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.
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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
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.”
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.
“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.”
“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.
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.”
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.
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.