Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Heath Holland On...Movie Lengths

Can a movie be TOO long?

It’s a rainy afternoon and you’re sitting on your couch. You have no place to be, nowhere to go, so you decide you want to watch a movie in the comfort of your own home. You have several options including Netflix Instant, Amazon Prime, or your extensive own collection. You narrow it down to a few choices, and then comes the true test: what’s the running time of each movie? You look at each one and find that none of them are under two hours. Hmmm...are you sure you want to watch this? Two hours and fifteen minutes is an awful long time for a romantic comedy. Two hours and forty-five minutes is even longer for a superhero flick. You could watch a minimum of three episodes of Game of Thrones in the same time. You could watch about seven episodes of Charles In Charge. Throwing you hands in the air, you give up and spend the rest of the afternoon watching reruns of Chopped.

Has this happened to you? I’ve certainly been there, and I want to figure out why. Is my patience shrinking? Are movies getting longer? And how much of a factor is a film’s length for you? I’m not necessarily talking about in the theater, when you’re making an evening or an afternoon of something. I’m talking more about when you’re home and you have a few hours free before you have to be anywhere or do anything. Does it factor in to your decision?

I have a little section on my shelf for the new arrivals -- things I’ve picked up recently that haven’t been filed with the rest of the collection. For instance, The Hobbit is currently in that area because it just recently came out and I’m still going over all the special features. It’s not ready to be filed yet. This area on my shelf is growing larger and larger, because the movies that populate it aren’t moving to their permanent homes with the haste I’d prefer. Upon further exploration, I’ve discovered that it’s because almost all of the movies, though they encompass many different genres, are in the “two hours-plus” category. Science tells me that my movies over two hours aren’t getting watched as much as those that are under that. There are graphs and charts to explain this, but I’ll spare you.

I freely admit it’s mostly psychological. The difference between a movie with a run time of 108 minutes and a movie that’s 126 minutes is not really that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. That’s a trip to the kitchen for a snack and then a trip to the bathroom (I eat a lot of fiber). But given the choice, I’m usually going to take the shorter movie unless I’m feeling particularly saucy, or am in a devil-may-care, damn the torpedoes mood. Bring on the director’s cut of Watchmen, I say as I eat an entire cake while naked in the bathtub (this is most Saturday nights).

When I was younger this was NOT an issue. The most recent Weekend Weigh-in asked what movie we’d seen more than any others. For me, that honor goes (obviously) to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. When that movie was released on home video, I’d watch it sometimes back to back, and have seen it dozens and dozens and dozens of times. That film is 143 minutes long. I don’t know where I found the time, what with the thriving adolescent social life I was (not) leading. I also watched my tapes of Batman and Hook so much that they started to wear out. Both of those are over two hours.

So it’s easy to boil it down and say that it’s because I now have a demanding job, a family, a lot of obligations (see last week’s column) but none of those things are the real reason. They’re just excuses. There are lots of times where I’ll end up with several free hours and THINK about pulling Heat off the shelf, but opt for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang instead. Why? The runtime, man! And I’d be lying to you if I said that the reasons I love the direct-to-DVD action movies that I do (Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren) as well as classic sci-fi and horror movies have nothing to do with their length.

I admire a movie that has the balls to get in, get out and commit to telling a story in less than two hours. If you can do it in less than 90, I might have your baby. Tangent: I think there’s A LOT of movies coming out that could use some tighter editing. Part of it is the director, whose job it is to realize when his or her movie is becoming bloated and overlong. If I am hanging on every word of a movie, I’m fine with a run time of two hours or more. But when I feel like there are long, meandering plot lines that don’t add to the story and serve only to pad it out, I’m going to call you out on it. Though I love Kevin Costner, he’s a main offender every time he directs a movie. They always push three hours. I go to The Hobbit expecting an epic story and realizing it’s going to take an investment of my time. I don’t go into a Judd Apatow movie with the same allowances. Was there any reason that The Dark Knight Rises needed to be almost three hours long? And as much as I loved Skyfall in the theater, watching it at home felt like an all day hike. I had to stop to hydrate. I brought granola.

Sometimes I like a movie, but it goes on so long that it wears me down and I lose enthusiasm. Honestly, Skyfall falls into this category. I love the film. I love the storyline, I love Danny Craig (we’re pals) as Bond, I love the set pieces. I love Javier Bardem as the villain. But I don’t love that it takes the movie about 45 minutes to end. I’m done with Skyfall before Skyfall is done with me, and that’s a BAD thing, because in the future when I think about revisiting it, I’ll remember that it’s the second longest Bond film ever, and I’ll think twice. In that time, I can watch an old horror movie AND an old kung fu movie.

