Why Are 2012’s Holiday Movies So Damn Long?

Feeling sleepy? Stay away from the theater! Ramin Setoodeh investigates the bloated running times.

In the time it takes to sit through this year’s new holiday movies, you could do a lot of other things. For example, finish all your Christmas shopping, roast a turkey, drive to the airport, and fly to Hong Kong. If you don’t believe me, just look at the numbers.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a laborious 150 minutes. Both Les Misérables and Zero Dark Thirty are 7 minutes longer than that. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained trudges along at 165 minutes. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey doesn’t just have a bloated title, but 169 minutes of Middle-earth sword fighting and Gollum hissing the word “precious” over and over. At least that’s what I think happens. I may have dozed off at some point.

At 143 minutes, Sam Mendes’s Skyfall is the second-longest James Bond, just a minute shy of 2006’s Casino Royale. The terrible Cloud Atlas, released in October, clocks in at 172 minutes but feels more like 172 days. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, a movie about something (who knows what!), keeps you hostage for 144 minutes. I kept thinking how I’d rather be watching Flight on a plane to Miami (138 minutes), even after that terrifying crash scene. In comparison, Life of Pi’s 127 minutes almost felt brisk, and it still could have been leaner. (I loved Les Miz and Zero Dark Thirty, but I would say the same about both of those.)

If you were to attend all these movies, as I have, it would take 1,522 minutes—or just more than a day.

Peter Travers, the film critic for Rolling Stone magazine, says that Oscar season is to blame. In recent years, he says, “Hollywood studios believe movies are weighed by the pound when it comes to Academy thinking. If it ain’t long, it ain’t winning. Stupid, I know, since The Artist and The King’s Speech weren’t long. But ever since Gone With the Wind and Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia, continuing through Titanic, Braveheart, Gladiator, and Lord of the Rings, they think Oscar will not take any epic seriously if it’s under two hours.”

Twenty years ago, the average running time of the top-five grossing movies of the year was 118.4 minutes. In 2012 that number so far averages to 142 minutes. Longer movies are now becoming a mainstay of the summer—as well as fall and winter. The Avengers, the most successful movie of the year, had a running time of 143 minutes. The Dark Knight Rises, the No. 2 biggest movie, went on for 165 minutes. The Hunger Games (142 minutes), The Amazing Spider-Man (136 minutes), and Battleship (131 minutes) could have used some—or a lot—of tightening. In 1990 Home Alone was only 103 minutes.

It’s rare to find a blockbuster that length, unless you count cartoons targeted at an audience who physically can’t sit still. An upbeat comedy that should be only 90 minutes, like This Is 40, is usually two hours or more. It’s not that all movies have turned into art-house epics—The Guilt Trip starring Barbra Streisand is, thankfully, short. But a greater number of longer movies do appear to be playing at theaters. That seems counterintuitive, because for Hollywood, it costs more money to shoot longer films, given the extra scenes, when ticket prices are fixed. It also means longer movies play less frequently, although that may not be much of a problem. Despite its heft, The Hobbit opened last weekend to an impressive $84.8 million, a new December record.

Bob Birchard, the editor of the American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films, says the proliferation of multiplexes has made it possible for studios to release so many long movies. “In the old days,” he says, “exhibitors used to bitch and moan if the pictures were too long because they couldn’t get enough shows in a day. Now, if you’ve got a big picture, you can book it on multiple screens and show it every half hour without worrying how long the picture is.”

I emailed Newsweek film critic David Ansen, who offered a different explanation.

“Just look at who most of these directors are: Spielberg, Tarantino, Jackson, Bigelow. Who’s going to tell them to cut their movies?” he wrote back. “The only one I haven’t seen is The Hobbit, but that’s the one I’ve heard the most complaints about the length. I like Lincoln a lot, but it has too many endings. Les Miz, for my taste, has too much of everything: I didn’t get it on stage, and I don’t get it on screen, and I found it to be interminable. Cloud Atlas kinda had to be long, but it was independently financed so there was no studio to say ‘no’ to the length. The length of Zero Dark Thirty didn’t bother me, but Django felt 20 minutes too long (and it was cut down from well over three hours). I know you weren’t asking my critical take, but I think the reasons have nothing to do with booking screens. These things are cyclical. Back in the ’50s, big four-hour extravaganzas with intermissions were common: Giant, The Ten Commandments, Around the World in 80 Days, and rewarded prizes for their bloat.”

In 1984, Richard Corliss wrote an article for Time magazine called “Why Do Movies Seem So Long?” He makes the same gripe; the examples were just different: The Right Stuff (191 minutes), Scarface (170 minutes), and the miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz (more than 15 hours). At the time Corliss argued that movies started getting longer after World War II, when directors broke away from the studio stronghold and started to consider moviemaking a form of art. That said, the Batman movies directed by Tim Burton in the ’90s are definitely shorter (and sometimes better) than the ones Christopher Nolan made.

If the length of movies really is cyclical, we should be moving in the other direction, now that we’re a nation of iPhone users addicted to our Twitter feeds. If we can’t stay focused for three minutes, we definitely don’t want to sit still for three hours, especially when most theaters have a no-texting policy.

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But if you look at it another way, long movies make sense. As ticket sales have dropped, Hollywood has borrowed a simple business model. Supersize everything! Studios are feeling pressure to compete with TV, which, thanks to HBO, Showtime, etc., is more movielike. That means 10 Best Picture nominees at the Oscars instead of five, and more sequels and reboots that must be longer than the originals just to prove how much better they are. The more ambitious directors were brought up in a Hollywood that admired everything about James Cameron’s Titanic, including its 194-minute length. The endless parade of Harry Potter and Twilight movies showed that even though we live in an ADD society, there’s still an appetite for more.

So for now, the movies are about more, even if many of us will grumble about Les Miz's running time on the way out of the theater. If you can’t take it, a nap is included in the price of admission.