NEW YORK – With a compelling, real-life war story on TV at home, many of those seeking relief at the movies are opting for comedies and thrillers over dramas — and some who are angry at anti-war celebrities are just staying home.
The nail-biter Phone Booth, about a sniper who holds a man hostage on the phone, was top of the box office last weekend, while the teen comedy What a Girl Wants weighed in at No. 2. And slapstick flicks Head of State and Bringing Down the House have both stayed in the top five in recent weeks.
"Escapism has a lot to do with it," said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television. "You’re watching the war at home and when you go out, you want to be amused. You want something that will take you away from it."
While movie audiences seem to be gravitating toward lighter fare, box-office revenues have dipped 7 percent overall compared to last year. Some attribute the drop to lackluster offerings, others blame the captivating war coverage and still others call it an unofficial boycott against famously anti-war Hollywood.
"Maybe the reason the box office receipts are down is that people are expressing their right not to put any more money in the pockets of the ‘celebrities’ who are criticizing our country," wrote one Foxnews.com reader in an e-mail.
"My wife and I used to be regular movie goers. Not any more! We've sworn off Hollywood and the whole entertainment industry," wrote another reader, from Henderson, Texas. "Do those idiots in Hollywood think they can dish the president and the military and not strike a nerve? They have the right to express their views. I have the right to stage my own protest."
Thompson, for his part, believes the phenomenon isn’t so much a widespread effort to send entertainers a message, but more a factor of the usual post-Oscar slim pickings.
"I don’t think there is by any means an organized boycott on Hollywood," he said. "It’s not like all of a sudden there are crickets chirping in the theaters and sagebrush blowing over the seats."
Military movies, even those starring pro-war celebs like Bruce Willis' Tears of the Sun and John Travolta's Basic, have done poorly at the box office.
"This slump has probably got to do more with the movies out there," said Thompson. "There aren’t a lot that are really bringing down the house."
During the first weekend in April, the top 12 movies grossed $84 million this year, down 10 percent from the same time in 2002 and the fourth straight weekend to see a decline. But industry insiders predict a boost in sales in the coming weeks, when highly-anticipated movies like the X-Men sequel X2 and The Matrix Reloaded hit the big screen.
And despite the box-office slump, as the war in Iraq winds down, many are still craving films to help them relax. Laughter, it seems, remains the best medicine.
"A lot of people are having a heightened level of anxiety," said Steven Sultanoff, the former president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. "What comedy does is relieve the emotional distress. It gives us a break."
There has been a long history of spikes in comedy popularity during hard times. Thompson pointed out that the Great Depression saw an explosion of airy, escapist films; World War II was "one of the golden ages of comedy on radio;" and the Vietnam era spurred a primetime television lineup of mostly sitcoms.
He predicts the film industry will weather the current storm, just as entertainment always has.
"In the long run, the box office is pretty immune to bad times," Thompson said. "And sometimes the things that draw us to the movies, like escapism, become even more desirable during bad times."