Cinema Therapy: Movies as Therapy


People love watching movies. In 2016, the global box office revenue was about 38 billion dollars according to By 2020, the annual revenue is expected to reach 50 billion. Furthermore, the average Netflix subscriber watches shows or movies for almost two hours a day–more than exercising, socializing with friends, and reading combined. That’s quite a chunk of leisure time.


Why do we love movies so much?


The reasons people enjoy movies are as varied as the movies available. Some people want a temporary escape from their daily challenges. Others love the feelings they get from thrillers or scary movies. After a bad day, who wouldn’t want to have a good laugh while watching a comedy? Some want to see their favorite actors star in a new role. Others see it as a social opportunity–talking about the movies with friends or coworkers after seeing it.


Like art, literature, and music, movies evoke powerful emotions in us. They show us different perspectives, and allow us to appreciate beauty and creativity.

Cinema Therapy Title Picture

As many of us know, Music and Art Therapy are specialized positions using those respective mediums to help others grow and heal. As Recreation Therapists, some of us work alongside these professionals every day.


So why not consider movies as therapy?


It turns out many therapists use movies as a supplemental therapy helping to address several issues. This practice is often called Cinema Therapy (or Movie Therapy). The term, coined in the 1990s, involves therapists choosing films relevant to someone’s treatment concerns. After watching the movie, therapists use the themes addressed in the film to process how it relates to the client’s life or situation.


Depending on the Recreation Therapist’s setting, movies may be part of regular recreation programming. Why not use those movies for therapeutic purposes?


Benefits of Cinema Therapy

As we all know, modern technology allows us access to thousands of movies almost instantly. This gives plenty of opportunities to address your participant’s need areas. Here are some potential benefits of Cinema Therapy:

  • Gain New Perspectives
  • Identify Positive Characteristics
  • Explore Solutions to Personal Problems
  • Gain Empathy for Others
  • Dealing with Grief
  • Building Healthy Relationships
  • Exploring New Leisure Activities
  • Reminiscence
  • Emotional Release
  • Identifying Positive Social Skills
  • Relaxation
  • Identifying Specific Issues in their Lives
  • Self-Help Activity
  • Exploring Options to Change Behavior


An Example:

As the father of a very active toddler, I am a little embarrassed to say the only movie I have seen in the last couple years was Cars (over and over again). Let’s take a look at some potential discussions for processing this movie. Now is a good time to add a spoiler alert for those of you that haven’t seen it.

Interacting with Others/Growing Positive Relationships

At the beginning of the movie, Lightning McQueen didn’t treat others very well. What were some of his negative behaviors you noticed? Talk about a time when you treated others poorly.

As he spent more time in Radiator Springs, he began developing relationships with the other cars. Talk about some of the friendships he made. How did he change because of these friendships? What was a friendship that changed your life?

How Change Affects Life

Radiator Springs was once a thriving town. When an interstate was constructed nearby, those ordinarily coming through Radiator Springs chose the interstate. Many businesses closed and the town was nearly deserted. Think of some of the major events (“highways”) that affected your life. What changes did it cause for you?

This could be especially helpful when talking about addiction, illness or loss. For example, when you started using drugs (the highway) what positive leisure activities did you abandon?


At the end of the movie (spoiler) Lightning gives up winning the Piston Cup–his dream–to help a wrecked Strip “The King” Weathers cross the finish line one last time.

How is this a show of good sportsmanship?

What sacrifices have you made for the benefit of others? How did that make you feel?

If you were Lightning in that situation, what would you do?

Dealing and Adapting to Situations Beyond our Control

When Lightning fell out of Mack on his way to California, he was lost in the desert speeding down highways trying to find Mack. He put himself in danger–almost getting hit by a train–and acted erratically to put himself back back on his normal course (finding Mack).

How did you feel as you watched Lightning speed through the streets often putting himself in harm’s way? What times did an unexpected circumstance cause you to act recklessly? How did you feel when this happened?

What were some ways you tried to get everything back to normal quickly? How did it feel when you realized the situation wouldn’t be resolved quickly?

Of course, how you process the movie depends entirely on your population and their needs. Thank you Disney for making a therapeutic film and also giving my son hours of entertainment. (And the desire to wear Cars pajamas just about every night.)

Remember: Cinema Therapy is not just sitting in front of a movie.

As you could see, the key to effective Cinema Therapy is how it is processed with the individual or group. By being familiar with the movie–watching it beforehand or using Cinema Therapy resources–you will be better able to identify the therapeutic value of it. It may take some research and preparation time, but the benefits of the discussion or related activity is worth it.

Before your participants watch the movie, talk to them about the issues you will discuss. Tell them it is fine to get engrossed in the movie, but try to be mindful when the mentioned issues appear.

movie projector

Cinema Therapy Activity Ideas

If you have participants willing to enjoy a movie and talk about it afterwards, great. Here are some variations:

Movie/Social Event Combo

Have your participants watch the movie then have a social event afterwards to discuss it. How much more enjoyable is a group discussion when it involves an ice cream social, coffee/tea hour, or movie-themed party.

Incorporate Journaling

Journaling is a great way for your participants to explore their thought processes–especially those not as willing to share in a group setting. Allow your participants to journal about the processing questions then, if they are comfortable, have them share any insights they gained while journaling.


Your participants could make a collage about the movie. For example, they could pick a character from the film then find words and images to describe his/her traits.

In a recent post, I talked about making an advertisement for leisure benefits. The same could be done in a movie context. Have your participants make an advertisement for the movie incorporating the subject matter you discussed. Let’s take the Cars movie. The participants could make an advertisement highlighting the positive social skills Lightning learned while being in Radiator Springs.

