Special Features – At Great Length: Are Movies Getting Needlessly Longer?

Anghus Houvouras asks whether movies are getting needlessly longer…

No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” – Roger Ebert

A very apt statement, and yet I feel like modern filmmakers are challenging this concept.  I’ve been in a number of conversations this year over the sheer length of so many films.  And I suppose that begs the question:

Are movies getting needlessly longer?

It’s a difficult question to answer.  I have to admit I’m squarely in the camp of people who think there have been a lot of recent releases that feel indulgent to a fault.  Over the next dozen paragraphs or so I will try to examine the ever expanding run times of high profile films hitting the theaters.  First up, the film that started this entire conversation:
Django Unchained (165 Minutes)

Django Unchained is a prime example of a movie that felt longer than necessary.  Be warned.  There be spoilers ahead.

I’m a Tarantino enthusiast.  And there isn’t a filmmaker working today who seems so comfortable with excess.  The man is a master of making over indulgent, highly entertaining romps.  And yet, Django Unchained felt 20 minutes too long.  I found myself struggling with the film after the Candieland shootout which saw poor Schultz killed and Django trying to shoot his way out.  After a very satisfying two hours I found myself thinking I was at the end of this journey, and then… he gives himself up. 

What follows is an entertaining little monologue from Samuel L. Jackson, followed by an excruciating scene between Django and some Australian workers, then an underwhelming final scene of Django exacting revenge against the remaining survivors of the earlier massacre.  Those final scenes felt labored.  Kind of like scenes you’d find in a Director’s Cut. You can understand their existence but not their inclusion. 

Was the film better served by having Django use his wits to get out of another jam?  Did the death of Samuel L. Jackson’s character provide any additional emotional payoff after watching Candie being dispatched?  If Django had shot his way out of Candieland and saved Broomhilda twenty minutes earlier, would it have been any less satisfying? 

These are subjective arguments.  I’m sure there are those who felt Django wasn’t longer than necessary.  For me, I found the film almost awkwardly long in its final 20 minutes.  It was like I had already witnessed the moment where the film should have naturally ended and was now into extra innings.

To be fair, Django Unchained was hardly the only extended film that came out in 2012.  The most abusively long film of the year came from a director who is fast becoming synonymous with bloated run times.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (201 Minutes)
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (169 Minutes)
King Kong (187 Minutes)

I have to go back to 2003’s Return of the King because it’s the movie that seems to be brought up the most often when people discuss padding in film.  The multiple and endless endings that drive some people to distraction.  Peter Jackson has mastered the art of making long films.  The Hobbit is an exercise in unnecessary.  Originally two movies now stretched out to three. The nearly three hour running times seem almost expected with Jackson, who has become Hollywood’s number one purveyor of long theatrical releases and even longer extended DVD editions. 

Again, you can debate the necessity of these nearly three hour outings.  The Hobbit felt mercilessly long.  And Jackson’s King Kong may be the most overly indulgent, needlessly long film to be released, nearly doubling the originals run time of 100 minutes.  There was so much of King Kong that felt labored taking nearly an hour to get to Skull Island where we get our first glimpse of the monster filled jungles.  Was that much time needed to get to the meat of King Kong?  I mean lets be perfectly honest: if you’re going to make a movie about a giant gorilla and make the audience wait an hour before introducing the title character, you may have done something terribly wrong.  Even more wrong than casting Jack Black.

I equate the length of Jackson’s films to the lens flares employed by J.J. Abrams: if it’s been done so often that it becomes a trademark of your filmmaking, perhaps it’s time to try something different.  Or at least ease up.

Was anyone surprised when Jackson started pursuing the idea of turning the 300 page Hobbit into three films?  In my review of the Hobbit I said that it felt like Jackson was no longer making movies with an audience in mind.  Much like the endless endings of Return of the King, Jackson has seemingly abandoned the idea of telling these stories in a traditional three act structure and has instead started applying these filmmaking beats to a nine hour opus.  The endings of Return of the King don’t seem long if you apply them to a nine hour film.

By no means am I saying we should punish filmmakers for trying something new or messing with the formula.  However, audiences are used to a traditional two hour film.  Some films are expected to be longer.  That conceit is usually availed to award movies or epic blockbusters.  Few directors understand this better than Steven Spielberg.

Lincoln (150 Minutes)
War Horse (146 Minutes)
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (122 Minutes)
Munich (164 Minutes)
War of the Worlds (116 Minutes)
The Terminal (128 Minutes)
Catch Me If You Can (141 Minutes)
Minority Report (145 Minutes)
A.I. (146 Minutes)
Saving Private Ryan (169 Minutes)
Schindler’s List (195 Minutes)

It’s probably unfair to single out Jackson as the sole proprietor of needlessly long blockbusters.  Spielberg has been putting out films at the plus two hour mark for the vast majority of his career.  Only two films of his have clocked in at under two hours in decades – one being War of the Worlds, the other the animated The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (107 Minutes).   

Spielberg used to be brutally adherent to the two hour mark. 

