Why Are Films Getting Longer?

djavengfallobbit Why Are Films Getting Longer?

There’s always been long films. Always. The original cut of Cleopatra (1963) ran for 350 minutes, and Satantango (1994) runs for 450 minutes. These two films were anomalies when released, a movie event (less so for Satantango) that was done more to show what could be done, than for any artistic reasons. My central thesis is that films nowadays are, by and large, longer now than at any other point in cinematic history. More films spend more minutes telling more story than they ever did in the past. Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? What are the reasons for this shift in attitudes? Where is all this imagination and/or money coming from? Will we really have given over fifteen hours of our lives to the Transformers series by the time Michael Bay is finished with us?

Let me just say right here, right now – I’m a big fan of short movies. I believe that you should be in and out of the cinema within 100 minutes, trailers and all. The ideal film is somewhere between 70 and 90 minutes in length. B-movies and low budget films have historically always been sub-100 minutes in length, because they are designed to be cheap and relatively throwaway. The shorter the film, the more times it can be shown in one day. More showings equals more money. With more money being plowed into cinema than ever before, surely then it stands to reason that films should now be the shortest they’ve ever been? We’re always being told that “kids today” have short attention spans, “kids today” can’t focus, “kids today” just want their MTV and their instant gratification. So why are films getting longer? What? You don’t believe me? Well, let’s take a look at some of the biggest films of the past few years, and their running times:

There Will Be Blood - 138 minutes

The Hurt Locker – 131 minutes

The Dark Knight – 152 minutes

The Help – 146 minutes

Inception – 148 minutes

That’s just an incredibly disparate selection of films, names from a hat. Here’s a list of the top five biggest films specifically from last year, in order of worldwide takings, with their running times:

The Avengers - 143 minutes

Skyfall - 143 minutes

The Dark Knight Rises - 165 minutes

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – 169 minutes

Ice Age: Continental Drift – 88 minutes

Look at the disaparity there. Overwhelmingly, the best and most profitable – two qualities that don’t always agree – films of the year were also above two hours in length. Only Ice Age: Continental Drift lets the side down, but then again a two hour animated children’s movie would probably cause a civil war (Fantasia, released in 1940, runs at 125 minutes – it was released during World War II, however, so we’ll never know its war-starting potential). Hunger Games was the ninth most profitable movie, and clocks in at 142 minutes in length. Looking at the year’s big award success stories tells much the same story – Les Misérables runs for 158 minutes. Zero Dark Thirty runs for 157 minutes. Lincoln runs for 150 minutes. All prestige pictures, all with mammoth running times.

This Is 40 ran for 133 minutes. Think of that.

This isn’t just in the last year, either – this trend has been gathering speed over the past ten years or so, as our very first list demonstrated. If we take a closer look at some other films from the last decade, the same pattern emerges – the Harry Potter series totals up to just shy of 20 hours, which in a eight film series means that the individual films average out at a running time of over two hours. Lord of the Rings adds up to ten hours, for a three movie series. That adds up to just over three hours per film. Spider-Man 3 was 139 minutes, released in 2007. Clearly, mainstream films are longer than they’ve ever been before. But what does this mean? What should we take from all these figures? Why the hell should we care? Why am I even reading this?

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Lincoln2 Why Are Films Getting Longer?

Well, I can’t answer that last one. Maybe you’re mentally ill. Maybe you’re preparing your own article entitled “Why are internet articles getting longer?”. Lauren’s superb Guillermo del Toro article (which you really should have read by now) runs for six pages – six pages!

Anyway, I digress.

At first, I thought that maybe it could have something to do with digital vs. analogue. Digital is now the industry standard, and digital projectors are the norm across cinemas up and down the land. At a basic, physical level, this means that distribution and shipping costs are vastly reduced. Compare the cost of making a reel of film, which can be thousands of dollars each (only to be used for one), to the cost of a re-usable hard drive costing only a few hundred dollars. Sure, digital projectors may not last as long as film, but when the working costs to the industry are much lower, the expense of the more frequent replacement of projectors can be offset against that.

That’s just the end result, not even accounting for the increased speed of working with digital – less time scanning prints, workable rushes available on the day of shooting, infinite takes, infinite shot length, all for a slight degradation in image quality – a degradation that won’t be noticeable in a few years, when we’ve all forgotten what film used to “look like.” Pops and grains will be confined to the vinegar-smelling cannisters of the past.

I thought this might be the reason because of David Lynch’s film Inland Empire. His films were never short, but this film – his very first digital feature – ran for a staggering 180 minutes. He shot it with a Sony DSR-PD150, an entry level (at the time) DV camcorder mostly for roving news footage. After shooting Inland Empire in digital, he announced that he would never work with film again. Technically, he has stuck to his word, given that he hasn’t made a film since – just rubbish music and some yoga bullshit. What a loss.

