Movie Runtimes: How Long Is Too Long?

Tim Gosling

How long is too long? Does length matter? How long should it last? No, this isn’t an advisory sexual health page (although if it was, my answers to all three would be ‘it depends’). No, instead, Tim Ovenden examines the running times of movies, hoping to conclude the *ahem* perfect length. As someone who recently sat through all 3 hours and 54 minutes of the dismal Chinese drama An Elephant Sitting Still, there is no better person for the job.  

With recent movies like Dune and No Time to Die pushing towards the three-hour mark, it’s easy to feel like blockbuster runtimes are getting longer and longer, but is this really the case? Unconvinced myself, I have done some number crunching.

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I calculated the average runtime for the 10 highest grossing movies in the US every year since the dawn of this millennia. Domestic over worldwide gross was chosen to avoid the recent influence of the Chinese market, hoping to give the closest comparison to the UK.

the length you feel is greatly dependent on the pacing of the movie and your engagement with it

The data shows no obvious uphill trend, certainly not in the past decade. Only five of the 21 years have an average length below two hours and these were years where shorter animated features dominated the box office. Do films feel longer because we as audiences are becoming more restless and impatient?

Often the length you feel is greatly dependent on the pacing of the movie and your engagement with it. I’ve seen three-hour movies in cinemas like Hidden Life and Never Look Away that flew by and left me wanting more. Both movies have simple plots and minimal stand-out scenes, perhaps giving the illusion of a shorter runtime, but at the same time both could easily have been cut down and on another day, I might have found them tiresome.

Sometimes a movie has to be long. Whether it’s a complex adaptation à la Lord of the Rings, or a historical epic like Lawrence of Arabia, some movies need time to lay the groundwork and help depict the magnitude of their stories. The latter gets around its over three-hour runtime with an intermission, commonplace in large-scale movies of the time.

Here’s a little history lesson. Going to the movies used to be a major event, not dissimilar from going to see theatre or opera or the like. Picture houses used to play double features back-to-back, the A movie being the main event, but occasionally had nights with a single showing of noteworthy length. An intermission would either be built into these longer movies or implemented by the theatre house’s themselves and existed for many reasons, including to change the film reel and for a smoke and toilet break.

Moreover, cinemas make a lot of their money from concession stands sales so this pause is essential for business. Nowadays, snacks are bought beforehand with adverts and trailers functioning like an intermission would have, only at the start. The last movie with an in-built intermission was 1982’s Gandhi. The concept phased out with the rise of multiplex cinemas and the need for more and more showings to be packed in for greater profit. Today, there is more pressure on directors to keep blockbusters shorter to allow more screenings per night. 

Directors are vain creatures and often need the restraint of a strict editor

From Orsen Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, to Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, cinema has had a long history of studio interference: many movies have been butchered on release in aid of a trimmer final product. Artistic vision must overcome corporate control every time.

Yet directors are vain creatures and often need the restraint of a strict editor to help trim the superfluous fat. Case in point, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now: the theatrical cut’s pacing runs like a dream, yet subsequent re-edits leave Coppola’s ‘definitive version’ a bloated, over three-hours long. Maybe Apocalypse Now Redux’s meandering plotting and peculiar, extended detours better place us in the shoes of our protagonist’s tiresome, deranged journey, but in this case, I’d rather not take the scenic route.

Another example is Quentin Tarantino. Until her tragic death in 2010, Sally Menke was the sole editor on his features and her absence has been evident of late, exposing Tarantino’s inability to reel in his self-indulgence. Would Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood be improved without a lengthy scene of Brad Pitt driving home and feeding his dog or does it further envelop you in the world Tarantino is constructing? Personally, I am slightly biased towards the former due to having glandular fever when I saw it in cinemas so desperately wanted to get home to bed.

While on the subject of Tarantino, it is fitting to bring up The Hateful Eight. Not only did Quentin release a ‘roadshow’ version of the film with authentic overture and intermission, but he has since re-edited the footage into a four-part Netflix miniseries. Could this be the answer and end to longer movies? In the case of The Hateful Eight, I couldn’t say: I couldn’t face watching it again in any form. However, considering the current quantity and appeal of ‘prestige television’ it looks as though we might be heading that way.

a movie on streaming services…circumvents nearly all the complications of a longer film experience

Yet, the popularity of Netflix’s three and a half hour The Irishman gives hope for movies of great length. A movie on streaming services gives viewers the opportunity to have as many toilet breaks and snack breaks and nap breaks as they please, which circumvents nearly all the complications of a longer film experience. Personally, I prefer going to the cinema so this isn’t a universal solution.

All good things must come to an end, so must this article. I now go back to my original question and, after everything covered in this piece, answer it I must. For a movie, how long is too long? It depends.

Tim Gosling

Featured Image courtesy of M_Heigl via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In-article image 1 courtesy of Tim Ovenden. Permission to use granted to Impact. No changes were made to this image.

In-article trailer courtesy of  @Movieclips Classic Trailers via @youtube.com. No changes were made to this video.

In-article image 2 courtesy of @onceinhollywood via @instagram.com. No changes were made to this image.

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