Films today are longer than they’ve ever been and in almost every case, unnecessarily so. In early Hollywood, up to 1960 or so, films were either roughly 90 minutes or they were ‘epics’ such as Gone With the Wind or Ben Hur. Nowadays, it’s difficult to find anything under 100 minutes, even comedies. One of the beauties of cinema is its ever-changing approach to filmmaking, yet this added length is one of the many reasons why films today simply aren’t as good as they used to be.
In terms of storytelling, there is rarely an excuse for making a film more than 100 minutes. The best-plotted films manage to do it in far less. 12 Angry Men from 1957 is a testament of how a great story, with complex characters, can achieve classic status with a short running time. Earlier, Film Noirs, often borrowing from the supreme storyteller, Raymond Chandler, manage to fit in multiple crimes, femme fatales, dark, shadowy liaisons in underground bars, alcoholic detectives and suchlike into 80 minutes or so. Hitchcock’s early output followed this same set of principles. Hitchcock often adapted books and managed to get to the heart of a story in a short running time. Scenes were never wasted. The plot and the character development were intertwined.
Yet with the action and superhero genres so prevalent today, there seems to be a trend in making films more than two hours long. The recent Captain America ran for 130 minutes, The Amazing Spiderman 2 was 125 minutes, and both were far too long. Both had very laboured, expensive action sequences and dreary first acts. The Transformers franchise seems to get longer with each instalment too.
Reasons for this added length are complex so forgive me for hypothesising. I think a massive reason is the popularity of television shows, which are generally of far higher quality. Breaking Bad episodes last around 47 minutes and True Detective lasts for 57. It is possible that film studios are trying to separate themselves from these phenomena in quality, to avoid comparison.
Also, the budgetary increases that accompany such huge films have to be taken into account. Flagship films usually have at least $100 million for a budget. Length is often substituted for substance, and this is not a quirk of modern times either, with Cleopatra from 1963 being guilty too. With a 130-minute film, the movie becomes an event, something that people might want to plan their days around seeing.
You’ll notice that none of these reasons concern the best way to tell the story. This is because unless a film is based on a long novel or has its own particular aesthetic reasons for being two hours plus, then it is never correct. In Captain America, the first thirty minutes are for introducing all the characters and their situations. In a Film Noir, this would have been done with a two-minute scene.
How often do you leave a film and think ‘that was half an hour too long’? The new Godzilla has had this attributed to it in many reviews so far. Fifty years ago, films were often shown in double bills, which meant that they couldn’t be too long. Nowadays, this is very rare and instead we have longer films of reduced quality.
It is all very ironic, considering the advice given to aspiring screenwriters. They are told to condense everything and leave out anything that is unnecessary. Yet this is simply not the way most films are made anymore. Editing has become undervalued and overlooked in favour of bigger budgets and bigger set pieces. The 90-minute film has become a rarity, almost an oddity, even though its running time could improve most films.