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

Harry Potter

Also, as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter pointed out in 2001, long-form pre-planned franchises are actually a bankable commodity. Audiences are eager to have entire packaged deals and guaranteed sequels these days (back in the 1990s, it was considered business taboo to mention a sequel anytime before opening night of the original), and the movies are often adaptations of previous material. “Getting all the details right” is now of primary concern to audiences, leading filmmakers to carefully suss out longer films that have more time to breathe and announce their story minutiae. Does it take 140 minutes to tell the very simple backstory of Batman? No, but it was nice to see so much attention to detail, right? And who would have thought a series of films aimed largely at children (Harry Potter) would make for a series of movies that would each hover around the 150-minute mark?

What's more, filmmakers are constantly competing with an ever-increasing store of other entertainments. The amount of screen-based entertainment you can get in your home is nearly infinite. Once you're done browsing the 3,000 titles on Netflix, you still have the 100 years of solid entertainment on YouTube. And that's only two websites. This is not counting video games, music, 'blogs, review shows, written reviews and film editorials (hi there!), and the bottomless, fathomless ocean of free pornography the internet provides. As such, movies have to do something to stand out. They have to really come across as “events” all the more. And what better way to announce yourself as an “event” than to have something really, really long? Would The Hobbit movies have been as well-attended if Peter Jackson made a single 95-minute movie, rather than three 175-minute movies?

The Hobbit

Finally, what does all this mean? Why does it matter than films are getting longer? Well here's where I get to editorialize a little bit. Longer movies, I think we can all agree, don't necessarily equal better movies. Don't get me wrong, I love long movies. I really, really love long, long movies. If a movie is 210 minutes long, and has hundreds of characters, I'm probably going to dig it, even if it sucks. One of the best movies of 2013 was Blue is the Warmest Color, and that film ran a whopping 180 minutes. In the case of that film, its length allowed a certain leisurely, lifelike pacing, allowing the drama to sink in, to stay with you. I wouldn't want that film to be shorter.

But not all films necessarily warrant the average 129-minute runtime. Do animated kids films need to be that long? Probably not. For one, little kids probably won't sit through 129 minutes of Despicable Me 2. No one can maintain a frantic and exciting pace for a full 129 minutes. In that case, 90 minutes is plenty.

Also, a lot of exploitation and B-movies are actually growing in length, much to their detriment. The disappointing 2013 actioner Escape Plan was about a man who was an expert in breaking out of high-security prisons, and who made a living doing so. In the film, he found himself in secret prison built specifically to keep him locked up. This sounds like a crackerjack B-movie premise, and would be capable of providing some quick cheap thrill on a Friday night. Sadly, the film ran to 115 minutes. This is a movie that was actually hindered by “event” thinking. This is a movie that could be made on a smaller budget, running from 85 to 90 minutes, and be ten times better.

Escape Plan

No slasher movie should be over 95 minutes. No horror film should be over 105. No comedy should be longer than 90. Only the Japanese are allowed to make animated films longer than 100 minutes. No historical epic or biopic should be under 160 minutes. No concert film should be shorter than 120.

But then, a line appears. There was a time when superhero material was considered “B”-grade material, and didn't warrant larger budgets. As of 2013, superhero movies are still the biggest box-office hits. Back in the day (maybe in the mid 1980s), I would perhaps declare that superhero movies should be no longer than 100 minutes. But as they become more eventful, they become longer. And as they earn more and more money, the longer they'll get.

So I'll sum up with this: More and more films are being sold as “events,” and that's fine. Event films are fun, and they get people excited. And if a film is a legitimate event, why not make it long? Avatar was an event. Titanic was an event. The Avengers was an event. All of these movies were long, elaborate movies. They didn't have long elaborate stories, but they took their time, and included a lot of spectacle.

But be wary: If we begin to sell every single film as an “event,” and we start to pad out simple 90-minutes premises to 129, 150, 180 minutes, we run the risk of losing smaller, simpler movies to endless padding and meaningless spectacle. There are great 90-minute movies cowering inside the chunky hulks of 130-minute blockbusters. To Hollywood: I understand the best business model is one of “high risk, high return,” but I'd like to encourage you to treat some of your smaller films as, well, smaller films. As a lover of quick cheapies, exploitation schlock, and all kinds of B-movies, I dread the day when they grow too long to be entertaining.

Homework for the Week:

What kind of film have toy always wanted to see? What kind of story is it? Now: How long should that movie be? How much of it would you sit through? What would be its ideal length? The next time you watch a movie, take note of its length. Also try to figure if the film warranted its length, or of could have stood to be shorter. What movies are too long? What movies are too short?  

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.