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How long does a movie need to be?

With recent Hollywood movies averaging running times around the two hours and 30 minutes mark, TMW asks "How long does a movie need to be?".


Recently, totalfilm.com ran a feature titled "50 Movies That Are Longer Than They Should Be". As is customary with TF articles, it's a jokey piece, not meant to be taken seriously, but it does raise an interesting point, given how Hollywood movies seem to have increasingly lengthy running times lately.
Perhaps taking the TF piece a tad too seriously, thedissolve.com posted a reactionary piece titled "A strange and alarming trend: movie-lovers who don’t like to watch movies". Matt Singer, the author of the piece, argues that if you're a movie lover you should naturally want movies to be longer. As a movie lover, I see an inherent flaw in this argument. The quality of a piece of art can't be measured in a physical manner. Would the Mona Lisa be a better painting if da Vinci had used a larger canvas? Would a Shakespearean sonnet be improved by adding a few more lines?
A great movie should leave you wanting more, but that doesn't mean it should necessarily give you more. An audience should give itself over to the artist, not dictate terms to him/her. My all-time favorite movie is John Carpenter's incredible 'Halloween'. For years I had been reading about a longer cut, featuring two extra scenes Carpenter had filmed to accommodate the film's running time on network TV. When the movie had its 25th anniversary DVD release, I finally had the chance to see this longer cut. I watched it once, and it filled my curiosity, but I've never watched it since. If I want to watch 'Halloween' I want to see its best version, the original. More of something you love doesn't necessarily make it better.
There is no ideal movie length. A movie should be as long as it needs to be for the film-maker to adequately convey his story or concepts. Unfortunately, that's not the criteria Hollywood is currently employing. The reason "blockbusters" have become so long is purely commercial. If a movie is 90 minutes, a theater can fit about six screenings a day comfortably into one screen. If a movie is 150 minutes, however, only three or, at a push, four screenings can be accommodated by a single screen. This forces theater owners to book big Hollywood tent-pole films into multiple screens. Wondering why 'What Maisie Knew' didn't play at your local multiplex? It's because the screen it would have taken was given over to accommodate the extended running time of 'The Lone Ranger'. This is a two-fronted victory for Hollywood studios. Not only do they make a bigger cut of box-office takings, but they also eliminate the lower budget, independent competition.
'Once Upon a Time in the West' is 175 minutes because that's how long Sergio Leone needed to tell that story. 'The Lone Ranger' is 150 minutes because the studio told Gore Verbinski it needed to be that length to fill more screens.
With 3D seemingly on its last legs, Hollywood is increasingly hedging its bets on extended running times. If you suffer from a busy bladder, it's bad news. Butt-achingly long blockbusters are here to stay.
A perfect example of how a longer film doesn't always equate to a better film can be seen by comparing the Spanish horror movie 'Rec' with its U.S remake 'Quarantine'. Both movies are set in an apartment building but in 'Rec', the inhabitants of the building are all fleshed out characters who we get to know, while in 'Quarantine' they amount to little more than figures in the background that the movie never pays attention to. 'Rec' is a mere 78 minutes in length, but contains twice as much substance in terms of character and plot than its 89 minute American remake. 
To paraphrase a statement all men use to comfort themselves, the length isn't important, it's how you use it.


Eric Hillis