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Killers of the Epic Runtimes: Have Movies Always Been Long?

4 min read

There's a new movie out, you may have heard of it. It's called and it's getting mostly great reviews. But, one element that appears to have rattled cages is it's mighty three hour twenty-six minute runtime. It's causing all manner of people to throw their hands up in the air and wonder “when did movies get so long”? An odd question, given that since the birth of cinema movies have always been long.

From a business stand point long movies might not be so desirable. For exhibitors the longer the film the fewer showings you get. If your film is ninety or so minutes you can show the film a fair few times per day thus maximising potential ticket sales, upgrades to the fancier seats, and of course the all important concession sales – which as we all know is where chain cinemas really make their money. The fewer screenings the more those opportunities shrink. If you factor in the twenty five to thirty minutes of adverts before hand, a three hour film clocks in at three and a half, and of course a fifteen minute turn around time for the poor staff to clean the screens mean that you're looking at just under four hours per showing. For a weekend that means only four or so screenings in a day. Less than desirable.

But, if we actually look at the history of box office habits, people aren't put off by epic runtimes. If the average movie is between 1 hour 30 and 2 hours, in the past 100 years of cinema only 23% of the highest grossing films fall in that time frame. In fact, at 36%, the most desirable runtime appears to be somewhere between 2 hours and 2 hours 30, with 21% of the highest grossing films between 2 hours 30 and 3 hours. What's even more shocking is that films with a runtime of under 90 minutes make up just 12% whilst films over 3 hours make up 10% of the list.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Taking ninety minutes to two hours as the average legnth of a feature film — and for arguments sake anything over two and a half hours can be considered “long” — then 30% of all the highest earning films in the past one hundred years can be categorised as “long” films. The argument could be made that this is because long films used to be preferable because there was no television and so people wanted to get their money's worth – and that would be understandable – but of the 30% of those films that go over two and half hours, only half of them were made before 1990. In fact, in the past twenty years, ten of the highest earning films have been over two hours thirty minutes, three of which went over three hours. Of the other ten films, only 4 were under two hours.

There is an argument made that people should be able to sit through long films if they can sit through an entire Netflix series in one sitting – but this is an argument in bad faith. Watching a film vs watching a series are two completely different things. Films are paced differently to a series, and it's easier to sit and get invested when you're in bed or a nice comfy sofa and your pyjamas vs having to sit upright and fully clothed.

Yet historically, audiences have turned out en masse for long films. It's often about creating a spectacle, an event that's worth going out to see. Complaining that Scorsese's latest offering is “long” makes very little sense given that most Marvel films, the champions of the box office, regularly go over two hours thirty consistently breaking box office numbers as they go. The highest grossing films this year alone include  (3h), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2h 29m) Fast X (2h 21m) and Barbie (1h 54m).

The desire for audiences to get invested in stories that are told in a long runtime isn't new, and arguably isn't that tall an order. In fact for people considering where to spend their money – in a time when films quickly go to streaming – offering them a mighty trip out with three hours of story vs something that barely crests ninety minutes is good value for money. It's also not a tough ask of audiences either. Killers of the Flower Moon features two acting heavyweights in lead roles and is about the serial murder of people. In the age where Netflix has pretty much built its money making empire from true crime series' and serial killer dramas, this should appeal to a large audience for whom “true crime” has become a personality trait.

Moreover, this year alone has proven that runtimes, and historical atrocities are able to make money with Nolan's Oppenheimer setting new records for historical films and films of “long” runtimes.

Universal Pictures

What this complaint comes down to is people who like to make arguments in bad faith, and perhaps at Scorsese because he doesn't like superhero films. But there is space in the movie marking market for both big budget superhero films and epic dramas by seasoned filmmakers to have their moment to shine. This might actually be the year that audiences decide they want a balanced diet of movie going, enjoying studio-mandated IP like Barbie or Guardians Vol 3 as well as harder hitting fare like Oppenheimer, if Killers of the Flower Moon joins the ranks, we'll just have to wait and see.