Are films really longer now?


I have been railing about the fact that so many films that I have seen recently are too damn long and would benefit from much tighter editing. But is it in fact the case that films are actually longer than they used to be? I intuitively thought they were but the data don’t seem to back me up.

Randy Olson has combed through the IMDb site and for each year calculated the average lengths for each of the top 25 films from 1931 to 2013 and this is what he gets, with the blue region representing the 95% confidence interval.

avg-feature-film-length-sliding-window-plot

While there was a rapid increase until the 1960s (which Olson speculates may have been spurred by the introduction of TV in the 1930s), it has remained fairly flat after that.

It is possible that the top 25 films are not the best measure and that they were more popular partly because they were not too long.

But he also looked at all the films in the database and the result does not change: a rise until the 1960s and then flat. The main difference is that the overall average was around 85 minutes (which to me is a good length) while the average for the top 25 was slightly over two hours.

avg-feature-film-length-1906-2013-sliding-avg

So if films haven’t got longer, what explains my personal sense that they have?

One possibility is that my tastes have shifted towards the top 25 films so that it is my own fault. The problem with that is that I do not find the action blockbusters with special effects all that appealing and those also tend to be the longer films.

Another is that I my criticisms were based on English language feature films and it may be that that particular subset has got longer.

The third possibility is that I am now older and crankier and have less patience with things dragging on and on and so it is merely my perception of the length of films that has changed.

Comments

  1. Ed says

    Try looking at the average length in your favorite genres over time, or films by directors you like,etc.

  2. Mano Singham says

    Ed,

    Surely you jest. You are asking a lazy person like me to do some actual research?

  3. says

    My own perception, having grown up just before the MTV era (I was 14 when it launched, and MuchMusic here in canada was a bit later), is that the constant jump-cutting is wearying, compared to older films with much longer average shot length. Things seem longer to me because there are So. Many. Edits. Compare the modern film to the king of long-cuts, Rope, shot in two takes (one for each reel of film used), with one camera.

    I dunno if it’s the reason, but that’s the perception I have. I’ve gone off movies, for the most part, in the last ten years or so.

    That’s not to say the jump-cut is itself wrong or a bad technique; it’s just a big change from what came before, and for those who grew up watching older movies, it can be a bit tiring to watch. Y(L/100km)MV.

  4. Rob Grigjanis says

    My own very rough, subjective take is that films from the mid-thirties to mid-fifties (my favourite era) were as long as they needed to be (Seven Samurai is 3.5 hours, but not a minute wasted), and films since then seem to have incorporated steadily more useless filler time*. There are exceptions of course.

    *Or maybe I’m not artistically sensitive enough to appreciate them.

  5. AnotherAnonymouse says

    Your sense that movies have gotten longer might also be a factor of attention-span shortening. I have some movies on DVD that came out in the 1980s and 1990s that I saw in the movie theater and loved. When I try to watch them at home, I find myself having to pause them to go attend to something else. My own attention span has shortened.

  6. says

    Would Seven Samurai be as good if it was 2 hours, consisting just of the action parts and minimal character development?
    Perhaps would Barry Lyndon work better if it was 1:40? When I watched anything by Stanley Kubrick except for that horrible thing with Tom Cruise in it, I lost track of time; I didn’t care how long it was and I’d have let my bladder explode if that’s what it took.

    I rip a lot of movies to my hard drive, so I have a lot of “WTF” moments when I see newer movies and they’re 1:30 or 1:40 — it makes sense if it’s an endless chase movie, excuse me, a “James Bond” movie. Or if it’s a blow shit up movie, anything by Michael Bay, with cardboard characters – but a movie should be exactly as long as the director thinks it should be.

  7. Ed says

    # 2– LOL

    But seriously, it seems to me too, not that films in general are getting longer, but that there’s a bunch of high profile films in this century which are on the long side given their action adventure genre and appeal to the teens and early 20s crowd (though with a significant older audience, too). I’m thinking of the recent status of the comic book based films in particular. They tend to be fast paced but still need a lot of time to establish their origin stories and introduce multiple eccentric characters. They seem to have crowded out the type of action film that didn’t require setting up an elaborate background.

    Beyond that, I think attention span is a big part of it. I know I now spend more of my free time skimming diverse material: reading some short online articles, reading parts of the several novels I’m on and even breaking up longer movies seen at home into two or three viewing sessions. Ten years so I’d watch a three hour movie or read the same book for hours without wanting a break.

    Also a lot of people now blend work and leisure more often if they aren’t explicitly forbidden–stay at work longer but take little reading or viewing breaks throughout the workday. Going to the cinema or watching a film on a broadcast or regular cable station can feel long if we’re accustomed to these internet and on-demand station habits.

  8. DsylexicHippo says

    Perhaps it is because of the increase in the usage of “filler” material in movies? At least that’s my view of it.

