Did a chill go down your spine when you noticed Robert Pattinson’s “The Batman” was just shy of three hours long?
Maybe you feel, along with other comic book enthusiasts, there’s no such thing as too much Bruce Wayne. Three hours? Five hours? Inject it directly into your eyeballs.
Or, after two years of pandemic isolation, perhaps you’ve gotten so used to pausing the TV every 30 seconds to check your phone, grab a snack, use the restroom or doom-scroll on Twitter. The thought of spending 180 uninterrupted minutes staring at a silver screen is so daunting, you’ve considered skipping “The Batman” altogether.
Moviemakers take all those reactions into consideration when they deliver their final cut. A-list actors in leading roles, a big-name director and a compelling pitch are key in selling a film, of course. But a movie’s running time is one of the less flashy yet deliberately thought-out elements. Unlike precisely timed network television shows, movies have flexibility. But there are good reasons why studios and directors want to avoid bloat — though in some instances, it’s unavoidable.
A movie’s length has the potential to impact budget, profits and word of mouth. With millions of dollars on the line, those precious minutes are never arbitrary. In an age when there’s no shortage of entertainment options, directors, producers or executives don’t need anyone to exit a movie and think: “It was good, but it was way too long.”
It may not be scientifically proven, but sometimes it feels like movies are, indeed, getting longer. Many of this year’s biggest releases — “No Time to Die” (2 hours, 43 minutes), “Spider-Man: No Way Home” (2 hours, 28 minutes), “Dune” (2 hours, 35 minutes), “Eternals” (2 hours, 37 minutes) and “The Last Duel” (2 hours, 32 minutes) — may as well have run forever and a day.
Still, it’s a trend that’s not necessarily new. Plenty of older popular movies — 1939’s “Gone With the Wind” (3 hours, 58 minutes), 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia” (3 hours, 47 minutes) and 1959’s “Ben-Hur” (3 hours, 32 minutes) — managed to become commercial smashes despite butt-numbing running times. Ditto recent hits like “Spider-Man” and “No Time to Die.” Those examples prove there’s not always a negative correlation between the length of a movie and its success. Most of the highest-grossing films in history fall between two and three hours. And only one Oscar best picture winner, “Annie Hall,” comes in at just about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Streaming services don’t face the same financial pressure as traditional studios, so they don’t require such rigid guidelines. Since Netflix allows the freedom for Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” to be three and a half hours, Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead” to be 2 hours and 28 minutes or Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” to be 2 hours and 34 minutes, it’s harder for the old guard to impose strict limits on filmmakers.
Whether it’s for theaters or streamers, there’s still a healthy mix of art and empiricism that goes into the long-standing debate over an individual movie’s running time. But is this a new hot topic or has the battle of the bulge been as long as movie history?
Let’s, as Julie Andrews sang in “The Sound of Music” (2 hours, 54 minutes), start at the very beginning.
In the early days of cinema, the duration of a movie directly correlated to the amount of film that was available. That’s the reason in the first decade of the 20th century, most flicks would range from 10 to 15 minutes. By the 1920s, technology had advanced enough to accommodate feature-length films, and by the 1950s, running times for epics, like “Gone With the Wind” or “The Ten Commandments,” became a selling point, one that studios used to great effect to compete with television. Audiences could watch any old show at home, but only cinemas offer the kind of immersive storytelling worth leaving the couch and parting with hard-earned cash.
The deployment of digital cinema in the late ’90s also allowed running times to vary. It freed filmmakers from the physical limitations of cumbersome film reels. And computerized versions of movies meant three-hour features didn’t cost as much to ship and store.
“Most long films could be promoted as special and prestigious,” says Dana Polan, a cinema studies professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “There was an assumption that length equaled quality.”
But, as Spider-Man might have put it had he run a film studio, with greater run times come greater responsibility — the lengthier a movie gets, the more that anyone with money on the line stands to worry. At the box office, longer movies mean fewer showtimes per day. Fewer showtimes reduce ticket sales. That makes it harder to break even and eventually turn a profit. At the same time, audiences have started to favor special-effects-driven movies, which usually come with bigger price tags and require higher returns to justify those increased costs.
Polan says he’s recently noticed mega-budgeted superhero and adventure tentpoles, which have come to all but sustain the exhibition industry, often incorporate long, CGI-heavy action scenes. Some sequences may even feel gratuitous.
“It’s almost to say, we’ve spent the money — let’s flaunt it,” he notes.
For most theatrical films, length contributes to the scheduling game. Theaters budget roughly three hours per screening to accommodate time for trailers beforehand and janitors to clean up after patrons. For a three-hour movie like “Avengers: Endgame” or the upcoming “The Batman,” exhibitors need to account for an additional hour, which cuts at least one daily showtime. With “Endgame,” multiplexes stayed open for 72 hours straight to meet sky-high demand, but not every blockbuster hopeful gets that red-carpet treatment.
