At 20th Century Fox, a blue-collar television comedy called “Two-Dollar Beer” is suddenly prominent, while the movie division just escalated production of a previously announced sequel to “Wall Street,” Oliver Stone’s 1987 portrait of out-of-control corporate raiders. A new writer will reshape the sequel’s story line to reflect the recent turmoil of the financial markets.
Other pockets of Hollywood are going in the opposite direction, looking for scripts that offer pure escapism. Film studios in particular are saying that they want more silly comedies and even musicals. Ideas set in fantasy worlds are “all some studios want to hear about,” said Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning screenwriter whose next film is a James Bond picture, “Quantum of Solace.”
The modern movie and television factory works much farther in advance than it did in decades past, limiting the ability for studios and networks to quickly reflect the economic chaos on screen.
Studio movies often take up to three years to move from conception to release because of the increasingly complicated financing required by soaring production and marketing costs. Films about the 2003 Iraq invasion, executives note, did not start arriving in force until 2007.
A typical television series is prepared about seven episodes in advance, which is not a big change from years past, but the allotment of those episodes has shifted drastically. Networks broadcast so many reruns between fresh episodes — a cost-saving strategy — that anything produced now has almost no chance of being shown until February or March.
“If we put in references to the economy now, it could be totally outdated by the time those episodes air,” said Mark Pedowitz, president of ABC Studios, which produces the drama “Dirty Sexy Money.”
Mr. Pedowitz said he envisioned no tweaks to the format of that show, which revolves around a fabulously wealthy New York family. (It may be a moot point anyway; the series is struggling in the ratings and faces cancellation soon if its audience continues to decline.)
CW, which runs “Gossip Girl,” about Upper East Side private school students, says the show’s plot will continue to be as soaked with Wall Street money as ever.
The businessman villain has been a film archetype since before the talkies. Indeed, in 1917, the Triangle Distributing Corporation released a silent picture called “Greed,” part of its “Seven Deadly Sins” series, in which a stock market schemer leads a young couple astray. Hollywood has often had trouble coming up with true bad guys, but diabolical business people dot the American Film Institute’s list of the top 50 movie heroes and villains of all time. (Gordon Gekko from “Wall Street” is No. 24.)
Still, most Hollywood veterans advise against rushing too many businessman bad guys into production — at least for now.
“In bad times especially, people do not want to see on the screen what they’re living through,” said Nicole Clemens, a longtime agent who runs International Creative Management’s motion picture literary department.
Many people in the movie business hopped on the escapism bandwagon two weekends ago when the Walt Disney Studios picture about talking dogs, “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” trampled two of the industry’s biggest stars. Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, starring in the terrorism-themed “Body of Lies,” came in a distant third behind the goofy family movie and “Quarantine,” a teenage horror movie. Last weekend, the talking dogs were in second place behind “Max Payne,” an action movie based on a video game.
Ms. Clemens said that she saw one exception to the warning against using too many business villains: the revenge picture. “When people feel powerless in their own lives they want to see movies where protagonists are taking back the power,” she said. “But I still see no new trend for big business to be some new type of villain. It’s been a villain for a long time.”
Movie historians note that the Great Depression led to a flood of carefree pictures. Shirley Temple tried to tap dance the nation’s troubles away. The 1930s featured gangster films, lavish musicals (“The Wizard of Oz”) and screwball comedies in which the rich were portrayed as lovable fools.
Jeanine Basinger, chairwoman of the film studies department at Wesleyan University, said that studios had the best luck dealing with economic issues when they did so with subtlety. For instance, “It Happened One Night,” the 1934 Frank Capra movie about a spoiled heiress running away from her family, is a romantic comedy that hints at the social turmoil of the Great Depression: a wandering thief desperate for money; a passing train populated with hobos. “Subtlety has always been the key,” she said.
“Let’s look on the bright side,” said Bruce Berman, chairman and chief executive of Village Roadshow Pictures Entertainment. “Bad times have spawned some really great movies in the past.”