A Brief History of Long Movies
At the Cannes Film Festival this weekend, “Killers of the Flower Moon” will become the latest movie to ask just how much time we ought to give it
Roger Ebert, the beloved film critic who died in 2013 having done more than anyone else in history to turn arguing about movies into a mainstream American sport, once observed that “No good movie is too long. No bad movie is short enough.”
Director Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated Killers of the Flower Moon will premiere at the 76th Cannes Film Festival this weekend with a run time of 3 hours and 26 minutes. The $200 million adaptation of David Grann’s 2017 nonfiction best seller was originally rumored to weigh in at nearly four hours, but even if that had proved true, the 80-year-old Scorsese’s new film—which won’t open in cinemas until October, some weeks before it appears on Apple TV+—would still be nothing close to the longest feature to debut at Cannes. The Italian historical drama The Best of Youth, which premiered at the festival in 2003, spans 366 minutes in its “theatrical” cut. (The movie was divided into a Part I and Part II for its commercial release later that year.) Dead Souls, a Chinese documentary that played at the 2018 festival, runs a mammoth 495 minutes.
As someone who regards the uninterrupted theatrical movie-watching experience as sacred—and who was in fact diagnosed with a blood clot roughly 24 hours after sitting through an intermission-less 209-minute screening of Scorsese’s The Irishman in 2019—movie run times are something I notice.
Popcorn flicks, in particular, have swelled over the last generation. At 163 minutes, 2021’s No Time to Die was the longest entry in the 60-year-old James Bond franchise by a quarter of an hour. Last year’s The Batman ran 176 minutes, 50 minutes longer than the Batman I begged my parents to drive me to on opening night in the summer of 1989. That same year saw the release of the 83-minute Disney animated classic The Little Mermaid; its live-action remake swims into cinemas next weekend with a super-sized run time of 135 minutes, a 63 percent increase from its ancestor. But the bloat doesn’t always take a generation or two: This spring’s John Wick: Chapter 4 clocked in at 169 minutes—68 minutes longer than the original John Wick in 2014. There have always been long movies, but these kinds of movies, as opposed to prestige Oscar-bait or artsy endeavors, have never before been this long.
What were the first movies with epic run times?
D.W. Griffith’s silent 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation is usually cited more for its technical advancement of cinematic storytelling—and for its vile Lost Cause-inspired depiction of Black characters—than for its length. The movie ran 193 minutes, and sometimes other lengths, depending on the frame rate at which it projected. Projectionists typically ran silent films at 16 or 18 frames per second—only with the advent of synchronized sound was the modern frame rate of 24 frames per second adopted as the industry standard. (In the 21st century, some movies, including last year’s blockbuster sequel Avatar: The Way of Water, have used higher frame rates, though these all-digital productions left reels of celluloid film in the past.)
For a long time after sound films became dominant in the ’30s, run times for many films stayed around 90 minutes, and “B” pictures that might be shown before the main feature on a double bill could be as succinct as 70 minutes. While there were famous exceptions—the 221-minute Gone With the Wind, from 1939, among them—the decades between the ascension of synchronized sound and the widespread adoption of television saw movies staying relatively brief.
The epics of the late ’50s and early ’60s—George Stevens’ Giant (197 minutes), William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (212 minutes), Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (197 minutes), David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (210 minutes), John Ford’s How the West Was Won (164 minutes)—sought to burnish their sense of grandeur through overtures and intermissions. (The run times cited above do not include these add-ins, which tended to vary in length according to individual exhibitors’ preferences.) Sheer length was one more hedge against the emerging threat of television, along with more immersive exhibition formats like Cinerama—the IMAX of its day.
Why were so many movies around two hours long?
Veteran NPR film critic Bob Mondello says that many big films were shown in shorter versions after their initial “roadshow” releases. In the era of single-screen movie houses, run times in excess of two hours made it harder for exhibitors to cram in two evening showings. As single-screen houses were steadily replaced by multiplexes throughout the 1980s, he says, this became less of an issue.
Prior to becoming a critic, Mondello was the director of public relations for the now-defunct Roth Theaters chain of 30 movie houses in (primarily) Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. from 1972 until 1983. He experienced the shift in our notion of how long a film should be both as a marketer and, later, a professional viewer.