So is this a new phenomenon? No. There have always been really long movies. In fact, some of the movies from the classic era of cinema make today’s movies look like Pixar Shorts. So why have I started to pay more attention to it? Remember, it’s not a problem in the theater -- it’s at home, when I’m in more control and can customize the experience to better suit my tastes. Full disclosure: sometimes I split long movies into two sessions, and sometimes those sessions are not even on the same day. WHAT HAVE I BECOME?!

What about children’s movies, and those of us with kids? A few nights ago, my lovely and very intelligent wife Bree pointed out to me that almost all of the classic Disney animated films (made when the attention spans of children were longer) are very short. Modern animated films, particularly Pixar movies, are a lot longer. Pinocchio is 88 minutes. Snow White is 83 minutes. Bambi is only 70. Dumbo is the shortest of them all at 64 minutes. And the attention spans of kids are a lot shorter than they used to be, since children can bury their face in a screen anywhere they go and can obtain information immediately with the internet (see JB’s definition about a series of tubes). Yet in spite of that, movies like Cars, Cars 2, Ratatouille and Wreck It Ralph are all pushing two hours.

But for a good movie, length really doesn’t matter, does it? When you’re REALLY into a movie, or the experience of watching a movie with no outside distractions, the run time seldom becomes a factor. If you are sitting in the cinema and you’re checking your watch, that’s most likely the film’s fault. A good movie should capture your attention. You should lose yourself to the world that’s being shown to you. That DEFINITELY happens sometimes, when a movie at the theater just doesn’t grab you and you’re waiting for it to end so you can bust out of the doors like a prisoner granted parole. The problem I’m talking about always occurs at home, when you aren’t as immersed in the experience as you would be at the theater.

It’s a war I’m constantly fighting with myself...and frequently losing. I just don’t watch that many long movies at home. They get watched once, in the theater, and after that only rarely. Usually years will pass. And piggybacking off of last week’s column about great movies we never need to see again, I think length has kept me away from rewatching a lot of movies that I really enjoyed the first time. I really enjoy watching pulpier movies these days, and tend to stay away from bloated award fodder; I think a HUGE reason for that is that they are almost always shorter. I’m sure most of the awards movies are wonderful, and I am doing myself a disservice by not seeing them, but those types  of films are usually long and ploddingly paced. It’s simple economy of time. The shorter the movie, the more movies I can watch in a given period of time. What really sucks is when you pick an 80-minute movie that feels like three hours, but that’s a topic for another column.

So can anyone relate to what I’m talking about? Do you guys notice any trends in the lengths of the movies you watch at home? And can a shorter running time make a mediocre movie better? If a movie is about how it ends (it is), then is how long it runs just as important as the ending?


  1. While it does take a lot of effort to watch them, I sure do appreciate that we have the Lawrence of Arabias and Seven Samurais and Gone with the Winds and Dr. Zhivagos and Heats of the world. I don't always have time to watch a three hour epic by David Lean or some other director, though, so I reserve those movies only for certain occasions where I know I'm going to be free for an extensive period, and I also have to be in a certain mood to want to get through them.

    The one movie where I can definitely say length is a major problem for me, and mainly because I find the movie so boring and drawn out, is in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I forget how long it is exactly, so maybe it's not even as bad as I remember, but I'm pretty sure it's several minutes over 2 hours. At any rate, that movie is incredibly difficult for me to sit through, and I have made it a point to avoid it for that reason (fortunately the franchise majorly redeemes itself with Wrath of Khan).

    To me, the running time can make a mediocre movie better in that if it's shorter, and you aren't really feeling it, at least it will be over soon, ya know? Referencing back to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, maybe I would like that movie better if it were shorter? But I think it has other problems besides its length.

    I think how long the movie runs may be important to the ending in that if it's spending too MUCH of that running time on the ending, or attempting to end multiple times, something I know we're not a fan of around here, and thereby elongating the running time, that can be problematic. Or maybe it will have gone on so long that I just won't care about the ending by the time its over and just want to go to sleep. I can't think of any specific occurances of that last possiblity, though.

    1. My bad, I misread or misunderstood the question about the ending. I thought you were asking if the length was important to how well the movie ended or something, but you were actually just asking if they were equally as important, which in that case I think a good ending is much more important than a long running time. I can deal with a long running time, but a bad ending can be a movie killer.

    2. That first Star Trek movie is WORK. It's probably the last one I would go to when I want to rewatch a Star Trek movie. But I do have this anal nature that dictates I not just watch one Star Trek movie, but watch them all in order. So when I do watch them, it's a big ol' commitment.

