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Are Today’s Films Too Long?

I happened upon an interesting article which suggested that today’s blockbusters are far too long. It’s a notion which got me thinking – it’s easy to jump to those sort of conclusions based on the kind of summer we’ve had, but are movies really getting longer and is that a bad thing?

Even bigger and meaner than you could imagine...

Even bigger and meaner than you could imagine...

I guess it depends on the film. Transformers 2 would have seemed like agony at an hour and a half, but at two hours it was a personal horror-fest for many reviewers (and audience members) with even Roger Ebert reserving some vitriol for the film’s frankly unnecessary length in the opening words of his review:

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a horrible experience of unbearable length…

The same could arguably be said of Terminator: Salvation which clocked in at almost two hours but is getting the now seemingly expected “director’s cut” treatment with an extension of a further twenty minutes. I am actually excited at the prospect of a nearly four-hour cut of Watchmen, and I know that more than a few people are, but it could still be seen as yet another example of excess (I’ll still be ordering my copy come November 23rd).

The notion of an epic-length blockbuster isn’t a new thing – The Dark Knight smashed box office records at two-hours-and-a-half and even the theatrical versions of The Lord of the Rings weren’t renowned for their brevity. The all time box office champ, Titanic, also takes its time getting where it’s going. And those are just the crowd-pleasing ones.

It used to be the sole preserve of Oscar bait to meditate so thoroughly on their issues – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button checked that box this year and divided film critics and audiences down the middle. David Fincher’s Zodiac was nearly three hours in theatres, before it got the director’s cut treatment, and sparked this debate two years ago. Before that it was films like The Godfather and Schindler’s List and even Cleopatra. Very few audiences object to the length of those pieces, with Richard Roeper articulating a fairly reasonable observation on the state of long films:

The Godfather merits all that time and more. But 80 to 90 percent of the films I see could benefit from 10 to 15 minutes in cuts.

The simple fact is that while there have always been long films, average films are getting longer. The Taking of Pelham 123 would have filled maybe eight minutes a few years ago, but expanded to almost two hours now – while some films benefit from the expanded space to explore the core themes, brevity is also a virtue in some cases. I believe Woody Allen once observed that an ideal length for a comedy was around 90 minutes, and maybe he is right.

Film formats that once limited the length of the feature being shown seem to be slowly advancing to remove these barriers from film makers – for better or worse. Imax apparently currently restricts the length of film that can be shown to about two hours and forty minutes, but with the current wave of movies expanding to Imax means that the studios are now motivated to break that threshold. The potentially exhausting effect of 3D on the eyes was generally taken as imposing a polite time restriction on film makers, but it looks like Avatar will set a new three-hour benchmark. I’m worried that I may faint.

If you measure things strictly objectively, perhaps you can justify the expanded length of these films being churned out – if you attempt to rationally measure a bang-to-buck ratio. Cinema prices are rising, so ten euro for three hours with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett sounds quite reasonable. Of course it is somewhat harder to rationalise if you judge a movie holisticly – I’d rather a good experience lasting eighty minutes than even a mediocre experience lasting three.

One way that studios seem to be dealing with the increasing length of movies is by splitting them into chunks. In the two well-known cases where it has happened – the Kill Bill and Che movies – it doesn’t appear that this movie was motivated by floating dollar-bill signs, but rather by a desire by studios to appease autuer directors. It’s an interesting notion which suggests that maybe this new craze in length is driven more by the directors than by the studios. Though filming one longer film split in two is cheaper than filming two smaller films, it’s a bigger gamble and a higher risk and filming a single short film is cheaper than filming a single longer film.

The logic that directors now have more freedom to increase the length of the films – or rather that more directors have the same freedoms earlier restricted to masters like Coppola or Speilberg – perhaps suggests something interesting about modern film making. McG has relatively little experience directing Terminator, so it seems odd to give him twenty minutes he doesn’t need if it’s going to cost the studios. I’m not sure I can explain it, but maybe it’s one more of those little Hollywood quirks – studios spend more and more and more on movies in the hopes of breaking records, rather than making a lot of smaller investments and leveraging the risk. That’s why we have more event movies now than ever before and why summer starts so early.

I’m not sure why it happens, but I’ve noted it. I know that I’m not the only film fan who feels more cheated after seeing 160 minutes of bad film than after only seeing 80 minutes of good film.

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