Are Movies Getting Longer?

Are Films Longer Than They Used To Be?

It is hard not to question why, in recent years,  it feels like for many, films are getting longer. Countless critics and online bloggers routinely chastise films like Transformers: The Last Knight (149 mins), Baywatch (116 mins)  and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (151) for being too long, whilst listeners to Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review (Hello to Jason Issacs), will regularly hear the coiffured critic lament that a film could of lost half an hour or so.

But when you look at the stats are really getting that much longer? Looking at the chart below which shows the average running time of a wide range of the most popular films, year on year, there has been very little increase in the running time of films for quite some time.

That said, last year is the longest average ever recorded for film lengths reaching a not particularly tear enducing 109 minutes. When in the early 1960s the average film length peaked at 104 minutes, this extra 5 minutes hardly feels like anything too extreme over the course of 50 years.

Average Running Times Per Year

Grouping the Data

So what is really happening? When taking a look at the same graph, but grouped by decade averages, then more noticeable trends come out. The first is the rapid rise of movie runtimes from the early to mid twentieth century. This is quite easily explained, as the start of the twentieth century was an era where filmmaking was new, experimental and expensive. It was also a time where there was no standard length for a film, and early movies were often confined by the length of their reel. The first multi-reel feature was The Story of the Kelly Gang in 1906, and this offered new possibilities including many multi-part films that racked up staggering running times or even the concept of double bill A and B movies.

By the 1960s, a rather standard running time of around 100 minutes was reached and the yearly average runtime has not deviated significantly since then. The 60s were an era that gave us many of the iconic lengthy epics such as Ben Hur and Lawrence of Arabia as film producers tried to give a grand scale to movies that the growing medium of television couldn’t reach.

Despite lengths being fairly stagnant since then, the main increase that has happened was during the late 1980s and early 1990s. If we hypothesis that longer films in the 1960s were a response to the threat of television, then we could also assume that this rise may have been a response to the rising popularity of home video.

Average Running Times Per Decade

The Long ‘Type’

Why is it then, if averages have changed so little, that we constantly feel that films are getting longer? One big clue comes when we start looking at the longest films over thr course of movie history. Often some of the longest films released each year such as American Honey, Boyhood, Blue is the Warmest Colour and Winter Sleep are the work of auteurs chasing film festival and awards nominations. Although not a hard and fast rule, rarely will movies of a brief 90 minute running time be top of everyone’s lists come award seasons. Often this is due to them not being action packed fast-paced blockbusters, but instead being slower, more reflective films focusing on intricate character development that needs time.

On the other end of the spectrum, films like King Kong, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Avatar are all bound to draw massive box office revenues based on their concepts or stars, allowing the directors to rather self-indulgently extend their runtimes as much as they want. After all, few studios would have the balls to tell Martin Scorsese that maybe his film didn’t need to be three hours long, when they know they’re going to make millions of dollars from it.

Year Film Runtime
1910 Viaje al Interior del Peru 120
1911 Il Clarino di Tontolini 119
1912 The Independence of Romania 120
1913 Les Miserables, Part 2: Fantine 300
1914 The Beloved Adventurer 450
1915 The Broken Coin 440
1916 Judex 300
1917 The Cloth Peddler 420
1918 Tih Minh 418
1919 Barrabas 489
1920 The Son of Tarzan 248
1921 Parisette 380
1922 The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe 360
1923 The Wheel 273
1924 Helen of Troy 204
1925 Les Miserables 359
1926 The Adventures of the Three Reporters 250
1927 Napoleon 240
1928 L’argent 195
1929 Tarzan the Tiger 266
1930 The Lone Defender 217
1931 The Galloping Ghost 226
1932 The Last of the Mohicans 231
1933 Perils of Pauline 231
1934 Les Miserables 281
1935 The Miracle Rider 306
1936 Custer’s Last Stand 328
1937 Dick Tracy 290
1938 The Secret of Treasure Island 300
1939 Dick Tracy’s G-Men 302
1940 The Green Hornet Strikes Again! 293
1941 The Spider Returns 300
1942 Perils of Nyoka 261
1943 The Phantom 299
1944 Captain America 244
1945 Manhunt of Mystery Island 219
1946 The Best Years of Our Lives 170
1947 Tears of the Yang-Tse 192
1948 Superman 244
1949 Batman and Robin 263
1950 Atom Man vs. Superman 252
1951 Quo Vadis 171
1952 Manon of the Spring 200
1953 Tokyo Story 136
1954 Seven Samurai 207
1955 Napoleon 182
1956 The Ten Commandments 220
1957 Tikhiy Don 330
1958 Les Miserables 210
1959 Ben-Hur 212
1960 Exodus 208
1961 The Human Condition III: A Soldier’s Prayer 190
1962 Lawrence of Arabia 216
1963 It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World 205
1964 Sleep 321
1965 The Greatest Story Ever Told 225
1966 War and Peace 427
1967 Camelot 179
1968 Shchit i Mech 344
1969 L’amour Fou 252
1970 How I Unleashed World War II 224
1971 Out 1 729
1972 The New Land 204
1973 The Iceman Cometh 239
1974 The Deluge 315
1975 The Travelling Players 230
1976 1900 317
1977 Hitler: A Film from Germany 442
1978 Moliere 260
1979 Siberiade 275
1980 Heaven’s Gate 325
1981 Aszparuh 323
1982 Les Miserables 220
1983 The Right Stuff 193
1984 Once Upon a Time in America 229
1985 The Unknown Soldier 199
1986 Il Camorrista 171
1987 The Last Emperor 163
1988 Time of Violence 288
1989 The Winter War 199
1990 Dances with Wolves 181
1991 La Belle Noiseuse 238
1992 Malcolm X 202
1993 Gettysburg 271
1994 Satantango 450
1995 Nixon 192
1996 Hamlet 242
1997 Titanic 194
1998 The Barber of Siberia 180
1999 The Green Mile 189
2000 Yi Yi 173
2001 Pearl Harbor 183
2002 The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers 179
2003 The Best of Youth 366
2004 Alexander 175
2005 King Kong 187
2006 Inland Empire 180
2007 Grindhouse 191
2008 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button 166
2009 Avatar 162
2010 The Yellow Sea 157
2011 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo 158
2012 Cloud Atlas 172
2013 The Wolf of Wall Street 180
2014 Winter Sleep 196
2015 The Hateful Eight 187
2016 American Honey 163
Year Film Runtime
1996 Hamlet 242
1939 Gone with the Wind 238
1984 Once Upon a Time in America 229
1956 The Ten Commandments 220
1962 Lawrence of Arabia 216
1959 Ben-Hur 212
1954 Seven Samurai 207
1963 It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World 205
1966 Andrei Rublev 205
1974 The Godfather: Part II 202
1992 Malcolm X 202
2003 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 201
1956 Giant 201
1960 Spartacus 197
1965 Doctor Zhivago 197
2014 Winter Sleep 196
1993 Schindler’s List 195
1997 Titanic 194
1983 The Right Stuff 193
2007 Grindhouse 191

