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From the Wire: Are Movies Too Long? Or: 'TL;DW'

Criticwire By Matt Singer | Criticwire November 27, 2012 at 3:22PM

An editor at Variety thinks movies are too long and wants no movie to last longer than three hours.
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"Cloud Atlas."
"Cloud Atlas."

Variety Film Editor Josh DIckey has been on a bit of a crusade against long movies. He's followed a series of controversial tweets asserting that movies are getting too long in general and that no movie should ever run longer than three hours with a full column on the subject. Rather than simply rely on his own opinion, he consulted with two "social-media analytics experts" to determine whether moviegoers (or at least moviegoers who can't stay off Facebook and Twitter) agree with him. Here are some of their findings about the connection between viewers' opinions of a movie and excessive length: 

"It turns out that a long runtime causes no positive or negative reaction during a film's marketing period. And for really big event movies, viewers sometimes feel a longer movie gave them their money's worth (call it the TGI Friday's portion-size effect). But once a film gets playing, social response suggests long length can stall its word-of-mouth momentum, usually emerging as secondary complaint -- but a persistent one."

Looking closer, Dickey and his experts saw that the longer "Cloud Atlas" stayed in theaters, the higher the percentage of negative social media comments dedicated to the film's runtime. On the other hand, they found less tangible evidence of length complaints about "The Dark Knight Rises" -- a movie that's just six minutes shorter than "Cloud Atlas."

I've got no beef with anyone who thinks a specific movie is "too long" (I better not; I complained about "Heaven's Gate"'s length about four hours ago). But I'm wary of any hard and fast rule about movies. Dickey argues that any runtime of more than 150 minutes is "inexcusable." Surely there are specific examples of movies that are excessively long (like, say, oh I don't know, "Heaven's Gate") but I'm of the opinion that demanding movies conform to this or that arbitrary restraint is a much more damaging idea than a three hour runtime. 

I haven't talked with Dickey or his analysts, but I'd be curious to know the following: what were the ratio of overall positive to negative tweets? If, hypothetically, eight out of ten people on Twitter loved "Cloud Atlas" or "The Dark Knight Rises," doesn't that say as much or more about the effect of their length on viewers than what a small percentage of the two out of ten complained about? How many of the people that liked the movie praised its "epic scope" or its "huge ambitions" or "big ensembles?" That information might give us a fuller, more accurate picture of this subject.

Dickey claims "Cloud Atlas"' length hurt its box office receipts. Maybe it did. It didn't hurt its artistic merits, though -- I've seen the film twice and was never bored for a single second of either viewing; the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer produced something that is long but lean. Ultimately, length is just another choice, another part of the filmmaker's toolkit, like color or black and white photography, or analog or digital effects. Dickey quite literally wants to limit what directors can do. I'd rather they work without those sorts of limitations. 

Read more of "Crop of Lengthy Pix Test Audiences' Patience."

This article is related to: From the Wire


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