We're off to the movies (but not the theatre)

How did you spend your Saturday evening? Quietly at home in front of a video of The Sound of Music? If the hand-wringers of the entertainment industry are to be believed, nobody is going out. Theatres and cinemas are empty. And the only cultural nourishment any of us can handle at the moment is of the purely pap variety.

How did you spend your Saturday evening? Quietly at home in front of a video of The Sound of Music? If the hand-wringers of the entertainment industry are to be believed, nobody is going out. Theatres and cinemas are empty. And the only cultural nourishment any of us can handle at the moment is of the purely pap variety.

The truth is not quite as simple as that. These are certainly troubled times for anybody in the business of flogging films, plays and concerts. But the idea that we have bolted the door and acquired an aversion to what was once staple fare is a misconception.

If there is a crisis, it is at the production end of US movies, where an outbreak of sensitivity has followed events in New York and Washington. Anything showing the World Trade Centre is out. The release of a new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, featuring a skyscraper bombing, has been put back. Sony has delayed work on an action movie starring Jennifer Lopez that has bombs set to explode in Los Angeles shopping malls.

"We all have to be aware of what might be inappropriate," says Daniel Battsek, the managing director of Buena Vista UK, one of the country's leading film distributors. "Hopefully what has happened will result in films with more creativity and intelligence. We'll only know in a year's time. But people are wrong if they think the only action movie Hollywood can make is one that involves terrorists."

The industry's attack of conscience might not make economic sense. Blockbuster, the video rental chain, reports a resurgence in rentals of The Siege, in which Bruce Willis and Denzel Washington foil a terrorist attack on a US city.

The latest edition of the film business weekly Variety talks of Hollywood slipping into "a production coma". But in the real world of films already in cinemas, business is ticking over quite nicely. UK film attendance over the weekend after 11 September was barely down on the previous weekend. Perhaps it was no surprise that Moulin Rouge, the musical starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, continued to do well. But so too did The Fast and the Furious, which is all LA gangs and car chases. The half-Kubrick, half-Spielberg creation AI (with scenes of a stricken Manhattan) is the new number one film.

If AI represents one model of intelligent escapism, so Enigma, this weekend's big film release, represents another. Daniel Battsek sees qualities in the wartime drama that ought to ensure its success. "It's British and it's about courageous people and so has a certain timeliness. But most importantly it's two hours' good entertainment." The upbeat French hit Amélie and the long-awaited Harry Potter movie offer further hope in the coming weeks. "I'm sure the big screen will retain its power to draw," says Mark Batey, the chief executive of the Society of Film Distributors.

Theatre is a different matter. The Society of London Theatre estimates that bookings may have dropped by as much as half since 11 September, and a trawl of West End theatres last week revealed the extent to which brave faces in the box office are trying to make up for the empty seats. The Graduate, The Lion King and An Inspector Calls – all proven hits – had plenty of tickets.

With one critic admitting last week that she had no taste for the doom and gloom of such new productions as Afore Night Come at the Young Vic, it's clear how much audience mood is a factor in theatre attendance. And theatre is much more vulnerable than cinema. "People obviously want antidotes to depression," says theatre PR Peter Thompson, pointing to healthy advance booking for a new production of the classic Kiss Me Kate.

One West End show soon to close is the political satire Feelgood. But its author, Alistair Beaton, is not despairing. "The received wisdom is that in dark times people want frivolity, and there's some truth in that. But I detect that we will soon be hungry for irreverent comment." It's a hunch that is being backed. Beaton is writing a new play – about global politics – and last week Really Useful gave it the go-ahead.



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