Cinema Therapy at Oscar Time
Using the Power of Movies in the Therapeutic Process

By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.

The 82nd Academy Awards will be presented on Sunday, March 7, 2010. Since the nominations appeared in the press, motion pictures have been on the minds of many clients. This gives us, as clinicians, the opportunity to “mine the gold of movies” through Cinema Therapy as an adjunct tool for the therapeutic process.

  • Therapists of varying theoretical orientations and clinical modalities are increasingly using feature films for therapeutic purposes.
  • In a recent survey of licensed psychologists of different orientations, 67% report using movies during the clinical process.
  • The appeal of using motion pictures therapeutically has been mainly attributed to the availability and accessibility of the medium, shared familiarity with the subject matter, and the ability of film to enhance rapport between client and therapist.


    • Just as it is possible to gain insight from dreams, emotional responses to a movie scene or character can serve as a window to the unconscious or the pre-conscious part of a client’s psyche.
    • Another Cinema Therapy approach utilizes clients’ capacity for vicarious learning. Characters can serve as overt or symbolic models of emotional and behavioral expression during the clinical process.
    • Specific films can be prescribed to model specific problem-solving behavior or facilitate Cinema Therapyskill development.
    • Here is an example of how the movie Up in the Air (multiple nominations for the Academy Awards, 2010) was used by Dr. Wolz, the author of Zur Institute’s Cinema Therapy Courses, during a therapeutic hour.
    • Movies can also help clients to learn “by proxy” how not to do something or how not to behave in pursuit of their goals. In such instances, feature films serve as cautionary tales. For example, Crazy Heart (multiple nominations for Academy Awards, 2010) can be a powerful tool when clients struggle with addictions or when a couple wants to work on their communication.
    • Since many motion pictures transmit ideas through emotion rather than intellect, they can result in an emotional release and may allow clients to explore and heal the underlying issues that are the original causes of depression or grief. Dead Poets Society (Academy Award winner for Writing, 1989), for example, is considered a tearjerker.
    • Laughter also releases emotions and decreases stress hormones. Watching humorous movies can initiate the process that releases tension, stress, and pain -physically, as well as emotionally. Many clients find Annie Hall (Academy Award winner, 1977) humorous.




Addictions: Leaving Las Vegas (1995) demonstrates how addiction can ruin a life when untreated. Postcards From the Edge (1990), 28 Days (2000), and Crazy Heart (2009) demonstrate how addictions can be successfully overcome, even though the recovery process is challenging.

Trauma: Clients can get in touch with and successfully process unresolved trauma through the use of movies such as Affliction (1997), Mystic River (2003), or Precious (2009) as an adjunct tool.

Depression: Feature films, such as About Schmidt (2002), or The Hours (2002) can serve for psycho-educational purposes and in cognitive work with depression.

Grief: In America (2003) is an excellent tool for clients who tend to hold back emotions while grieving. Frida (2002) or Bridge to Terabithia (2007) demonstrate courage, determination, endurance, acceptance and the potential for transformation.

A more complete list of movies and themes can be found at Therapeutic Themes and Movies.

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