26 Mar 2022

It's not just superhero films that are blowing out in length. So why are movies so long these days?

5:34 pm on 26 March 2022

By Jessica Riga for the ABC

In a win for both fans of the Dark Knight and Twihards alike, The Batman made history before it even hit cinemas.


Photo: Warner Bros.

At 2 hours and 56 minutes long, the film, starring Robert Pattinson as the Caped Crusader, is the longest Batman movie to date.

In the league of comic book movies, only Avengers: Endgame (at 3 hours and 2 minutes) and Zack Snyder's Justice League (4 hours and 2 minutes) run longer.

But DC isn't the only franchise pumping out lengthier instalments - No Time to Die, at 2 hours and 43 minutes, is the longest James Bond film.

And here's how this year's crop of best picture nominees stack up:

  • Dune - 2h 35m
  • West Side Story - 2h 36m
  • Don't Look Up - 2h 25m
  • King Richard - 2h 24m
  • Nightmare Alley - 2h 20m
  • Licorice Pizza - 2h 13m
  • The Power of the Dog - 2h 5m
  • CODA - 1h 51m
  • Belfast - 1h 38m

So why are movies so long these days?

A lot of it has to do with money

When No Time to Die finally made it to the big screen last October after multiple Covid-19 delays, it was hailed as a blessing to cinemas everywhere which had been left both shaken and stirred by the pandemic.

Bond was back! And so was the quintessential cinema experience - $20 tickets and slightly sticky floors included.

"Movies are an expensive outing - especially for an entire family," says Luke Goodsell, an editor and critic who reviews films for ABC Arts.

"To compete with the endless home entertainment options, and streaming in particular, movies need to be an event in order to get people out of their houses and to the cinema, so the studios need to frame the bigger movies - which are the ones propping up the industry financially - as a full-course entertainment offering."

Phoebe Hart, a director and senior lecturer in film at the Queensland University of Technology, agrees, and also argues the way audiences consume content has changed.

"I probably see the trend of longer Hollywood movies as part of the diversifying and converging global market consuming screen content in several ways," Dr Hart says.

"Now audiences can watch stories spanning from tiny bite-sized content delivered on TikTok through to epic multi-season film and television series.

"All these different ways of getting stories just speak to a highly developed market which desires a personal entertainment experience."

Daniel Craig as James Bond in No Time to Die (2020).

Photo: AFP/ Danjaq Metro Goldwyn,Mayer

Bingeing is also a huge factor

While some people might consider a three-hour film a feat of endurance, they might have no problem binge-watching three hour-long episodes of a series on a streaming platform.

Dr Hart says the popularity around binge-watching isn't unrelated to so many films having blockbuster running times.

"There is a relationship between the longer length of movies and contemporary audiences accepting and loving long-form serial television programs," Dr Hart says.

Adding to that, many of the award-winning flagship programs on streaming platforms, like HBO's Succession and Netflix's The Crown, have comparable production values to cinematic feature films with "the same big stars to boot," she says.

And while the production values of streaming television are high, Goodsell says there's an inherent reason why streaming series are so bingeable.

"Television tends to have a faster pace: shorter scenes, more dialogue, a reliance on serial storytelling techniques like dramatic twists, relatable character arcs; all of which were designed to keep audiences glued to the show between ad breaks," he says.

"And even though a lot of streaming television, especially so-called prestige TV, now mimics the style and production values of cinema, it still retains its small screen DNA."

But the impact streaming has had on filmmaking doesn't stop there.

Streaming television's ability to explore storylines and character arcs through multiple seasons of hour-long episodes is also influencing Hollywood's storytelling style, Goodsell says.

"It's not dissimilar to what movie studios did in the 1950s in response to the rising threat of television by churning out epic, three-hour-plus spectacles like Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments, that couldn't be seen on the small screen.

"But at least they gave audiences the courtesy of having an intermission!"

No caption

Photo: Sony

So are movies actually getting longer?

Or has social media just fried my attention span?

"Movies are getting slightly longer on average, but - surprisingly enough - not by any astronomical margin," Goodsell says.

"That said, there's definitely a sense that the biggest blockbusters, the ones occupying most of the space at the multiplex and in the cultural conversation, are blowing out in length."

In recent years, the big winners at the box office have been the various superhero prequels, sequels and reboots, mainly from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The multiverse is getting increasingly crowded, and therefore longer, with each instalment - and that's not even mentioning the bonus scenes Marvel includes after the credits as a little treat.

Just look at Spider-Man: No Way Home. At 2 hours and 28 minutes, it's longer than Tom Holland's two previous Spidey films, and surpasses any iteration from the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield eras.

Marvel has borrowed the model of serial television for its films, where every movie feels like an instalment in an ongoing show, Goodsell argues.

"Other big, long films, like The Batman or No Time to Die, might be more inherently cinematic, but they're still using a lot of TV's serialised techniques - Daniel Craig's was the first Bond run, for example, to function as an interlocking series of episodes," he says.

Dr Hart also adds there's "probably a lot more Batman films to come", referring to the film's PG rating in the United States, which makes it more family friendly.

Bradley Cooper in the film NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Photo by Kerry Hayes. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Photo: Searchlight

Does bigger mean better?

While there have been plenty of films throughout history that justify their length and epic sweep, many of the blockbusters at the moment are long "without significant reason," Goodsell says.

"Part of that is a lack of discipline in the storytelling," he says.

"The new Nightmare Alley, which at 140 minutes is not outrageously longer than the 1947 original's 111 minutes, feels like it's taking forever because every incident is over baked and overblown, things the original managed to handle suggestively and stylishly.

"We're in an era where everything, from a major dramatic revelation to the most insignificant prop, needs to have a backstory or be explained at length to make sure everyone in the audience gets it. A lot of that is the influence of television, which has the luxury of serialised length - and the need to fill up content space."

"Things that used to be economically handled on screen are now subject to over-explanation - there's less mystery, less left to an audience's imagination.

"In these cases, bigger is seen as better - but more often than not, it results in bloat."

But then, who's to say? While the thought of sitting through four hours of Zack Snyder's Justice League sounds outrageous to one person, that's heaven for diehard fans.

And with more films being available to stream faster than ever before, maybe we're being offered the best of both worlds.

But if Hollywood is returning to the days of sprawling epics as a means of survival, one can only hope that includes an intermission.


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