Many of the biggest, buzziest films 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 definitively declare that movies are getting longer than they used to be. Plenty of popular films from the 20th century (“Gone with the Wind,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “The Godfather: Part II,” to name a few) blew past three hours into four-hour territory, while blockbusters and “Oscar bait” films represent a fraction of the movies that are released in any given year.
That said, it certainly feels like movies are getting longer — and media and entertainment analyst Daniel Loría says there’s some truth to this perception.
“Some types of movies that weren’t as long before definitely are longer now,” says Loría, who is the editorial director and senior vice president of content strategy for BoxOffice Pro. “But not every blockbuster is getting longer.”
But even though movies today aren’t necessarily dragging on longer than they once did, there are a few reasons why it seems that way.
It starts with the death of VHS
That changed in the ’70s and ’80s with the home video boom. As video cassettes started to dominate the market, there was pressure for Hollywood to keep movies short enough to fit on a standard VHS tape.
“As the home entertainment market really started to evolve for Hollywood studios, shorter running times became a little bit more of a priority,” Loría says. “It did factor into the decision-making at some point when you think about commercial prospects.”
So for members of Generation X and older millennials who remember visiting the video rental store and bringing tapes home to put in the VCR, it makes sense that movies seem to have gotten longer over time. Because in a sense, they have.
Then came the superhero spectacles
Part of what’s fueling the fatigue around movie lengths is the kind of movie that now tends to dominate the box office — and in turn, the cultural discourse.
“The movies that a mass audience is going to a theater to go see is probably going to be a superhero movie that has to tie in a TV show and two or three other franchises, between one or two studios,” he adds. “And that movie is definitely getting longer.”
“There are mid-range movies, [but] there are less of them,” Loría says. “And there are certainly much, much fewer of them that are breaking out as mainstream hits.”
Now, there’s no incentive to keep movies short
Despite complaining that movies are too long, audiences seem willing to go along for the ride.
The dynamic is similar for films that are potential Academy Award nominees, which also tend to run long, says Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian. Studios afford filmmakers the creative freedom to execute their vision, and audiences seem to respect that.
“More mature audiences are willing to sit through those long films if they’re critically acclaimed, if they’re buzzworthy, if they’re awards contenders,” he says. “If it’s a really long movie and you walk in understanding that, I think audiences actually enjoy that.”
On top of that, Dergarabedian says some of the constraints that might have kept movie running times shorter in the past aren’t as relevant anymore. For single screen theaters, longer movies mean fewer potential screenings a day — and consequently fewer profits. But with the proliferation of the multiplex, that isn’t much of a concern. Theaters can show the same film on multiple screens — or even around the clock — if demand warrants it.
Still, there’s something to be said for pacing and editing. Anderson says plenty of movies have “a lot of fat on them that they don’t need.”
Dergarabedian, however, puts it this way: “If it’s a terrible movie, every minute is painful. If it’s a fantastic movie, the audience wants more.”
So does that mean audiences must resign themselves to sitting in theaters for close to three hours to get the cinematic experience? Some, including “Avengers: Endgame” director Joe Russo, seem to think so.
Others, like Dergarabedian, propose bringing back the intermission. But as long as cinematic storytelling keeps getting more ambitious, and as long as audiences keep coming back for more, it seems that viewers will have to get used to holding their bladders — or stay at home.