      I think the problem with it is that it's paced so slowly. There are so many loving, lingering shots of the Enterprise. I understand because they had a budget and decent special effects so they wanted to show off the ship in a way they never could before.

      But those are the things that make it a lot of work to revisit when we've seen the ship up close in every subsequent movie.

    3. Yes! That's it! It's slow to a fault. Okay, I don't know if a shorter running time would fix that, but a condensed version of it, where they cut down on all those lingering shots, might make it more tolerable. Maybe?

    4. No amount of cutting is ever going to give TMP the energy of the other Star Trek films. I've grown to appreciate its slower pace, particularly in the Director's cut. I don't watch it as often as the others but when I'm in the mood the slowness is part of the appeal.

    5. True, I guess a boring, slow and unexciting movie is just that no matter how long it is. Unfortunately I just can't ever get on board with it, especially when I know The Wrath of Khan exists.

    6. I like the plot of Star Trek. I think the franchise greatly benefits from the addition of Nick Meyer to the ranks, but I do like the first movie. I think there should be a special cut that you can watch called the "we've seen the ship" edition. It was, after all, directed by Robert Wise, who brought us The Sound of Music and West Side Story., both very, very long movies. We should be thankful the ship doesn't sing.

  2. Running time alone is not a detractor for me. If it earns a 3 hour running time then I will schedule it in somewhere.

    If a movie is bloated and feels as though it should be twenty minutes shorter, the issue is not how I could better use that twenty minutes but how this could have been a better movie. I’m less inclined to watch it because it’s a flawed movie not because I’m such a busy guy.

    I don’t think films are getting longer in recent years but that they are paced differently than in the past. Modern audiences are impatient for a film to “get going” so now films are edited with shorter first acts and longer second and third acts. I miss the slow-burn build of older films and find long sustained action grows tedious.

    Sometimes a Director’s Cut will be released that adds running length but makes the film feel shorter because it is better paced or because characters are better developed.

    Running time is an indicator of how long it takes to watch a movie but rarely of how long it feels I’m watching (except wrt bodily functions).

  3. Length doesn't matter much to me when watching a movie at home because I fall asleep whenever I watch anything at home. Damn comfortable couch. My point being..I end up watching movies at home in spurts.

    Length is only a deterrent when I know I have to be somewhere in say 4 hours then I know I should watch the 90 minute movie because it will only take me 4 hours to get through with naps as opposed to the 2.5 hour movie that will take me 7 days.

    1. I do the spurts thing too!

      I also find myself dozing these days.

    2. I like watching movies in spurts as well. I mainly do it for the LOTR Extended Trilogy (which I'm in the process now). It's almost like reading a book. Watch 30 minutes here, another hour there. Stop at a scene change and pick up right where you left off.

      I don't know why some people have an issue with it.

  4. For me, the issue is not so much how long a movie is, but how well it uses its running time. Jackie Brown is a long movie, and I wouldn't have it any other way because it uses that time to immerse us in the story and let us get to know these great characters.

    On the other hand, there are plenty of movies that do not make good use of the time. Magnum Force, which is the second (and longest) of the Dirty Harry movies, is a misguided attempt to make an "epic" film in the genre. It's long, bloated, and poorly paced. Now I still like it, because it's got Harry and that big-ass gun, but compared to the original (which is a model of tight, efficient filmmaking) it just waddles along.

    That being said, I hear you about sometimes opting for the shorter films. I must confess that during "30 Stars of Summer" I would frequently check the Netflix list that Patrict et al helpfully supplied and find the film with the shortest running time. Why do you think "Bucket of Blood" was one of the more popular films we watched that month?

  5. I will say that the length of a movie will give me pause. As many times as I've seen Seven Samurai, I probably would have seen it twice as many times if I didn't need to carve three and a half hours out of my schedule to watch it. It is way easier to watch one of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies to get my samurai fix, even though they aren't as good or give anything like the same vibe.

    Really though, it's when a 2+ hour movie FEELS like a it takes longer than 2 hours. A lot of those epics from the 50s and 60s feel like they're about four to six hours long, but when you look at the back they're only an two and a half or maybe three hours.

  6. I have no problem with a long movie as long as it earns the running time, and that clearly is up to each of our unique tolerance levels. I could watch "Boogie Nights" or even "The Master" with no trouble, but "Magnolia" is soul-crushingly long, boring, tedious and unbearable for yours truly to sit through. Same director, similar movies, about the same running times for each, but one of them is way too long for me and the other two are just fine. It takes all kinds I guess.

