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

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by Matt Singer
November 27, 2012 3:22 PM
6 Comments
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"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."

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6 Comments

  • Alex Krajci | September 19, 2013 6:28 PMReply

    I Can't Yan Was Really Disappointed About Watchmen's Two And Half Hour And Fourty-Two Minute Running Time.

  • Stuart Ian Burns | November 27, 2012 4:56 PMReply

    Charlie Lynne from Ultra Culture suggests "the perfect runtime for a drama film – 120 minutes excluding credits. Incidentally, the perfect runtime for a comedy film is 95 minutes."

    http://www.ultraculture.co.uk/345-synecdoche-new-york-review.htm

    I've found few films which don't fit this rule, though an addition would be that comedy-dramas find their optimal length at 105 minutes.

    But it's true some longer films justify the length, though it's worth looking at the structure and seeing how many films we're actually seeing in real terms. Heat is long, but it's effectively two films with two protagonists in one. Boogie Nights is almost one film and its own sequel edited together. The Lord of the Rings extended cuts are perfectly structured on dvd because they're essentially six different films thanks to the intermissions.

    There's also something to be said for films finishing on the half or quarter hour in general bar credits. In other words, if a film's duration is 1:40, it's ten minutes too long; if it's 1:50 it's ten minutes too short and if it's 2:10 it's ten minutes too long and, well, you get the idea.

  • Adam | November 27, 2012 4:19 PMReply

    Why would anybody give Variety attention?

  • Dickhead | November 27, 2012 4:43 PM

    This editor in particular is a notorious douchebag.

  • Jeff Shain | November 27, 2012 3:28 PMReply

    Schindler's list was 195 minutes. I guess Spielberg should have found a more economical way to tell the story of the holocaust. Never mind it won Best Picture and considered one of the finest movies on the subject. What a buffoon.

  • Erlend Lunde Holbek | November 27, 2012 6:54 PM

    Schindler's List is really long. I'd prefer it shorter. And "telling the story of the holocaust" is a bad idea for a movie.

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