Rather than hand-wringing over whether any of these long movies are actually good, Hollywood is worried about how the steady uptick in run times will affect their bottom line. After a few truly dismal pandemic years, the industry needs people to come running back to the theaters, and fast. (And it’s serious: These same anxieties, at their most extreme, are what’s fueling the writers and actors strikes currently paralyzing Hollywood.) Cinema purists might see a long film as a sign of a director with something to say. But the suits at the studios see added production costs, marketing challenges, and fewer available showtimes. “The studios are definitely not encouraging three-hour movies—that I can guarantee,” says a senior movie executive. “As a consumer, speaking for myself, and on behalf of many other people like me: enough already!”

As long as Hollywood has been making movies, run times have been a proxy for wars between the competing forces of creativity and cost management. “A long film isn’t just a long film,” says a veteran film publicist. “A long film is money.” All those extra shoots, postproduction work, and original music aren’t cheap, as former Fox president Darryl Zanuck found out back in the early 1960s when Cleopatra came in wildly over budget and just shy of four hours. Decades later, Peter Jackson promised to pay Universal Pictures back for the overages on his three-hour-plus King Kong remake. “I anticipated it would be long, but not this long,” then Universal chairwoman Stacey Snider quipped to The New York Times, after agreeing to release the film at that length.

Grant Singer, a music video director whose first feature, the crime thriller Reptile, will debut on Netflix later this year, tells me that long films have a history of being treated with reverence. Exhibit A: the works of Andrei Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick. But the idea that a contemporary movie could be long, important, and a blockbuster? “It all starts with James Cameron,” he says. “He has proven that you can make hugely successful, global sensations that are three-hour films and people will come to the box office.”

There are legitimate reasons a filmmaker will argue for letting a film breathe, including the fact that many Oscar winners are longer films. But not every three-hour-plus movie ends up being The Godfather. And while audiences might make an exception for Avatar or The Batman, they have their limits. Last fall, for instance, it felt like Hollywood reached a critical mass of long movies. Cate Blanchett was a force of nature in Tár, but the film’s two-hour, 38-minute run time may well have contributed to the fact that it made only $6.7 million domestically. (Even overseas, where audiences are allegedly more sophisticated, it took in just $22.3 million.) And were people staying away from The Fabelmans because the personal story didn’t resonate with casual Steven Spielberg fans, or because they weren’t excited about sitting through a two-hour, 31-minute family drama? By the time the three-hour, nine-minute Babylon bombed at the Christmas box office last year, it became clear that Hollywood’s auteur filmmakers were, as Little Miss Sunshine producer David T. Friendly wrote in a scathing op-ed, “intent on trying the patience” of Oscar voters and audiences alike.

A second studio executive, citing internal data, tells me that moviegoers become increasingly less interested in a movie the longer it is. The drop-off is even more pronounced for parents, who are even more likely to skip out on a movie they’re interested in if it’s longer than two hours. (Extra time means arranging extra childcare, or if you are bringing the kiddos along, enduring even more mindless kids content.) “We joke that the difference between a two-hour, 59-minute movie and a three-hour movie is an hour,” the exec says. “It literally is the decision for people.”

So why have movies become so long? To put it bluntly, as one top agent does, “Because producers have gotten so short.” As the sun set on superproducers like Harvey Weinsteinnicknamed “Harvey Scissorhands,” because he cut the movies he produced with relish—no one rose to take their place. “The ability to work hand-in-glove with a world-class director to shape a movie, very few producers possess that skill or willingness today,” the agent says.

Directors, to extend the metaphor, are getting taller. There are only so many proven hitmakers, but the list of buyers keeps growing with Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and others jumping into the original-film game. On streaming, you don’t have to worry about movie theater showtimes or bathroom breaks—that’s what the pause button is for. Executives are still incentivized to make the best possible movie, but the conversation is a little different if a filmmaker feels strongly that they need those extra five (or 30) minutes. That’s put pressure on the studios to cave to a singular director’s vision. Who wants to be the executive who says no to Scorsese and loses him to Netflix? (Of course, he might still go there anyway—and then jump to Apple.)

One page of a script typically equals about one minute of film. When a director signs on, it’s written into his—and let’s be real, it’s still almost always a “his”—contract how long the film is expected to be and whether he has final cut (a.k.a. approval over the edits). Todd Field had it on Tár; as did Alejandro Iñarritu on Bardo.

Working with a filmmaker who has final cut doesn’t necessarily mean anything goes, though. If a film is running longer than the promised length, producers will encourage cuts. Test screenings can be an important tool in those conversations with particularly self-indulgent directors. One longtime producer suspects that fewer test screenings during the pandemic might have contributed to the glut of two-hour-plus films in recent years. “There’s nothing better to tell you that your movie is too long than looking at a sea of people who are shifting in their seats,” he says. Perhaps that’s why, after Bardo fell flat at the Venice Film Festival, Iñarritu decided to shave 22 minutes from his deeply personal film.

Blum, whose movies tend to be low-cost, under two hours, and popular with moviegoers, gives all his directors final cut, “but that doesn’t mean I’m a wallflower,” he says. “People who finance movies need to have more healthy, creative, real conversations with their filmmakers as opposed to just saying yes. I think the filmmakers want that too. They want partners. They may not listen to the opinion, but they don’t just want to do whatever. They want to have a conversation with people they trust, people who understand what they’re doing.”

There’s an argument to be made that it feels like movies are getting longer because studios now favor the overstuffed, spectacle-fueled films that perform better in theaters. “Casual moviegoing, where you wait until the weekend to pick what to see, has pretty much been supplanted by streaming,” says Erin Brockovich producer Michael Shamberg. “Now when you leave your house to pay to see a movie, you want an emotional sure thing for your time and effort. You also want a bigger experience than streaming a movie in your living room.”

The pandemic, too, seems to have reminded people of the value of a live, in-person experience. How else do you explain the thousands Taylor Swift fans are shelling out to attend her three-hour-plus hour concerts when they could just stream the whole thing for free on TikTok? That doesn’t mean streaming movies can’t be long too—Apple, after all, will be the exclusive streaming home to Killers of the Flower Moon after it has a short theatrical run. But the internet, in its infinity, provides more room for all the rom-coms and mid-budget adult dramas that rarely stand out at the box office these days.

One upside to a long film, of course, is that it lets the movie industry demonstrate that it has something weightier to offer than the videos we scroll through on our phones. When I ask Singer, the director, what he makes of this idea, he ponders for a few seconds. “Perhaps movies now are more of an artifact,” he says. “I mean, it’s still a contemporary medium, but it is a medium that was invented in the past and we’re experiencing it now as, like, a holy thing. Maybe the fact that movies are longer has to do with the fact that we’re trying to protect what makes them unique.”

If that’s the case, you can sign Singer up for the conservation committee. He’s working on a new script at the moment, he tells me. He’s not yet focusing on how long the movie will be, but probably about two-and-a-half hours.

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