Films with runtimes exceeding two and a half hours seem to be getting produced more frequently. While this used to be the norm a few decades ago, they slowly diminished and are now making a comeback. Why is that? And what does it look like today compared to how it used to be?
Just after the end of the second World War, movie studios had reason to be confident in their enterprise, as audiences were flocking to cinemas in more significant numbers than ever. This peak, however, was doomed to be short-lived. By the early 1950s, the studios suddenly had cause for fear. People were leaving the cities that held the profitable movie houses in favor of the sprawling suburbs. Other forms of entertainment were becoming increasingly prosperous, including film’s greatest enemy: television.
With audience numbers dwindling once again, putting the entire blame for the decline of movie-going squarely on the shoulders of the small screen is only partially accurate and more reflective of an overall change in society, culture, and a new economy of convenience. Still, the suits in Hollywood knew back then they had to act quickly to pull people back into their theaters.
Sure, movie theaters didn’t have the convenience or comfort provided by one’s own home, so they went bigger, brighter, more colorful, and naturally: longer. Three-hour-long historical, even biblical epics that once dominated the box offices of the silent era were back (this time in Technicolor). This was something you couldn’t get at home but made it worth the half-hour car ride it took to get to your city center and closest cinema.
With the recent rumor that Christopher Nolan’s upcoming “Oppenheimer” will have a runtime over two and half hours, and the current slate of American films that clocked in at over two and a half hours, such as “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “The Batman,” “John Wick: Chapter 4“, “Dune,” “Babylon,” amongst many others, one cannot help but wonder if studios are resorting to the same techniques of the 1950’s to convince audiences, now distracted by copious forms of attention-grabbing media, to come back to the theaters.
Now, there seems to be a division between films you have to see in theaters (action, fantasy sci-fi) and films that can “wait” until they begin streaming (domestic dramas, rom-coms, theatrical adaptations). Given the current price of a typical movie ticket and accompanying concession snacks, it makes sense that one would want to save one’s hard-earned cash on a film deemed more “worthwhile” of a theatrical experience.
Like in the early 1950s, the reason for declining movie attendance, and audiences’ newfound tolerance for extra-long runtimes, is multifaceted. Of course, the many forms of media we have literally at our fingertips dilute the ways in which films have a hold over our lives. We have drifted far from the mono-culture and “water cooler moments” to niche references and subcultures. At the same time, the current state of television could have paradoxically set the groundwork for longer films.
As television shows on streaming sites are released all at once for “binging” purposes, consumers may have developed a tolerance for consuming large amounts of media all at once (albeit with a cell phone in hand for maximized distraction). “John Wick: Chapter 4” director Chad Stahelski reflected on this supposed double standard between film and television in an interview with DiscussingFilm, “Everybody goes out and watches three seasons of T.V. on a Sunday, or they will watch whole five episodes of Game of Thrones at night. And because you’re on your couch, that makes it different?”
Of the aforementioned two and a half-hour-long films from the past few years, four could be deemed box office successes, the major outlier being “Babylon.” Unlike the others, it is the one film set in the past with references to real-life history and not based on existing intellectual property. The others are action/fantasy films set either in an imagined present or the future. Despite Christopher Nolan’s track record for creating prestigious box office successes, this does not bode well for “Oppenheimer.” Though stacked with an all-star cast and sure to provide some stunning, explosive cinematography, audiences may be dissuaded by the rudimentary knowledge of history and science required to follow the film’s plot. Famously, the decidedly dark and ominous “Oppenheimer” is releasing the same day as Greta Gerwig’s bright and high-spirited “Barbie.” While a few dedicated cinephiles (such as myself) may attempt a double feature this July 23rd, the general population could be inclined to spend their money on a fantastical trip to Barbie World rather than the dredges of a nuclear testing sight. Suppose this impacts “Oppenheimer’s” box office. Will it be enough to suggest that audiences are only interested in longer films if it’s featuring content they’re already familiar with, or will this be an exception due to the competition it’s facing?
Adjusted for inflation, seven of the ten highest-grossing films of all time have been over two and a half hours long, with the list being topped by the nearly-four-hour historical romantic epic “Gone With the Wind.”
1. Gone with the Wind. – $4,192,000,000 (221 minutes)
2. Avatar – $3,824,000,000 (162 minutes)
3. Titanic – $3,485,000,000 (195 minutes)
4. Star Wars – $3,443,000,000
5. Avengers: Endgame – $3,165,000,000 (181 minutes)
6. The Sound of Music – $2,884,000,000 (174 minutes)
7. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial – $2,815,000,000
8. The Ten Commandments – $2,665,000,000 (220 minutes)
9. Doctor Zhivago – $2,526,000,000 (193 minutes)
10. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – $2,491,000,000
Unlike the last few years, these films occur primarily within historical settings, from the antebellum south to the Russian revolution to ancient Egypt. It is tough to imagine a historical romantic costume drama such as “Dr. Zhivago,” the ninth highest-grossing film of all time, having anywhere near its financial success in 1965, were it made today. Audiences of its time were there to see it, as they were for “The Sound of Music” the same year. This would indicate that the film’s length is only appealing when it portrays the genre and style that audiences are begging to see.
So while we will likely continue to see sequels for established properties continue to do well financially, like “John Wick: Chapter 4” (which just hit a franchise box office record high this past weekend), even if the runtime is at or exceeding three hours in length, how will something like Martin Scorsese’s sure to be epically long film film “Killers Of The Flower Moon” do when it’s released later this year (Apple is likely going to give it a more robust theatrical run than Netflix did with Scorsese’s last over three-hour-long film “The Irishman“)? Or Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” if the rumors about its runtime are true? With superhero fatigue setting in, could sequel fatigue also set in at a certain point? It used to be that studios were unwilling to greenlight longer films for fear of diminishing box office returns because of the fewer showtimes they would have to book on screens across the country. However, with audience behaviors changing and more open screens nationwide than ever, we are seeing longer films return. Still, it appears to be only a certain kind of film that audiences are welcoming with open arms. In contrast, films such as “Babylon,” “The Fabelmans,” and “TAR” (all over 2.5 hours long) all had poor box office showings last year, suggesting it’s not the long runtime suggesting a full story and characters which is drawing audiences in but properties they’re already familiar with and will seek out no matter the length. Maybe in a few years, the pendulum will swing the other way, and audiences may tire of countless trips to Pandora, Arrakis, and Gotham in favor of re-discovering historical settings and romantic epics again. One can only hope.
So what do you think? Are longer films here to stay? Or are they only here to stay if it’s for a certain type of film? How do you feel about movies being longer than two and a half hours in general? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.