Running time can also affect downstream revenues, like television licensing. For a while, 91 minutes was the ideal length — it fit nicely in a two-hour block on cable with commercials.
Those are only the concerns for a finalized film. When directors initially sign on to a major studio movie, they have a contractual obligation to deliver it at two hours. It’s almost unspoken that nobody pays attention to the rule, but it protects studios should a filmmaker deliver a movie with a truly egregious length.
“You sign it, and then you ignore it,” says Jon Turteltaub, the director of Nicolas Cage’s action-adventure series “National Treasure” and the Jason Statham-led shark epic “The Meg.” “Everyone from top to bottom wants the best film possible.”
Studios don’t want to pull the contract card because it could be seen as interfering with the creative process. But they prefer shorter films.
“Studios don’t enforce it, and producers don’t either, because they’ll eventually get it to the right length,” says Jonathan Glickman, a producer and former MGM Motion Picture Group president.
A shorter movie is less expensive to put together and therefore less of a financial risk. Such considerations start with the earliest physical part of a movie idea: the screenplay. A longer script requires more time to film. In turn, additional shooting dates tack on millions of dollars. With a visual-effects-driven film, an extra 30 to 60 more minutes of screen time can increase a budget by as much as 25%, one source at a major studio estimates. The more footage on tape, the more time is needed in post-production stages, which adds some $50,000 to $100,000 per week, the insider adds. That takes into account aspects like audio mixing and sound editing. It also requires more days to have actors on set. During the pandemic, longer filming schedules means a greater risk of having a COVID-19 outbreak delay production. Overall, trimming any excess before cameras begin rolling can be a difference of tens of millions of dollars.
“These battles exist from the moment you begin your movie,” says Turteltaub.
There’s a phrase in writing that refers to cutting favorite digressions in favor of a tighter narrative — kill your darlings.
The one surefire way to get directors in a murderous spirit: test screenings. Once a movie is in a malleable place, select audiences get to watch it early. According to experts in the craft of audience research, critiques usually come down to three points: pace (does the movie drag?), ending (can it stick the landing?) and general confusion about the plot (the villain is doing … what?).
Removing the fat is easy. Turteltaub says the first cut of “National Treasure,” including everything but the kitchen sink, was 3 hours and 45 minutes. “There’s always a ton of bad,” he says. “It’s getting rid of the good for a better good.” The final product clocked in at 2 hours and 11 minutes.
For the sequel, he estimates 40 minutes were lifted out of a more complete version of the movie. “That’s a big chunk. As the filmmaker, you’re sure you need all that to tell your story. You know there’s one actor who was only in that 40 minutes, and you need to call them,” Turteltaub says.
Test screenings can also work in a filmmaker’s favor. After enthusiastic previews, Chris Columbus, who directed “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” says Warner Bros. did not give him any pushback about the film’s sprawling 2-hour-and-32-minute running time. Making a kid sit for that long is usually a tall order. The adventures of the famous boy wizard proved an exception. Harry Potter is one of several big properties, including Marvel and James Bond, where running time doesn’t play a factor. For rabid fans, longer can sometimes mean better.
“We did the focus group, and all the parents said the film is too long, and all the kids said it’s too short. … I knew it was working when I saw kids sprinting to the bathroom and sprinting back because they didn’t want to miss anything,” Columbus recalls.
Kevin Goetz, a veteran movie researcher, says filmmakers, producers and studios take comments like “It’s too long” quite seriously. Experts have come to understand the complaint is a Rorschach test of sorts. It can mean many things. Is it boring? Too repetitive? Does the plot take forever to get going? Does the middle drag? Do audiences feel it’ll never end? There’s a delicate way to balance any disagreements between involved parties, he adds.
A handful of directors, like Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg, have final-cut privileges, which is the ability to determine the version of a movie that plays in theaters. And, Goetz says, even those heavyweights take feedback into account.
“All the greats I work with absolutely listen to audiences,” says Goetz, who wrote the book “Audience-ology: How Moviegoers Shape the Films We Love.”
So then why, after all this careful consideration at every step of the filmmaking process, does it still feel taxing to watch some movies? It’s not for lack of trying. Many executives blame it on the rush to meet a release date; there’s less time to make surgical edits that would prevent moviegoers from dozing off. In certain instances, directors can make the final decision to preserve scenes that others may view as indulgent. And once editing is already significantly underway, it’s easier and less expensive, for better or worse, to keep it all on screen.
At the end of the day, making movies isn’t an exact science. There’s no formula that determines how long it will take to tell a compelling story or to know with any certainty the exact moment that an audience member will start to get bored. But there are a few important rules of thumb.
“No movie is good because it’s long, and no movie is good because it’s short,” Turteltaub says. “But I’d rather see a short, shitty movie than a long one.”