Longest Films

When we start looking at some of the longest mainstream films released we perhaps start to get a better idea as to why it feels like everything is getting so much longer. The Oscar contender epics have always been there, from Ben Hur to Boyhood, but what really stands out is the big budget fast-paced blockbusters that still hang around for nearly  three hours.

On top of that, there is always the lure of bankable sequels, but this has further increased with films like The Hobbit, which in itself a prequel to the Lord of the Rings, being split into multiple parts, while the final films of both the Harry Potter and Hunger Games series were themselves split. When these already lengthy series get further stretched out, they already perhaps feel like they lose the concise storytelling demanded of films that are not guaranteed successes. But not only that, these films in themselves are often some of the longest, with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 being a good 2 hours and 17 minutes, while The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies comes in at 2 hours 44 minute. Considering the source material for the final Hobbit film comprised of a couple of chapters, it is unsurprising that these films in particular feel very long.

Shortest Films

Perhaps another reason why movies feel longer, despite the average runtime increasing little since the 1960s, is due to the rise of animated kid’s films. Looking at the shortest runtimes of popular films, many are children’s films made over the last few decades, with short running times suitable for wandering attention spans. Couple this with the rise of both hand drawn and computer animation, which can often be a very costly and laborious process, then it’s unsurprising that studios like Disney and Pixar have always had rather brief film lengths. It is likely that the rising role in children’s films as a focus for cinema, consequently helps to balance many of the longer adult focused affairs.

The other notable part of this list is popular indie films like Short Term 12 and [Rec]. These are films with miniscule budgets and as such, naturally have shorter running lengths as it is far cheaper to shoot less. That said, it is the development in technology that has allowed these films to become worldwide commercial successes. Digital shooting, editing and distribution has meant that although long films are still always going to be more costly, indie filmmakers are perhaps not as restricted as they once were, both at what they can achieve in their film, and also how much these films get seen and become a part of the public consciousness.

Year Film Runtime
1941 Dumbo 64
1926 The General 67
1921 The Kid 68
1933 Duck Soup 68
1998 Following 69
1988 The Land Before Time 69
1942 Bambi 70
1931 Frankenstein 70
1950 Cinderella 74
1959 Sleeping Beauty 75
1951 Alice in Wonderland 75
2008 Superhero Movie 75
1925 Battleship Potemkin 75
1993 The Nightmare Before Christmas 76
1955 Lady and the Tramp 76
1920 The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari 76
2005 Corpse Bride 77
1953 Peter Pan 77
2004 Primer 77
2007 [Rec] 78

The Future of Film Lengths

So are films going to continue getting longer? It’s quite hard to tell. Currently one of the biggest shakeups in the entertainment industry is the introduction of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu who have managed incredible stories with the quality and production values of a lot of mainstream cinema, but stretched over dozens of episodes. Perhaps this will cause moviemakers to attempt to match them with similarly lengthy features, or perhaps they will recognise themselves as a different medium and embrace opportunities to tell brilliant yet concise stories in an hour and a half.

Recent films such as Source Code or Gravity feel innovative for their engrossing fast paced nature, but really their single plot focus is just reminiscent of B-Movies of a decade gone. Perhaps these will see more of a renascence.

All we can hope for though, is that we do not get another Michael Bay Transformers film that pushes the three hour barrier.