Why Are Movies Getting Longer if Our Attention Spans Are Getting Shorter?

April 25, 2012

One of my all-time favorite movies is Once Upon a Time in America, which, in its current available Blu-ray/DVD version runs 229 minutes (including intermission).  Even for a huge fan like me it can be a chore to sit through, so imagine my surprise when it was recently announced that at this year's Cannes Film Festival an even longer cut will screen, lasting 269 minutes – just a minute shy of four and a half hours.  

When it inevitably gets a Blu-ray release I will definitely buy it, even though it isn't likely that I'll watch the film in one sitting like those at Cannes will have to.  It reminds me of when my friend and I went to go see the Redux version of Apocalypse Now in theaters and we were two of the only four people in the entire theater on that Saturday afternoon.  It was really hard for both of us to sit through the whole thing, and that was "only" 197 minutes long!  Audiences tend to dislike movies that too long -- Alfred Hitchcock himself once said "The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder" -- simply because our attention spans can only take so much in one sitting (by the way, Hitchcock's longest is Topez, at 143 minutes). 

Yet while people's attention spans seem to be getting shorter in the social networking era, feature films are generally getting longer.  While the Screen Actors Guild recognizes 80 minutes as the minimum length of a feature film, generally only children's movies run this length.  Yet they're getting longer too: Disney's 1940s movies typically ran under 80 minutes, and even its 2011 Winnie-the-Pooh film only ran 63 minutes, but most Disney films run about 90-100 minutes these days.  Then again, Martin Scorsese's "children's film" Hugo was so long (128 minutes) most critics who loved it openly admitted children watching it would probably lose attention.

But some movies are just too damn long, much longer than they need to be.  Directors like David Fincher have more often than not made movies that run 150-170 minutes, and Scorsese seems to feel most comfortable these days just under two and a half hours.  For a lot of people, length equals "epicness," and it appears the Academy Award voters do too: The Artist (100 minutes) is the shortest movie to win Best Picture since 1989's Driving Miss Daisy (99 minutes), and before that you have to go back to 1977's Annie Hall (93 minutes) and the shortest movie to ever win Best Picture, 1955's Marty (90 minutes).  Most films that have won have been over two hours, though the longest film to win Best Picture remains the nearly four-hour Gone with the Wind, so length=epicness isn't a new trend by any means.

Yet despite that perception of epic storytelling, longer isn’t actually better in many cases.  Truth be told, I didn’t feel Apocalypse Now Redux was a better film with all those extra minutes, which is similar to many films with “extended editions” (for example, the longer version of 1988 classic Cinema Paradiso is significantly worse than the original shorter release).  I’ve seen films – especially comedies – that don’t even have enough story for a thirty-minute short be stretched out to a ninety minute length to fit snuggly in a multiplex’s screening schedule.  While I know shorts rarely make money and barely draw audiences, I find it ironic that in the internet and smartphone era, which makes shorts incredibly easy to distribute and exhibit, there hasn’t been much success on making shorts profitable.  The potential is overwhelming, as our website proves!

But it's not like audiences are incapable of enjoying long narratives.  I mean, many of us watch HBO shows that run about twelve hour-long episodes a season, which is far longer, and I know countless people who have sat through entire seasons of a television show on a lazy weekend day.  But that's just it -- we prefer such lengthy viewing experiences from the comfort of our own couch, with the "pause" button ready should we need a bathroom break or another beer.  In addition, many of us have had no issue in waiting months or years for the next film in our favorite franchise.  Studios will just have to be willing to sacrifice box office for home media sales if they keep putting out movies that are well over two hours.  So audiences often remain loyal to long narratives – just give us a chance to take a break!  

Chris McKittrick is a New York-based cinephile who also writes for Moviebuzzers.com and DailyActor.com. He is also a published writer of both fiction and nonfiction. Check him out at @ChrisMcKit


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