Make Your Own Movies

Don’t let Hollywood have all the fun! Video technology is relatively cheap and user friendly. Let your participants develop a scene based on a skill you want addressed. Or have them act out a scene from a movie with their own twist. If you don’t have the resources to record it, have them act it out in a group setting.

As you could see, Cinema Therapy presents many ideas to help your participants gain new insights on particular issues.

movie camera

I find some ideas for TRRT blog while checking out various Recreation Therapy Groups on the internet. I first heard about Cinema Therapy from a Facebook post from Danny Pettry. It inspired me to research the topic more and present it to you in an useful way.

Noticing Danny had an online course about Cinema Therapy, I reached out to him as a resource. He was gracious enough to do a short email interview.

TRRT: Where did you first hear about Cinema Therapy?

Danny Pettry: Cinema therapy was briefly discussed during a graduate level course that I had taken with Dr. Bryan McCormick at Indiana University. Dr. McCormick was talking about an ethical situation where a facility had a dayroom with movies playing and billing it as “therapy” or in more particular “cinema therapy.” It isn’t just playing a movie. The process goes deeper. It consists of assessment of needs, implementing the movie as an intervention to meet needs, and evaluation. I’d argue that the wrap-up discussion of the movie is the most therapeutic part of the process.


How has Cinema Therapy helped with your recreation programming?

  • Identify your own (cheer me up when feeling down) movie playlist
  • Identify emotions in others and in self
  • Develop empathy and concern for others
  • Identify problem-solving skills (and how problems could be solved differently)
  • Identify purpose and meaning in life
  • Identify interpersonal skills needed to get along with others

What outcomes have you noticed from using Cinema Therapy?

  • Healthy escape from emotional problems (opposed to using substances or other harmful behavior choices). I believe it was during the Great Depression that people (who were often poor) continued to go to the movies because it offered an escape from personal problems.
  • Emotional intelligence: the (actors) characters in movies display many emotions: excitement, sadness, grief, joy, revenge, love, and others. Movies could be used to help teach about emotions.  
  • Empathy/ concern for others: People develop empathy for the characters in movies. They care about the character’s thoughts, feelings. Ask participants (group members) how they felt during the movie. They often shared the “happiness” of a character or the “sadness” of a character. Think of people crying at movies. A sad movie could be played to help a person to release emotions as well. A happy-ending movie could be played to help cheer a person up and give them hope.
  • Social intelligence: sometimes characters in the movies have charisma and effective interpersonal skills. Sometimes characters lack those skills.
  • Problem-solving skills: sometimes a character in a movie might have the same problem as a person in therapy. Certain movies could be selected to meet those needs.

What tips do you have for those interested in trying Cinema Therapy for their participants?

  • Network with others professionals who are already using Cinema Therapy.
  • Read Dr. David Austin’s (2013) book, Therapeutic Recreation Processes and Techniques. 7th edition (Sagmore Publishing). Cinema Therapy is discussed.
  • Read Gary Solomon’s (1995) book, The Motion Picture Prescription: Watch this movie and call me in the morning: 200 Movies to help you heal life’s problems. This book identifies problems (in example: death and dying, grief, substance abuse, denial, family relationships, and others). The book suggests movies for those areas. Of course, this book is a little outdated because it was published in 1995 and many more movies have been released since then.
  • Ratings: make sure movies are rated appropriately when working with children or teens. A professional can ask to get parent, legal guardian to sign permission for a child to watch a movie (pg-13) when it is part of therapy.
  • Work closely with the treatment team. Be sure the attending physician is involved and aware of the movie selection, purpose, goals and objectives.

Do you have any movie suggestions? What issues would they address?

My personal favorites:

    • Pistol Pete – True story about basketball legend who was dedicated and persistent at becoming the best he could be in basketball
    • Glory Road – True story: First all-black basketball team to make it to the national championship.
    • We are Marshall – True story: Plane crash killed football team. The small college town of Huntington, West Virginia prevails as it works through this tragedy and continues the football program. (p.s. I live in the Huntington area)
    • Soul Surfer – Bethany Hamilton story
    • Nemo – it appears to work on so many levels.
    • It’s A Wonderful Life – about seeing importance of one’s own life

Download David Riklan’s The top 101 inspirational movies ever made ( at this link:

Thank you, Danny, for taking the time to answer these questions.


Do you want to learn more about Cinema Therapy? Do you still need some CEUs before your next recertification cycle?

In addition to Danny answering my questions, he offered his Cinema Therapy course to The Real Recreation Therapist Blog readers at a discounted price. Danny is taking 25% percent off the Cinema Therapy Course AND mailing you the required reading and Cinema Therapy Card Game at no extra charge (a $50 value).

This is an EXCLUSIVE OFFER for readers of the Real Recreation Therapist.

If you liked this article, this self study course (worth .5 CEUs) will provide you the basic concepts of Cinema Therapy and teach you how to apply it to your participants.

This offer won’t last long!  By ordering now, you will save your hard-earned money and have unlimited time to complete the course. Work it into your busy schedule! Spend the final days of summer at the beach reading the materials to get an early start on completing your CEUs.

And TRRT gets a small percentage of each order purchased from this link to help with costs to keep the site up and running.

Learn more about Danny’s Cinema Therapy Self-Study Course.

Now Tell Real Recreation Therapist Community:

How do you use movies in your programming?


What is your favorite movie (personally or for TR programming)? How do you find it therapeutic?


Is there an RT intervention you love that you would want to share with the TRRT community? Contact me for a brief interview


Please Like the Real Recreation Therapist on Facebook for Updates. If you like what you’re reading, please share with others to get the word out! Thank you everyone for sharing and being an active part of TRRT. I look forward to writing for you and hearing your thoughts in the future.


Resources: article about Cinema Therapy


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