If you’ve been frequenting the movie theater since, say, 2005 or so, you’ve probably noticed tentpole films are changing from standard long movies to straight up endurance tests for your bladder. But why are blockbuster movies so long? Are popcorn movies getting longer or has it always been this way? Are movies in general getting longer? In the '70s, '80s, and '90s, your average summer blockbuster ran between 90 and 120 minutes (obviously James Cameron is an exception). Suddenly, blockbuster running times shot up around the turn of the millennium. Fortunately for you, there’s plenty of handy data to back up feeling that the length of event films has increased. And they might keep getting longer.
It might seem counterintuitive to make really long films. After all, the shorter a movie is, the more times it can be shown in a day. The more times a movie can be shown in a day, the more money it can make. But with studio tentpoles showing on multiple screens in every theater (if you remember, The Hateful Eight was infamously pushed out of the Arclight Hollywood by Disney's The Force Awakens), this doesn't seem to be much of a concern.
Are blockbuster films too long? That depends on the movie. If you’re watching the eighth film in a franchise that feels like it’s spinning its wheels while rubbing up against the two-and-a-half-hour mark, yes. If you're watching a two-and-a-half hour film that's Part I in a two-part, five-hour epic based on one book that was split in two to milk cash, dear god, yes. If a super-long blockbuster is telling a nuanced story that can’t be shorter than a cross-country road trip, maybe the running times of event movies don’t really matter.
The goal here isn’t to pass judgment on anyone who enjoys a long blockbuster, or even the blockbusters themselves. Rather, this is all about discovering the reasons movie runtimes suddenly got a whole lot longer when Christopher Nolan and Marvel kicked off the new superhero era not long after George Lucas was given free reign on the Star Wars prequels.
Hollywood Feels The Need To Compete With Prestige Television
From an alarmist's point of view, peak television is the greatest enemy of the cinematic experience. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, et. al have made it so you never have to leave your home to see something good. If you don't want to take the risk of wasting your money on a stinker of a film, you can always rewatch Freaks and Geeks on your preferred platform. If you would rather watch something new, you're in luck, because television has never been better than it the 2010s, and all the shows you've missed are digitally archived somewhere, waiting for you to blow through them.
Audiences and critics can argue about when the golden age of television began (was it with the introduction of Mad Men; the first season of True Detective; did it actually start in the '90s and end when The Wire finished in 2008?), but there's no denying some of the best longform television has been released in the 21st century. And it's not just that the narratives told on television are more nuanced than ever; the shows are bringing in A-list stars to help tell longer, better-paced stories than films coming to the theater.
That audiences can pay $9.99 for access to as much spectacular programming as they like definitely weighs on Hollywood, and that's one of the reasons films are getting longer. Rather than realize audiences are responding to more interesting stories, producers see audiences binge-watching five-to-ten hour-long episodes in a day and try to transfer that watchability to a major motion picture.
The Film Industry Is Cyclical
As with all things, the film industry is cyclical. Time is a flat circle. The Marvel era isn't the only time studio picture run time ballooned up to three hours. The '50s and '60s saw epics and musicals becoming popular, with run times reaching up to four hours before burning out the audience and retreating back to more manageable numbers. It's probably not a coincidence studios were competing with the public's newfound love of television in those decades.
One of the easiest ways to understand this phenomenon is to take a gander at the best picture winners from the Academy Awards throughout the years. Ben-Hur (1959) is 212 minutes long (that's three and a half hours). Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is 222 minutes (three hours and 45 minutes). Ten years later, Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece The Godfather (1972), was only 177 minutes. Four years after that, best picture winner Rocky clocked in at 119 minutes, and from then until 2013's 12 Years A Slave, runtimes for best picture winners and nominees fluctuated, but were generally shorter than in the golden days of excess.
Hollywood could simply be re-entering the epic phase of its cycle, meaning that the peak of a blockbuster's run time hasn't even hit.
Most Of The Biggest Films Are Adaptations
You don't have to look very hard to see that most of the top grossing films of the 21st century have been adaptations of popular literary works (if you haven't read the Fast and Furious books, you're really missing out). Adapting something that's already popular gives you a built-in audience, and allow for all kinds of franchising and product tie-in opportunities. The obsession with movies based on previously extant intellectual property goes back to the beginning of the studio era, but went into overdrive in the wake of the financial collapse, when parent companies of studios developed a strong fear of making any other than a certain success.
There are problems with adapting a movie from a novel or play. If you cut too much out, you run the risk of alienating your audience, or making a movie that's confusing and ill-paced. The popularity of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises (the shortest films of which clock in at 141 minutes and 178 minutes respectively) proves audiences are cool with sitting through long films so long as the story is faithfully adapted.
Production companies have taken this knowledge and applied it to sequels and original productions, hoping the magic will transfer to these new properties.
Audiences Want A Bigger Bang For Their Buck
It doesn't matter what movie you're seeing, be it a Mission Impossible explode-a-thon or a low budget indie film, all ticket prices are the same. Even if you live somewhere with a lower cost-of-living than Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York City, you're still paying more than ten dollars for a ticket. For instance, one adult matinee ticket to Fate of the Furious at the AMC Southdale 16 in Edina, MN, costs $12.86. That's five dollars less than the price of admission at Los Angeles's Arclight Theater. There's no such thing as a cheap movie ticket anymore.
Many audiences would rather feel they're getting a full cinematic experience when going to the movies, given the cost of the ticket. This is especially true if you're taking the whole family - parents, three kids, and a friend of each kid? That's eight people. At $13 per person, you're paying $104 before popcorn and soda. Why watch an 88-minute dramedy about people with regular problems when you can shut off the cacophonous screaming in your brain for two and a half hours while Vin Diesel saves the world?