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Movies Really Are Getting Longer – Here’s Why

It: Chapter Two wasn’t a very good movie, and the reasons certainly vary. Perhaps it was the lack of scares, the queerbaiting or the narrative exploitation of a graphic hate crime. But most likely, it was the nearly three hour run time. Andres Muschietti’s film was characterized as “a long slog to the finish,” and unfortunately, it’s not alone. 26 of 42 movies currently playing in Oakland theaters are nearly or over two hours long. For the last few years, film critics have bemoaned the slow increase in movie times as grabs for unmerited prestige, but to understand exactly why this phenomenon occurs, we must examine the data. 

Jo Moses

After comparing the runtime of every Best Picture winner, (after all, isn’t a Best Picture win the biggest indicator of prestige?) it is clear that movie runtimes are cyclical. Similar to fashion, which is said to involve roughly 20-30 year cycles that reflect the shifting timeframe of what is considered classic fashion inspiration, movies reach for the prestige of the classics by copying elements of movies from 20-30 years earlier. Movie runtimes swing between pulls for the freshness and indie cred indicated by shorter runtimes, and attempts to elicit the prestige of two-hour classics. 

Using data analysis provided by Mills’ first year Iris Kingery, it was found that the average period between every shortest Best Picture winner between 1927 and 2018 is on average 22 years, and the average increase from the every shortest movie to the longest movie during the 22 year cycle is 128.5%. For example, 1927’s “Sunrise” was 94 minutes. The lengths of best picture winners gradually rose until they hit their peak with 1939’s 238 minute saga, “Gone With the Wind,” after which they gradually declined till 1955’s 90 minute “Marty,” after which the cycle began anew. In 2028, the predicted year of the longest movie in the next 22 year cycle, the Best Picture winner is predicted to be 228 minutes, or three hours and 48 minutes. 

But the question is still unanswered: why is this pattern so enduring? I theorize two key reasons. First, there is the Hollywood impulse to spackle over a lackluster movie with hallmarks of prestige. You’ve seen it on Netflix–episodes are referred to as “chapters” or “parts” to elicit a perception of grandeur–and movies are no different. Movies have their own hallmarks of grandeur: callbacks to the classics like intermissions, elaborate title sequences and of course, a very long runtime. The urge to evoke the characteristics of a classic movie even exist outside of the normal timeframe for what is a classic–most blockbusters considered cinematic classics that premiered during shorter Best Picture years still run long. “Spartacus,” “Cleopatra” and “The Ten Commandments” all run well over three hours.

Second, the length of a move has gained even more status as a mark of prestige as the movie experience continues to adjust to compete with that of streaming services. Movies have been long defined as merely a longer, contained version of a TV episode, but as the shape of streaming continues to quickly change, movie directors turn to the length of a film to compete with the increasing number of two-to-four episode prestige Netflix mini-series that may as well be movies. After all, isn’t binge-watching a four episode show like When They See Us about the same as sitting through Spartacus? As the line between TV and movies continues to blur with Netflix’s aid, movie studios are desperate to distinguish their content.

Third, original movies produced by streaming services continue to chip away at the prestige of the cinematic film; after all, if Netflix can make its own movies that you can watch at home in your pajamas, what makes the traditional studio movie so special? Last year’s Oscar ceremony incurred backlash for the many nominations for Netflix movies like Roma, with Hollywood suits like Steven Spielberg speaking out against the nominations.

According to Amblin spokespeople, “Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation,” and is involved in a campaign to bring around members of the Academy to his view. It is undeniable that Hollywood discomfort with Netflix’s power has helped to perpetuate the pattern of using length to distinguish movies. After all, the average 97 minute length of an original Netflix movie makes it easy for movie makers to distinguish their films by adding length.

While I would never be one to refuse an extra hour of a movie I like, this increase in prestige-signaling should alarm artists. It signifies that movie studios are as overwhelmed as their consumers with the exponentially growing amount of streaming service options, and are desperately trying to get our attention. It’s a signal that even the biggest Hollywood giants are getting scared of Netflix’s power over what modern cinema looks like. And if they’re scared, you probably should be, too.

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