    I think it was Doug ("father" Doug? :-P) that mentioned in an earlier column that the running time of a movie is often the hardest thing to find in the back cover of a movie's packaging, which is nuts because that's most people's deciding factor on whether they're going to watch a movie or not. Personally I prefer the current predicament of movies being too long because the filmmaker or franchise has acquired enough clout to make them last that long, versus the alternative of a studio hack deciding the length of a movie based solely on the irrelevant-in-its-future-existence criteria of how many times per day that movie can be run during a short cineplex period.

    Some of the "Harry Potter" movies click at 2.15 or 2.30 hours, but don't we benefit from having more of the books' stories translated into film form vs. shorter-for-the-sake-of-more-showings arbitrary "shorter" time? I haven't seen them (and they're clearly long because Michael Bay can get away with it), but isn't it better to have longer-than-2.5 hrs. "Transformers" movies than 90 min. hacked-to-incoherence versions of the same movies? Personally I'd rather have longer than shorter because the ticket/Blu-ray price is the same, whether it's a new "Winnie the Pooh" barely-over-60 min. animated movie or an almost-tipping-three-hours "Hobbit" sequel. Besides, Ebert's cliche' happens to be dead-on: NO GOOD MOVIE IS TOO LONG, NO BAD MOVIE IS SHORT ENOUGH.

    It's NEW-TO-ME TRILOGIES MONTH. (uh, hooray?)

    4/1/13: It's like 1989's "Great Balls of Fire!" except this yet-to-be-born son of his own mother really rocks. Robert Zemeckis' BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985) on Blu-ray.

    "A [Mad] Max Spielberg Film." Zemeckis' BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II (1989) on Blu-ray.

    "Eastwood Ravine"? Heavy, man! Zemeckis' BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III (1990) on Blu-ray.


  7. Generally speaking movies that stretch over 2 hours tend to be ones that even when they are good could have used some edits here and there to be great. One movie I can think up off the top of my head was the remake of The Karate Kid. I generally liked that movie but damn it is about 20-25 minutes too long and had they edited it down by just that much the film would have been much stronger for it.

    On average I think it's good for a movie to run between 90-120 minutes. There are of course exceptions to the rule (The Dark Knight, Shawshank Redemption, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly to name a few) but more times than not its filler and I will also tend to avoid films that are really long unless the talent behind it is on my good side. Speaking of movies that are too long I would like to say about Judd Apatow's This is 40 "Judd you can only fit one movie in each movie not 4!"

  8. Great topic.

    I am all for tight editing and shorter movies. But I gotta say, if a movie is long but interesting, i'll keep with it. I think there is more to be said about quality material than lengthy material. Predictability, and lack of dramatic action is a bigger issue in my opinion

  9. Wow, we're a lot alike dude - first you describe one of MY typical Sunday afternoons and then you describe MY "on-deck" shelf of new stuff I haven't watched or finished with yet (both The Hobbit and Heat currently reside there along with Che and Lawrence of Arabia and Zodiac to name a few more biggies). Get out of my head, Heath!!! Okay, you can stay, but not between the hours of 4 and 5 - that's Sol's Time!

    So yeah, I'm totally with you man. I use an app to keep track of my collection and the thing I use it for most is to sort by Running Time - and I'm never looking for the longest ones!

    I think it's because we're so spoiled by speed. Remember back in the Internet's infancy when it might take a minute or two just to load a picture? Now I punch my computer in the face if it takes more than 2 seconds! We are a culture obsessed with speed and instant gratification, but also a culture that wants MORE for their money, and I think movies lie on the crossroads of those two desires. More movie means more time - less movie means less bang for my buck (in theory) - arg - what do I want?! Hollywood seems to be responding to our demand for MORE these days but I can see that trend reversing...

    I would guess average movie length is up to 120 mins from 90 mins and that half-hour makes a big difference when you have so many other choices of things (especially instantly gratifying things like Chopped) to spend your oh-so-precious time with (a choice you don't have at a theatre so hence that difference?) it's hard to want to commit a whole lot of time to that one thing. "If I start this movie now, it'll be almost dinnertime when it's over, but I was also hoping to catch up on my DVR, listen to a podcast, read about movies, check my email, go on Facebook, read a comic, play a video game, write a long-winded response to someone's blog entry..."

    Regarding your last questions, I definitely think there are some mediocre movies that could've been better with some fat-trimming (Skyfall is a good example) and some great movies that would have been diminished by padding. District 9 and Moon are two recent examples of movies I really like that were ripe for padding but are almost certainly better for having been kept relatively trim.

    I guess the bottom-line is that, unlike penises, it doesn't matter how long it is, it's what you do with it.