Jaws (124 Minutes)
Jurassic Park (127 Minutes)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (115 Minutes)
E.T. (115 Minutes)
One could make the argument that he was a better filmmaker when he was limiting himself (or in his earlier days, limited to) two hours.  His four best films were either under or just a hair over two hours.  That’s not to say “The Beard” hasn’t turned in some quality films in recent years, but there is something to be said for his earlier, leaner films that weren’t consistently pushing the two and a half to three hour mark.

Maybe the distinction is between traditional movies and award caliber films.  Few people bemoan the length of a film like Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan at three hour, while people have no trouble complaining at great length about a three hour movie featuring dwarfs running from wolves and doesn’t even end in a single sitting.  

Excessive run times aren’t just for dramas and blockbusters anymore.  Some directors are applying this trend to comedy.

This Is 40 (134 Minutes)
Funny People (146 Minutes)
Knocked Up (129 Minutes)
The 40 Year Old Virgin (116 Minutes)

Judd Apatow has taken it on the chin in recent years for making needlessly long and indulgent comedies.  It started out innocently enough with the almost two hour 40 Year Old Virgin.  It was kind of a side note to the well received comedy.  Some critics took note of the almost two hour run time, something that was then out of place for most Hollywood comedies.  Now, four films later, it seems like Apatow is incapable of producing a comedy that clocks in under two hours.   Traditionally comedies are hit-and-run style of movie making that rarely push the two hour mark.  Here’s a list of popular comedies:

Caddyshack (98 Minutes)
Animal House (109 Minutes)
Ghostbusters (105 Minutes)
Home Alone (103 Minutes)
Meet the Parents (108 Minutes)
When Harry Met Sally (96 Minutes)

Are you noticing a trend?  All of these classic comedies are nestled in the fertile crescent between an hour and a half and two hours.  It’s rare to find a successful comedy that pushes beyond the two hour mark. And yet, Apatow seems incapable of delivering a reasonably timed comedy.  Is it because he thinks the material warrants additional consideration?  Or is it more likely because he’s also written the script and has a tough time editing down his own script for the sake of the audience?

Personally, I think excess is the enemy of most filmmakers.  Early in their careers, they have restraint courtesy of their financiers and studios, and people willing to tell them “no”.  When they are still capable of being challenged by those helping them produce their films.  To wit, may I present George Lucas.

Star Wars (121 Minutes)

The Empire Strikes Back (124 Minutes)
Return of the Jedi (134 Minutes)
You probably know already where I’m going with this…
The Phantom Menace (136 Minutes)
Attack of the Clones (142 Minutes)
Revenge of the Sith (140 Minutes)
Now lets just concede there are more problems with the Star Wars prequels than the running time. However, it’s interesting that Empire is considered the best at a hair over two hours.  Did the extra length hurt the Star Wars prequels?  I think I can safely say it didn’t help.

At the heart of this observation is the assertion that filmmakers seem prone to excess.  I’ll give you a minute. Obviously that statement has no doubt shaken you to your very core and made you question everything you believe in.  As they progress in their careers, they are afforded more leverage and for some reason they seem more prone to make longer, drawn out films that often don’t justify their additional run time.  That used to be an observation you could make on occasion.  Now it seems to be becoming commonplace.    

We’ve entered an age where filmmakers have seemingly abandoned the principle of ‘leave them wanting more’ in favor of bloated films desperately in need of having some of the fat trimmed.  
And I’ll just go ahead and head this off at the pass now: I’m by no means advocating that movies should be any specific length.  Though I will concede that I find myself wishing that filmmakers would employ more restraint in the editing booth and try to cut the fat.  I also feel that there are very few directors capable of carrying an audience beyond a certain length.  Film is a medium of structure.  Most adhere to a defined set of rules and cadence.  Expanding on that takes skill.  Keeping an audience interested beyond their predetermined expectations is not something easily achieved, and yet it is being employed more and more.  Especially in an age where people’s attention spans are being whittled down to a number that can only be measured in nanoseconds.
My point, if any, is that many successful filmmakers bankroll their goodwill into movies with expanded run times.  But are the movies really any better for it?  
You could make the argument that movies like The Avengers, The Hobbit and The Dark Knight Rises proved that audiences are more than willing to sit through a nearly three hour experience.  It’s hard to argue the economics.  Still, I felt the second act of The Avengers was bloated.  It seemed like Iron Man was fixing that hellicarrier engine for an hour.  And I think you already know my thoughts on the molasses like pacing of The Hobbit.  I think many would agree that there was fat that could have been trimmed in both those films.  Although I loved The Dark Knight Rises, I did hear a lot of complaints from people about the length of the ending and subsequent epilogues.  Fortunately many film fans are evolved enough to acknowledge a movie can still be enjoyable even if it could benefit from trimming some fat.  As moviegoers, we seem to be growing increasingly tolerant of this excess.  Almost as if it’s expected. 
I’m curious to see if anyone else thinks movies are getting needlessly longer…  

Anghus Houvouras

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