From blockbusters to blockbusters – why are movies so long now?


We’re never damn happy, are we? The weather is too hot; the weather is too cold. The music is too loud ; the music is too bland. Our attention span has become too short; movies are too long. If the rivers flowed with champagne, half of us would shout that “we actually prefer cava even though it’s not that expensive.”

The argument that young people can’t concentrate longer than average has been around since a passing mosquito first distracted infant homo erectus. But those conversations have grown fiercer in the age of video games and social media. Many unreliable pop science books tell us that no one under 60 can read a medium-length sentence without falling into a coma. Before the decade is out, we’ll all be running around the garden with buckets stuck on our heads. Or something stupid.

Where was I? Oh look, a fire truck.

We once spent our time going through Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Now we’re more likely to watch someone dressed as a tree act out South Korean pop music.

You didn’t have to search too hard to find such complaints regarding the recent news that TikTok was to become the official sponsor of the Cannes Film Festival. There’s no danger the Palme d’Or will be awarded to a twerking poodle from Boise, but festival director Thierry Fremaux will be presenting prizes to the winners of a #TikTokShortFilm contest during the event. Seems fair enough. Cannes has long been associated with short films, and certain satellite events acknowledging the new platforms can only encourage the art at large. TikTok seems like a perfectly tolerable place to share red carpet action footage and sound bites from press conferences.

Yet the popularity of TikTok, a sub-three-minute video hosting service, is repeatedly touted as proof that the modern mind is permanently dulled. It annoys older people in ways Instagram can only dream of. My next book, Generation Meathead, will cite a study from Madey-Uppy University proving that guinea pigs can now negotiate simple mazes faster than the average PhD student. We once spent our time going through Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Now, we’re more likely to watch someone dressed as a tree act out South Korean pop music. Or so the weak argument goes.

Swap seats

At the same time, people on the other side of the room — often the same people swapping seats for a spell — are complaining that movies are getting longer and longer. There is some truth in the assertion. For the past six months, three English-language films have topped every competing release out of the auditorium. No Time to Die, the latest James Bond title, is two hours and 43 minutes long. Spider-Man: No Way Home, the sixth-highest-grossing film of all time, clocks in at two hours and 28 minutes. The Batman, still playing on every screen at your local multiplex, is only three minutes away from the full three hours. To put that into perspective, all three films are longer than Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 “epic”: A Space Odyssey.

“The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder,” said Alfred Hitchcock.

A class of gigantism has taken hold. It’s not just popcorn movies. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, the only non-English language film nominated for Best Picture at next week’s Oscars, is even longer than The Batman (just). West Side Story and Nightmare Alley, also up for the top prize, both top the 2.5-hour mark. But we expect Japanese head extenders and prestige Oscar baits to extend to these lengths. This tendency of crowd-lovers to test the resilience of ordinary buttocks in this way is new. “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder,” remarked Alfred Hitchcock, who knew a little about entertainment.

Ben Huuurrrrr

It would be wrong to suggest that the change is the result of a commendable new urge to test attention span to its limits. Other factors are at play. As audiences turn to streaming services, studios are under more pressure than at any time since the advent of television to turn blockbuster releases into “events.” . In the 1950s, that meant Cinemascope, biblical threads, and yes, dramatically extended runtimes (none of the films above beat Ben Hur’s 212 minutes). Thirty years later, there was pressure for films to be short enough to fit on a standard VHS tape. In today’s era, digital projection allows exhibitors to show films, no matter how long, on multiple screens throughout the day. Netflix, Disney+ and Prime Video could, if necessary, accommodate films that last a week. The convention that fixes a standard film between 90 and 120 minutes is fading. The greater length of franchise releases also allows studios to develop installments that will be made into sequels and TV series.

So we shouldn’t run away and pretend that the mammoth length of popcorn entertainment is comparable to the cobblestone-sized novel craze of the 19th century. But the phenomenon certainly confirms that today’s audience is not as easily distracted as exhausting pessimists claim. Pull yourself together. Not everything is terrible.


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