Long films, even very long ones, are not really a discovery in the Hollywood landscape. But it has become a heavy trend for several years, especially in superhero movies…
Avengers: Endgame? Three clock hours on the counter. Spider-Man: No Way Home? Almost 2h30. Christopher Nolan’s Batmans? 2h20 minimum for the first, to peak at 2h44 for The Dark Knight Rises. Tempted to see The Batman still on the screens? Plan 3 hours of film on the menu, not counting trailers and advertisements before the program. And what about 4h02 of Justice League version Zack Snyder? The 2h37 of the Eternals?
Superhero movies obviously don’t have a monopoly on XXL lengths. Remember the 2h47 displayed by Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, or, to take a much more recent example, the 2h43 of Dying Can Wait, the ultimate James Bond in which Daniel Craig slipped for the last time in the Agent 007 costume. But, still, the superheroes get the lion’s share.
Historically, Hollywood has always released very long films, even since the silent era. Birth of a Nation by DW Griffith and released in 1915, was already 2:30. Let’s not forget the 4h of Gone with the Wind, the 3h47 of Lawrence of Arabia, or peplums like Ben-Hur, a fabulous show spanning 3h32. But for several years, we are still witnessing an inflationary spiral in the duration of certain films. In this logic, films like Venom: Let There be Carnage and its 1h38 or 1h45 displayed on the meter of Morbius, almost pass for anomalies, especially in superhero films.
To the point that Variety devoted a fascinating article to it some time ago, with a title that goes straight to the point: Why are movies now so long? Because even if the viewer must get his money’s worth, and we must make the money shots blockbusters, which cost millions of dollars to make, are obviously not the only reasons. And they are sometimes old.
As Rebecca Rubin, the author of the post, rightly reminds us: “The length of a film can impact budget, earnings and word of mouth. With millions of dollars at stake, those precious minutes are never arbitrary. In an age of endless entertainment options , directors, producers or studio executives don’t need or want someone to come out of a movie thinking, “That was good, but it was way too long.”
Back to the future of cinema
In the 1950s, the long duration of the films – peplums obviously in mind – was a selling point for the Majors, which were then hit hard by the fierce competition from television which was installing itself in all American homes. If the public could discover their favorite TV shows at home, only cinemas should and could be able to offer such an immersive show. It should also be noted that this argument has crossed the ages, since it is more or less the same as that of cinema operators competing with streaming platforms during this Covid-19 pandemic…
“There was for a long time this received idea which consisted in saying that long films were necessarily synonymous with quality” says Dana Polan, teacher at the famous Tisch School of the Arts in New York, quoted by Variety. But a longer film, a very long one, necessarily means fewer screenings scheduled, fewer tickets sold, and therefore less profit.
The equation becomes complicated when the spectators travel en masse to see these very long films which are technological feats: “audiences have begun to favor special effects films, which typically come with higher prices and require higher returns to justify these increased costs” Rubin says. When leavingAvengers: Endgame in the United States, the multiplexes remained open for 72 hours non-stop due to the strong demand from spectators. But such preferential treatment is absolutely exceptional.
A surprising rule… and little respected
When a director is hired by a Major to direct a film, they are contractually required to deliver a 2-hour edit. The problem is that almost no one respects the rule; but this one “protects studios that take cover if a filmmaker delivers a film that is truly excessively long”. Ideally and a well-understood common goal, everyone has an interest in making the best possible film.
No doubt we should also see there old ghosts sleeping in Hollywood cupboards, as at the time of the United Artistswho was horrified when she discovered the very first edit of The Gate of Paradise delivered to them by Michael Cimino, which was 5:25… The interested party even told them that he had made a concession by already cutting 15 minutes into it…
“The studios won’t wave the contract card because it would be perceived as interfering with the creative process, but they prefer shorter films. The studios don’t enforce this rule, neither do the producers, because they won’t end up getting the right length of the movie” comments Jonathan Glickman, producer and former president of MGM, quoted by Variety.
In fact, the question of the future duration of a film even begins when the script is written: a long or even very long script will inevitably require more shooting time. Additional scene reshoots or reshoots, as frequently happens, cost millions of additional dollars. In a blockbuster boosted with SFX, an extra 30 min, or even 60 min, increases the budget envelope by up to 25%. And the longer this kind of film is, the more time it will require in post-production, which costs between $50,000 and $100,000 a week.
The impact of test screenings
We also cannot underestimate the enormous weight of test screenings on the duration of films; a rather old practice in the Hollywood landscape. From the end of the 1930s, the studios got into the habit of soliciting a small panel of spectators to whom the work is shown, and responsible after this screening for giving their impressions, good and bad. And, if necessary, make the necessary modifications before its commercial exploitation.
Moment of legitimate stress for the studio and the film crew, director in mind, the test-screening can also turn into a nightmare and a disaster; examples of this abound. From there ensued famous moments of tension for certain directors, sometimes dispossessed of their works, with cuts imposed or made behind their backs; a completely restrained artistic vision giving a totally distorted work, with sometimes, in the end, a heavy economic penalty in the form of a big commercial failure in theaters.
But the outcome of these test screenings can also turn out to be quite favorable to directors, as Chris Columbus recalled in December 2021, who remembered with pleasure the test screening of his film Harry Potter, which lasted 3 hours. , i.e. 30min longer than the version that will be shown in theaters.
“We knew this film was working, because we did some screenings. In Chicago, the parents had found it too long while the children, on the contrary, found it too short. I figured that since kids normally have shorter attention spans, that’s kind of a good thing.” said the filmmaker.
Between marketing arguments and commercial considerations, purely artistic considerations, the sometimes vague feelings or impressions of finding a film too long without really finding the reasons or sometimes with difficulty, the editing of a film and therefore its duration is really an exercise very delicate balancing act, where each argument is weighed with a trebuchet. With more or less happiness. But there is currently no chemically pure formula, as an alchemist would systematically transform lead into gold.