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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