Why are movies getting longer and longer?

the essential
Lately, it feels like the movies are all longer than they were a few years ago. But why ?

A simple glance at the audiovisual ecosystem is enough to realize that the contents are more and more numerous and especially increasingly shorter.

Our attention is constantly solicited by the incessant flow of tweets, reals, TikTok videos, etc. Faced with this saturation – not to say hypertrophy – of the audiovisual space, some authors have underlined the risk of seeing our capacity for attention compromised. This is the case of Nicholas Carr and his now classic Does the internet make you stupid?

One could therefore assume that films or series follow this trend, towards ever more conciseness; but on the contrary, the length of the films does not stop growing.

more minutes please

The increase in screen time is noticeable in films intended for cinemas. This is the case in Avatar: The Way of the Water (James Cameron, 2022), with 192 minutes, the recent babylon (Damien Chazelle, 2022), with 188 minutes, or even the blockbuster Avengers: Endgame (Anthony and Joe Russo, 2019) and its 181 minutes.

But this trend is also found in films designed primarily to be exploited by streaming platforms – like The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019), with 209 minutes of footage, and bardo (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2022) and its 159 minutes – or those intended for more minority circuits, traditionally linked to independent or auteur cinema. In this sense, one can mention pacification (2022), the 166-minute film by Albert Serra.

How can this increase in the duration of films be explained?

First of all, it should be pointed out that there have always been films that are longer than average. Think for example of classics such as Gone with the wind (Victor Fleming, George Cukor and Sam Wood, 1939), with a running time of 238 minutes, and Ben Hur (William Wyler, 1959) and its 211 minutes, to name just a few well-known examples.

A man walks through the door and turns to look at a woman in the shadows
238 minutes until now. MovieAffinity

But we can still wonder why films are getting longer and longer at a time when everything indicates that the trend should go in the opposite direction: the success of series, the wars between streaming platforms, the battle for attention and endless supply that encourages accelerated consumption.

Multiple causes

There are three potential reasons for this change: on the one hand, the desire to broaden the narratives, on the other hand, the need to differentiate themselves from television fiction (or via the streaming) and, finally, the attempt to justify the increase in the price of the cinema ticket.

This question, however, is not an absolute novelty, but rather accentuates characteristics already present in the film industry since the Hollywood of the 1950s. Already at that time, the need to stand out from the television offer led the studios to opt for longer films, with more stars, more effects, more spectacle. A bit like what is happening today with productions like Avatar or Marvel movies.

In previous decades, cinemas had opted for a double screening model, inherited from the past, or three screenings in a row. This is one of the reasons why the average length of a film was 90 or 100 minutes.

[Près de 80 000 lecteurs font confiance à la newsletter de The Conversation pour mieux comprendre les grands enjeux du monde. Abonnez-vous aujourd’hui]

Ironically, “blockbuster” type productions, whose duration exceeds the average by a few minutes, such as Alien: the eighth passenger (Ridley Scott, 1979; 116 minutes), Back to the future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985; 116 minutes), Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984; 107 minutes) and The Goonies (Richard Donner, 1985; 114 mins), to name but a few examples still fresh in readers’ minds – went from being the exception to being the norm and ultimately setting a new direction for the industry.

Three armed men in coveralls
107 minutes of ghostbusters and that’s all it took. Affinity Movie

On the other hand, the attempt to expand the narratives (which, paradoxically, could be considered an “attempt to resemble the series”), without being something entirely new, presents different nuances.

Robert McKee, in his book Story, indicates the existence of works with more acts than the traditional three. In this sense, he cites Four weddings and a funeral (Mike Newell, 1994), with five acts; The Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981), with seven, or The cook, the thief, his wife and her lover (Peter Greenaway, 1989), with eight.

An exception that has become the norm

Today, what was once the exception is starting to become the norm.

This brings us to the following conclusion: cinema has to face several problems. These include changes in viewers’ consumption habits – including a decline in cinema attendance – the primacy of series (more in line with the idea of ​​domestic and dynamic consumption), the greater audiovisual offer and the price of cinema tickets – similar to the cost of a monthly subscription to any platform of streaming –.

For all these reasons, the film industry, especially the cinema-oriented one, seems to have concentrated its offer. Thus, he favored big-budget long films, with more subplots and more spectacularization. All of these features seem to justify the price of admission and deter subscription to a streaming platform or other distribution channels.

In the case of productions more independentthe longer duration would respond to a desire to explore new narratives, further removed from television speeches or mainstream and large productions.

Anyway, and while confirming the drift of the sector, it might be wise to order the popcorn in XL format, if one does not want to run out before the lights come on in the cinema hall.

This article is part of the research carried out by the IDEcoA research group of the University of Murcia.

Gabri Rodenas, Profesor of Audiovisual Communication, University of Murcia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.