“There used to be a rule that the audience had a two-hour butt,” he says. “If you asked them to sit for longer than that you were pushing it.”
Avatar: The Way of Water runs an epic-length 192 minutes. Its $2.3 billion worldwide gross—and the equally luxe run times of the first Avatar and Avengers: Endgame, the only films to have brought in more—would seem to indicate the industry’s old belief that letting movies run longer than two hours eats into ticket sales no longer applies.
Disagreements over how much of an audience’s time a film can ask for are almost as old as cinema itself.
Marya Gates, a Chicago-based film critic and historian who writes prolifically about silent film on her Substack, points to Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 drama Greed as an early battleground in the run-time wars. The film the legendary director considered to be his finest initially ran 42 reels—more than eight hours—before he painstakingly whittled it to 24 reels, a little under five hours, to be shown over the course of two nights. The film was then cut over its creator’s objections to 140 minutes—and regarded as a failure in that drastically truncated version.
That 42-reel version is lost, though film historians have managed a partial restoration that runs to four hours, plugging in still frames where the necessary footage couldn’t be located. “I watched the four-hour version and I was like, ‘This is the best thing ever made,’” Gates says.
In the halcyon late-20th-century days of the video store, most commercial releases landed between 90 and 120 minutes, for the same economic reasons—screeners per day, mainly—discussed above. Heftier temporal footprints were reserved for prestige pictures that typically came out in November or December and were intended to fetch awards and appeal to audiences who prided themselves on their cultivated taste.
The holiday seasons of 1990-1993 gave us Kevin Costner’s 181-minute Western Dances With Wolves, Oliver Stone’s 188-minute conspiracy thriller JFK, Spike Lee’s 201-minute biopic Malcolm X, and Steven Spielberg’s 195-minute Holocaust drama Schindler’s List. The biggest domestic box-office hits in each of these years—Ghost, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Batman Returns and Jurassic Park, respectively—ran roughly an hour shorter than the Oscar flicks.
What makes today's viewing experience more conducive to long movies?
Mondello says that in the 21st century, much-improved seats and amenities have helped to make film audiences comfortable with keeping their eyes glued to the screen for longer. Today’s ticket-buyers also have an attention span for longer-form narratives that has grown as television dramas have moved away from one-and-done episodes into serialized narratives. “Audiences are now used to binge-watching things at home,” he says. “I think that’s changed viewing habits.”
Given that Scorsese made The Irishman for Netflix (though it got a brief theatrical window) and that many more people will likely watch Killers of the Flower Moon on Apple TV+ than in cinemas, any pressure on Scorsese to keep things brief is all but gone, Mondello observes. Scorsese films in the 21st century, starting with 2002’s 167-minute Gangs of New York and 2004’s 170-minute The Aviator, are on the whole notably longer than the movies that established him as a critical favorite back in the 20th. But Scorsese does not, in Mondello’s view, abuse the privilege.
“He deals with fairly complicated subjects, and I never feel like his films are all that long,” Mondello says. “His movies aren’t the ones where I feel, ‘Oh, I wish this were over.’”
The industry’s midcentury efforts to offer audiences a sensory experience hey can’t get at home are a piece of history that has played out all over again in the post-pandemic marketplace, when audiences have turned up for spectacles like Top Gun: Maverick and The Way of Water, but midlevel films are scarcer than ever.
Maverick, the biggest domestic hit of 2022, is the 36-years-later sequel to the biggest domestic hit of 1986. Its throwback vibe extends, or perhaps contracts, to its svelte 130-minute run time—still 20 minutes longer than Top Gun ‘86. But the period between Top Gun flicks is another useful frame of reference: The National Association of Theater Owners says there were 39,007 movie screens in the United States in the Maverick year of 2022. It doesn’t have a total for 1986, but in 1987, the number was 22,679. Fewer screens meant fewer showings per day, offering a strong financial incentive to keep movies shorter. Now that cinemas are more plentiful and many movies go straight to streaming, that bottom-line incentive toward brevity is gone.
Killers of the Flower Moon isn’t the only long-awaited film premiering out of competition at Cannes. Also showing at the festival is Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. At 142 minutes, it’s the lengthiest of the five Indiana Jones features by a quarter of an hour. In other words, a pithy and succinct would-be blockbuster—by 2023 standards, anyway.