Free Film School #131: They’re Getting Longer All the Time

Titanic splash

Welcome, my gentle students, back to CraveOnline's Free Film School. I hope you enjoyed your brief winter break (I took last week off to engage in Christmas activities), because it's time to dive back in, put your nose to the grindstone, and engage in other metaphors for hard work (even though your work won't be all that hard). This week's lecture will be about film length, and how movies, in a very general way, seem to be getting longer and longer.

A few weeks ago, I gave you a rundown on Bollywood films, and the inherent “entertainment ethic” that Bollywood movies employ. Bollywood films – all typically overblown, extra-long, action romance musicals – cleave to a philosophy called “paisa vasool” which translates roughly to “getting your money's worth.” They are not going to let you out of the theater until at least three hours have passed, and you have been bloody entertained.

I have noticed over the course of the last 15 to 20 years that American films – particularly big-budget American summer blockbusters – have begun to adopt a similar philosophy. Blockbusters, true to their namesake, feel a need to outdo whatever the last blockbuster was. They need to have bigger explosions, faster chases, higher stakes, and more elaborate plots. The budgets are bigger and, to my main point, the films are getting longer and longer. Every film tries to be of at least admirable quality, but more than that, studios want to provide (and many audiences demand) more quantity.

I seem to recall a time when mainstream action blockbusters were 90 to 110 minutes long. These days, they seem to run closer to 120 or 130. This may seem like a piddling detail, but when you look at the vast history of movies going all the way back to the 1910s, you'll see that this is just the latest step in a trend. Films are indeed getting longer and longer.

Batman 1966

Let me use some Batman movies to illustrate my point:

Batman (1966): 105 minute runtime

Batman (1989): 126 minute runtime

Batman Begins (2005): 140 minute runtime

The Dark Knight Rises (2012): 163 minute runtime

The Dark Knight Rises

Indeed, there are many infographics all over the internet citing how films are indeed getting longer. In the 1910s, when film stock was a bit more precarious (it was easily flammable in those days) feature films ran a brief 79 minutes on average. In the 20s, that number rose a full 19 minutes longer, showing that the film industry was exploding. In the 30s, average runtime was 96 minutes. The '40s, 109 minutes. The '50s, 114 minutes. By the '00s it was all the way up to 129 minutes on average. These numbers may not be 100% accurate, but given my experience with movies, they seem legit to me.

What causes the length of a film to increase? Well, technology has a lot to do with it. When a filmmaker can use a digital camera, devoid of physical film stock, she is allowed to shoot and shoot, filming much more material on a hard drive than she would be able to on a film cartridge. Old film reels usually only ran about 20 minutes, meaning filmmakers had to be more stingy with takes and the lengths of their shots.

Another reason for this increased length may be audience demand. As ticket prices at movie theaters continue to increase, filmgoers may demand more movie for their money. Why pay anywhere from $13 to $20 just to while away a mere 95 minutes in a dark room, when 135 minutes is so much more cost efficient? The Bollywood demand may be ever increasing in such a marketplace, and audiences may begin requiring more bang for their buck. And 90 minutes? Just not enough bang.