advance from Harper Collins despite never having written a book before—turning to her new editor and asking, "So when do you plan to begin?" The self-described D-list comedian Kathy Griffin recently received a $2 million advance for a memoir from Random House's Bantam imprint, bringing howls of blog protest from actual authors. "I hate saying the word 'platform,' but don't even try to sell a book these days if you haven't got one," says literary agent Alice Martell, who heads her own agency in New York. "I tell prospective authors all the time, 'You've got a great idea but you're not the one to write it'."
One literary genre known to flourish when skies turn gray is crime fiction. "We could be looking at a return of what happened during the 1930s," says Nigel Wilcockson, the London-based publishing director of the Random House Group. During the Great Depression, "crime literature was massive—writers like Dorothy Sayers, Raymond Chandler, Margery Allingham and Dashiell Hammett. In the [recession of the] 1980s, public library records show Agatha Christie, Jeffrey Archer, Ruth Rendell and Len Deighton were among the most-borrowed authors." Out soon from Random House: "About Face," by Donna Leon, featuring a Venetian policeman named Commissario Brunetti.
Oddly enough, the one entertainment medium likely to get grittier as things get worse may be pop music. Or perhaps it's not so odd, given the demographic such songs appeal to. "In flush times, young people like music they can drink and dance and have sex to," says Mike Tierney, a 20-year music-industry veteran who's been a programming executive at Epic Records and New York City's K-Rock radio station. "In tough times, they gravitate toward music that speaks to their experience. Grunge came from a bunch of disaffected white guys in the recession of the early '90s. The music's popularity was all about, Life sucks but I'm not alone, and Kurt Cobain understands me." If Tierney were still at KRock, he says, he'd be programming a lot more of the cheeky, "zeitgeisty" young Brit Lily Allen ("I'm being taken over by the fea-ea-ea-ear.") But he isn't, having been downsized out of his job last year.
To figure out where culture goes from here, it may be instructive to look back to the Great Depression. In retrospect, that period is viewed as one long feel-good movie festival. It was and it wasn't. At the beginning, many theaters had a hard time staying open. Fox and Paramount foundered, until each was saved by a megastar—Fox by Shirley Temple and Paramount by Mae West, who was the Depression era's biggest draw. We remember them so vividly because their performances delivered what everyone expected of them, over and over. The bold and moving films about the Depression were mostly made once the Depression was over. John Ford won the best-directing Oscar for his adaptation of Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," but that wasn't until 1940. "Reality isn't fun," says Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at New York's Film Forum theater, which recently ran a festival of Great Depression movies.
Depression-era hardship made another artistic contribution that was both less noticeable and more lasting. It forced people to create what they could no longer buy. "People made their own art," says Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, an advocacy group that represents 5,000 local arts organizations. "The crafts movement, the jazz movement—they all evolved as a reaction to poverty." Lynch sees history repeating itself here, too. "The same shift is already taking place," he says. "Chorus participation is way up and community theater is going up against the blockbusters."
Barbican director Kenyon has noticed the same trend, and he's making room for it on his stages. "People want ownership," he says. Last year, the Barbican programmed an evening of amateur choirs from around London called "City Sings." It was such a big hit that Kenyon is preparing another this year, featuring choirs from some of the firms in London's shell-shocked financial district, the City. At least this year, he says, they'll have plenty of time to rehearse.