It started innocently enough. I approved a consumer research study intended to help Redbox answer the same question every other entertainment company was asking themselves: ‘What’s our strategy to compete with Netflix?’ I had no idea what we were about to unearth.

A few months later, I gathered my leadership team to hear the results of in-home interviews with every day Americans, in cities large and small and across all socio economic backgrounds.

First, there was the story of “Nicole,” a middle-class mom with four kids ages 8 to 16. Nicole was feeling a sense of helplessness watching her family’s traditional movie night slip away. The new normal in her house was everyone taking their devices to their rooms to binge on shows, “usually with the shades drawn.” Tears swelled in Nicole’s eyes. It was more than just movie night that was slipping away. 

I continued to hear similar stories of movie-night casualties at the hands of everything from subscription binging, second-screen scrolling (or trolling) and endless content choices.

In all candor, I was expecting some of this, but I wasn’t expecting the sudden sadness I felt when I realized it was also happening in my own home. Yes, I too know the stress of trying to coax my son off his PC gaming, my wife and daughter from Pinterest, and my own late-night battle to turn off my fill-in-the-blank binge-watching addiction. 

But, as it turned out, that wasn’t the cause of my anxiety.

The root of the issue became clear as I started to think about things as a Clinical Psychologist would. This was my former career. While working at the Brain Research Center at the University of Chicago, I conducted bio-psychology and neuro-biology research focused on the power of addiction. Our research showed that when addicted to a pleasurable activity, subjects will forego food, hygiene, sex and other basic functions to binge on whatever it is that is lighting up the pleasure center in their brain.

My career focused on family therapy, where I often prescribed movie nights as ways to connect around a shared experience. And I also couldn’t help but keep in mind the cornerstone of social psychology – that shared experiences engender greater degrees of harmony, cooperation and goodwill.

Keeping my psychologist hat on, I had my team scan research on content consumption trends from a psychological rather than marketing perspective. My thoughts were validated. The more we learned, the more we began to realize that this was a bigger issue outside of our own homes and offices. 

Perhaps the most insidious aspect of excessive binging is simply the matter of time – undoubtedly our most precious commodity. A binge session takes up so much of it, and also engenders mindlessness and isolation. Was this tearing at the very fiber of family values? Are we in the middle of an insidious yet seismic shift in how we experience the world together? 

Spoiler alert: The answer is yes. And, again, it goes back to psychology. More specifically, the pursuit of happiness, a topic I’m very familiar with as an author of a book focused on all the ways we get happiness wrong.  For example, we incorrectly believe that pleasure and happiness are one and the same, when truthfully, a life of pleasure does not equate to a life of happiness – quite the contrary. Moreover, research cited in the book argues that the happiness we enjoy from finding “meaningfulness” in activities (eudaimonic happiness) is much more enduring and fulfilling than the more fleeting happiness we gain from the mindless pursuit of pleasure (a type of hedonic happiness). 

So there it was – the source of my anxiety. Are we in the midst of a global sociological experiment that is not an experiment? Are we unwittingly making it harder and harder for people to be happy because innovation is making it easier and easier to be addicted to pleasure? If so, it would seem that the world of content consumption holds a high risk of paradoxically creating an epidemic of unhappiness.

To be clear, we can take control of this – our own psychology, even our own neurology. But it won’t be easy.  Disruption is the law of the jungle in the world of business, but what about when it disrupts our ability to be happy?  Are we unwittingly creating the next societal epidemic? Are we creating a culture of isolation and anti-socialism? 

A week later, I pulled my team together and gave them a clear directive. While the mission of our company remained the same, I told them that it was our responsibility to also take on an important cause: reminding people of the importance of coming together to watch a movie for the shared experience. And for the sheer magic. Who can deny the power of the scene in ‘ET’ when Elliot and ET soar off into the sky on their bike? Or the thrill you felt the first time you heard the words, “Luke, I am your father.” It’s no wonder that national Omnibus surveys we conducted found that 91% of Americans say watching a movie is therapeutic and makes them feel better or that 41% of Americans said a particular film changed the way they viewed the world.

Let’s not forget another powerful result of movie night: the conversations that happen after. They are more than just chatter; they are shared moments that pull us together, break boundaries, and make us more engaged humans.

As professionals, we all aspire to engage in work that creates meaning, because that makes us happy. What I want is to remind people about something they might have forgotten they loved. Back to something that made them feel human. Back to something that made them feel connected. Back to something that made them laugh, cry and feel alive. Back to something meaningful. I want to bring them Back to the Movies.

Ash ElDifrawi
Redbox Chief Marketing & Customer Experience Officer, and clinical psychologist

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