Why it feels like movies get longer

Many of the biggest and most hyped movies of the past year have tested audiences’ attention spans – and bladders – with running times approaching three hours.

(CNN and Warner Bros., the studio behind films like “Dune,” “King Richard” and “The Batman,” are part of WarnerMedia.)

It’s hard to say definitively that movies are getting longer than before. Many popular films of the 20th century (“Gone with the Wind”, “Lawrence of Arabia”, and “The Godfather: Part II”, to name a few) went from three hours to four hours, while blockbusters and “Oscar Bait” movies make up a fraction of the films released each year.

That said, it certainly feels like the movies are getting longer — and media and entertainment analyst Daniel Loría says there’s some truth to that perception.

“Certain types of movies that weren’t that long before are definitely longer now,” says Loría, editorial director and senior vice president of content strategy for BoxOffice Pro. “But not all blockbusters get longer.”

But while today’s movies don’t necessarily hang around any longer than they once did, there are a few reasons why that seems to be the case.

It starts with the death of VHS

The first blockbusters emerged during Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, spanning roughly from the 1930s to the 1960s – and they also proved to be quite long-lived. As more people started having TVs in their homes, studios were forced to compete and started making sweeping epics that would get people into theaters, Loría says.

That changed in the 70s and 80s with the home video boom. As video cassettes began to dominate the market, Hollywood pushed for films to be short enough to fit on a standard VHS tape.

“As the home entertainment market really started to evolve for Hollywood studios, shorter runtimes became a bit more of a priority,” says Loría. “That factored into the decision-making at some point when you think about the trading outlook.”

As home movie consumption shifted to DVDs, Blu-rays, and eventually streaming, shorter runtimes became less and less of a priority. A 2014 analysis by data scientist Randal Olson that examines the 25 most popular films of each year charts this development. While feature films steadily got longer from the 1930s to the 1960s, they dropped by an average of 10 minutes from 1970 to 1985 – only to rebound back to the length they had in the 1960s.

So for those Gen Xers and older millennials who remember visiting the video rental store and bringing home tapes to put in the VCR, it makes sense that movies seem to lengthen over time. Because in a sense, they did.

Then came the superhero shows

Part of what fuels fatigue around movie lengths is the kind of film that now tends to dominate the box office — and in turn, cultural discourse.

“Before, there was a lot more balance,” says Erik Anderson, founder and editor of the AwardsWatch website. “You’re going to watch the top 10 movies of any given year going back to the 90s, 80s, 70s, and it was a mix of everything: action and sci-fi and drama and comedy. What we’re seeing now is just Marvel, Marvel, Marvel, [DC Extended Universe]’Dune’ — those other existing IPs rather than original content and mid-budget adult stories.”
Those movies — the superhero slices and the sci-fi shows — are what tend to be three hours long, Anderson adds. And it is these films that the public mainly goes to see in the cinema.
Anderson points to James Cameron’s 2009 “Avatar” as a turning point. As streaming platforms like Netflix began to gain popularity, the massive commercial success of “Avatar” (at 2 hours and 42 minutes) signaled to filmmakers and studios that splashy visual effects extravaganzas could get viewers excited. to leave the comfort of their own home to see a movie on the big screen.
Meanwhile, Loría says, the superhero genre has evolved from the standalone film of decades past to the full-scale crossover film ushered in by “The Avengers.”

“The movies that a mass audience is going to see in theaters will probably be a superhero movie that has to tie into a TV show and two or three other franchises, between one or two studios,” he adds. . “And this movie is definitely getting longer.”

With more resources devoted to “event films”, mid-budget films – like the 90-minute horror flick or the 100-minute romantic comedy – have begun to move away from multiplexes, instead finding a home on various streaming platforms. streaming. And while mid-budget movies haven’t completely disappeared from theaters, they aren’t performing as well as they used to.

“There are mid-range films, [but] there are fewer,” Loria says. “And there are certainly many, many fewer that become mainstream hits.

Now there’s no incentive to keep movies short

Despite complaining that the films are too long, audiences seem willing to follow along.

Many of the top-grossing movies have long running times, and judging by the success of “Avengers: Endgame” and other long-running blockbusters that followed, viewers seem to have no problem watching a movie from three hours – or at least their interest in the film seems to outweigh any complaints about its length.

The dynamic is similar for potential Oscar-nominated films, which also tend to be long-lived, says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. The studios offer filmmakers the creative freedom to execute their vision, and audiences seem to respect that.

“A more mature audience is ready to watch these feature films if they’re critically acclaimed, if they’re newsworthy, if they’re up for awards,” he says. “If it’s a really long movie and you understand that, I think audiences really appreciate it.”

Although they complain that the movies are too long, audiences still go to see long movies in theaters.

On top of that, Dergarabedian says some of the constraints that might have reduced the length of movies in the past aren’t as relevant anymore. For single-screen cinemas, longer films mean fewer potential screenings per day – and therefore less profit. But with the proliferation of the multiplex, that’s not really a problem. Cinemas can show the same film on multiple screens – or even around the clock – if demand warrants.

Still, there’s something to be said for pacing and editing. Anderson says a lot of movies have “a lot of fat they don’t need”.

Dergarabedian, however, puts it like this: “If it’s a terrible movie, every minute is painful. If it’s a fantastic movie, the audience wants more.”

Does this mean that the public must resign themselves to remaining seated in the rooms for almost three hours to live the cinematic experience? Some, including “Avengers: Endgame” director Joe Russo, seem to think so.

“The two-hour movie has been a big hit in 100 years. But it’s become very difficult to work on it,” he told an industry conference in 2018. “I’m not sure that the rising generation will see the two one-hour films as the dominant form of storytelling.”

Others, like Dergarabedian, offer to bring back the intermission. But as cinematic storytelling gets more ambitious and audiences come back for more, it seems viewers will have to get used to holding their bladders — or staying home.

About Anne Wurtsbach

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