The average attention span may be getting shorter but conversely, movies are getting longer and longer.
Research has determined that thanks to the constant digital distraction of smartphones and the internet, the human attention span is being reduced to that of a goldfish. But despite the average watched length of an internet video being around three minutes (yes, even cat videos), movies are clocking in these days at a whopping 2.5–3 hours. Huh?
Lengthy running times are by no means a new thing. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, epics like Ben-Hur (1959) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) ran three-and-a-half hours, with Gone with the Wind (1939) nudging four. Even children’s film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1976) lasted an inconceivable 2hrs 25mins – that’s a long time for kids to sit still. Fortunately screenings usually included an intermission, providing the audience an opportunity to stock up on popcorn and eliminating the need to bring an incontinence pad. It also allowed the projectionist to load the next film reel.
An even greater test of endurance were cinematic films like the 1985 Holocaust documentary Shoah (9hrs 26mins), Charles Dickens adaptation Little Dorrit (1987, 5hrs 57mins), and Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1976 historical epic 1900 (5hrs 17mins).
Then there are the arduous avant garde art films that don’t give a rat’s bladder how long they run. Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964) delivered a mind (and bum) numbing 8-hour-long shot of the Empire State Building, and some experimental works could even last for days!
These are, of course, an exception to the rule. The average length of a film is 90–120 minutes, which not only allows the audience a more comfortable experience but also cinema owners to run more sessions per day and consequently bank more box office dollars.
It really wasn’t until 1990 that the norm was challenged, with the three-hour-long Dances with Wolves introducing a new generation to the daunting prospect of a long haul at the movies. Braveheart (1995) was another mainstream three-hour epic, and Titanic (1997) kept multiplex audiences in their seats for 3hrs 14mins. All three also continued the trend of really long movies winning the Best Picture Oscar, and three-hour-plus epics like The Lord of the Rings trilogy would continue to surface intermittently throughout the ‘OOs.
Getting back to the conundrum of why movies are so long in today’s age of shorter attention spans, the popularity of long form storytelling on television has surely been instrumental in increasing movie running times, as Hollywood follows suit.
Indie and arthouse movies have always been more liberated when it comes to time constraints, and now mass market blockbusters are no different.
Recent epics include Blade Runner 2049 (2hrs 44mins), Avengers: Endgame (3hrs 1min), and Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2hrs 41 mins – but then Tarantino has always been overly indulgent).This month’s IT Chapter 2 is also almost as big as the novel that inspired it, with a running time of 2hrs 45mins.
A three-hour stretch in a cinema seat no longer carries the stigma and anxiety it once did. But if the thought of sitting there for three-hours without a break still triggers a panic attack, take the Gold Class option and do it in luxury, with food and drink delivered on demand. And if that still isn’t tempting enough, there’s always the miracle of home entertainment and the comfort of the couch, a PAUSE button that allows for toilet breaks without missing a thing, and the freedom to check your phone ad infinitum without distracting others. You might even want to cram in several episodes of your favourite show as well before bed.