Another factor is that Zero Dark Thirty was shot digitally, with the Arri Alexa camera. The film’s cinematographer, Greig Fraser, said in an interview that  “…we looked at the two comparisons and thought what’s better for the film, ultimately? What’s better for the film is that we have freedom and the ability to do what we want when we want.” And save money in the process, which we’ll come to shortly.

Although I’m sure it contributes, it can’t just be the digital thing. Django Unchained, Les Misérables and Lincoln were all shot on 35mm, even though they would have still been edited and distributed digitally. So digital can’t be the only factor, but it does tie into something else sort-of covered earlier on – money.

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Zero Dark Thirty1 Why Are Films Getting Longer?

Zero Dark Thirty, as previously mentioned, was shot digitally. As was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Skyfall, and The AvengersAll also shot digitally. All with epic budgets, granted, but it’s doubtful that the films would have been anywhere near the length they ended up being if they were being shot on film. Peter Jackson shot the Lord of the Rings series on film, because digital simply wasn’t up to industry standard for that scale of film in the mid-2000′s.

With this in mind, it’s not inconceivable to make a logical leap and suggest that the money saved by shooting digitally gives filmmakers more freedom to make longer films. Cinema prices may seem like they are the highest they’ve ever been, but according to NATO (no, not that one – the National Association of Theatre Owners), cinema prices are cheaper than they’ve ever been when adjusted for inflation (here’s a boring .pdf all about it). As hard as that is to believe, surely NATO wouldn’t lie to us. Cheaper tickets means more bums on seats, which means higher viewing figures. A longer film makes more money to the customer financially because they’re getting more bang for their buck (literally) and makes sense to distributors and cinemas because more customers in the cinema for longer means higher snack sales – where the real money is.

“But surely longer films mean less potential screenings per day?” I hear you ask. Not necessarily, because in a large multiplex the same film can be shown across two, three, or four different screens. My closest cinema, at the height of Skyfall-mania, was showing Skyfall fifteen times in one day, across three screens. You do the math.

So digital plays a part, as does money. But what good is money and the right format when you don’t have imagination? Could it be that filmmakers are getting… better? More talented? More opportunities? Access to better equipment at an earlier age? Is it heresy for me to suggest such an idea?

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%name Why Are Films Getting Longer?

No. It isn’t. Pacific Rim was shot digitally, and clocks in at 132 minutes. That’s mammoth, and Guillermo del Toro’s career has been stratospheric. Another fine example would be Neill Blomkamp – South African director of District 9 (112 minutes) and the upcoming Elysium, starring Matt Damon. Google has Elysium running at 120 minutes, and Google never lies. Both longer than you’d expect. Michael Bay’s Transformers series is comprised of a series of movies all over two hours long.

Does this make those directors better? No, of course not. It does show, however, that they are more comfortable exerting their creative vision over that increased running time, with such massive budgets and movie studios watching their every move. Filmmakers today have never had it so good – anybody can pick up any camera and make a movie. Werner Herzog stole his first movie camera from a local film school, a scenario unimaginable now. Films are getting longer because the tools that allow longer films to come about with greater ease are being used by new directors at an increasingly early age. The new breed – Sam Mendes, Neill Blomkamp, Guillermo del Toro, Peter Jackson (to name but a few) – have the confidence, the equipment, the experience and the money to make films as long as they do.

What I’m saying is that the reason films are getting longer isn’t because of just one of those factors, but all of them combined. The older, more established directors – Stephen Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino – are using the skills they accumulated with film in conjunction with those factors to give them more freedom too. Francis Ford Coppola shot Apocalypse Now in 1977, and it nearly bankrupted the director. Nowadays, shot on digital, it’d be a piece of cake.

The directors of tomorrow are growing up with access to HD cameras and industry-standard editing software. Gareth Edwards’ film Monsters, released in 2010, was shot on DV cameras, on location or in the director’s flat, without permission from anyone. Directors are coming up fast and with skill, enough money, equipment, and inspiration, they’re going to want to tell longer and longer stories. And I intend to let them. Isn’t it just so exciting?

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  • Brian Long

    The longer, the better as long as the movie is good. More for your money. I always buy extended edition Blurays (LOTR, I am waiting for the Hobbit EE bluray, etc.). If you love a story, why not experience more of it!


    I love long movies. Watchmen Ultimate Cut = :D

  • DougK

    Only my bladder objects.

  • Weps86

    Hey, bigshot Jeww producers, my butt NEVER gets numb sitting in those cramped Movieplex “seats” …. ’cause I don’t GO to your overpriced cinemas anymore (or whatever you Jeww-Boys call those goyem-sucker seats these days) ….