    These days I find myself in front of my computer watching movies instead of either the TV or the big screen (which has become a rare event as in once or twice a year at best). I think this is a good thing as I am able to sample a much larger set of movies and watch till the end only the ones I really like. There’s a long list of movies that I have discarded after watching for the first 15 minutes or less. The amount of garbage out there is just amazing.

  9. says

    My theory is that films are getting more boring.

    I don’t know how they do it, but the Bond movies, particularly, with their endless chase scenes that are supposed to be exciting are mind-bendingly dull. They last forever. Fortunately, I can sleep through anything.

  10. sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d says

    Rope was made in ten takes, actually, Citliecat@2. With the technology available ten minutes was the longest possible take. Russian Ark, made on Steadicam with a cast of thousands- well, several hundreds- is one 96 minute shot. It’s a fine film as well as a feat of virtuosity.

    I think where people watch films is an important aspect. If you’re sitting in a cinema you’re going to concentrate on the film for the time it lasts. You don’t have much choice. If you’re watching at home on video you can stop and do something else and there are a lot of other things you could do. Like it or not, there’s much more distraction at home so your attention goes more easily..

  11. smrnda says

    I think this perception might be due to the popular Lord of the Rings films, which even people who weren’t into the series likely sat through and probably left with the impression that your Big Blockbuster is now an all day affair. The perception might just be that a landmark film series was extremely long.

    I personally rarely watch mainstream US films and I’m kind of all around genres, languages and time periods with what I do watch. On length, there are plenty of films that are long but which don’t seem particularly tiresome – I’ve watched the full versions of Bergman’s “Fanny och Alexander” and barely noticed the 312 minutes, but I’m not touching LOTR just since I don’t do epic fantasy.

    I’m not much into action films, but I think a film that deserves a nod for taking a heist as slowly as possible would be Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge. The fact that things are happening so slow creates a sort of strange intensity, especially given the fact that during the heist, there’s no music and almost no sound the entire time. Jansen’s setting up of his rifle (which is going to be fired at a keyhole some distance away) is mesmerizing.

  12. Mano Singham says

    I am not arguing that all films should be short. I have no problem with long films. I would not cut a minute of 2001: A Space Odyssey (160 min) or Lawrence of Arabia (which I watched the director’s cut of 216 minutes in one sitting) or Lagaan (224 min) or Seven Samurai (207 min) or many other films.

    I have problems with films that seem to have a lot of filler. This seems to be a bigger problem with action films where the action scenes seem to go on forever. I agree that the James Bond films are some of the worst culprits in this regard. But some non-action films like Her also seem to me to have filler material.

  13. starskeptic says

    I vote for cranky – but just because your writing seems better (and not longer for some reason). The films that seem to have a lot of filler are usually the ones I walk out of thinking: ‘that would have made a great Twilight Zone episode’…

  14. says

    Yeah, I think I agree with the idea that most films should be shorter and are packed with filler. It is strange to me that it includes summer blockbusters, because you’d think that making them shorter would allow more showings per day and therefore more profit.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched The Shining in a single sitting and that’s 2:26. By comparison, X-Men: Days of Future Past is 2:14 and I almost fell asleep in the middle of it.

  15. machintelligence says

    About a decade ago I rented 2001 A Space Odyssey and watched it with my then teen age children. They were bored and antsy through the whole thing. Not enough happened fast enough to keep them engaged. I guess tastes change over time and generations.
    Hey you kids! Get off my lawn!

  16. flex says

    We’ve been starting to watch a lot more non-Hollywood films and there seems to be a lot less of what I would consider filler in them.

    So I looked at the running time for a few of the films we’ve watched recently, all Jean Dujardin films (French with subtitles), and they all clocked in at 100 +/- 1 minute. It surprised me because the pacing on the four movies I looked at was so different that they felt like they were different lengths by maybe as much as 20 minutes.

    For what it’s worth, we stumbled across Dujardin in OSS117: Cairo, Nest of Spies several years ago and decided that he was an actor worth watching. We enjoyed The Artist, but if you like parodies of spy films the two OSS117 films are excellent. They include not only some great comedy but an homage to some of the worst features of 1960’s spy films, like the driving scene with the obviously fake rear window street shot.

    We’ve also recently watched Ca$h, and it’s a very well done heist film in the vein of some of the great comedy heist films like Topkopi or A Fish Called Wanda.

  17. Mano Singham says

    flex,

    Thanks for the recommendations. I am always on the lookout for good film that are outside the US mainstream and these look promising.

  18. jamessweet says

    There was a significant dip from the mid-60s to the mid-80s, before it rebounded. That could explain the perception. For a two decade period from about 1985 to 2005, there was indeed a signficant and noticeable increase in the length of the top 25 movies. The local trend could create the perception, even if the overall trend has been pretty flat for the last half century.

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