Is There an Ideal Movie Length?

Michael Blann/iStock via Getty Images
Michael Blann/iStock via Getty Images

In the numerous box office post-mortems that came in the wake of Doctor Sleep, the Warner Bros. follow-up to 1980's The Shining, entertainment industry analysts cited its runtime as one reason the Stephen King adaptation failed to find its footing with viewers in 2019. Projected to earn $30 million on its opening weekend, the two-hour-and-31-minute film apparently kept moviegoers with short attention spans at bay, grossing just $14 million.

But was that really the case? Another King adaptation, It: Chapter Two, came in at nearly three hours and was a major success, making nearly $500 million worldwide after being released in September 2019. Can a movie’s critical and commercial success really be determined by its running time?

For an answer, it helps to understand why filmmakers have, according to data scientist Dr. Randal Olson, seemed to settle in a sweet spot of between 90 and 120 minutes for many major motion pictures. Back in the earliest days of film exhibition, theaters were sent reels in canisters that had to be swapped out by projectionists, with each reel lasting between 11 and 20 minutes. This change was often done manually, which was hard on the projectionists. Theater owners also preferred shorter films, so they could schedule more screenings per day—and thereby make more money. As a result, movies usually weren't longer than two hours.

That changed between the 1930s and 1960s, when theaters and studios were feeling threatened by the advent of television. With attendance dropping, studios felt compelled to make movies more of an event experience, expanding the aspect ratio to a sprawling 1:85:1 or 2:35:1 widescreen format—early films were a boxy 4:3—and offering longer films to help consumers justify a night out at the movies. Epics like 1959’s Ben-Hur (three hours, 44 minutes) and 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia (three hours, 48 minutes) were hits despite their length. During this period, movies gained an average of 30 minutes in their running times, and often had intermissions about two-thirds of the way through.

From 1970 to 1985, however, things changed. With the threat of television fading, movies shrunk by an average of 10 minutes. One theory for the shrinkage is that movies became shorter to fit the standard storage capacity of VHS cassettes, which were increasing in popularity at the time. Ever since, movies have largely remained stable at the sub-120 minute run times, with the average length for a movie in 2018 coming in at a breezy 96.5 minutes.

Even individual shots in movies have shrunk: The length of the average shot before cutting away has fallen from 12.5 seconds in 1930 to 2.5 seconds as of 2010.

Bet_Noire/iStock via Getty Images

The late film critic Roger Ebert observed this trend, writing in 1992 that a filmgoer’s subconscious had started to expect films to come in no longer than two hours. But he also argued that the idea that films used to be truncated wasn’t always so. Early screenings, after all, featured cartoons, short features, news reels, and other entertainment that could keep people in their seats for hours. Now, recommending a film over that barrier usually leads to complaining. (Try it: Tell a friend a movie you like is nearly three hours long. Watch their eyelids get heavy.)

Is a runtime of under two hours really something we’ve been conditioned to prefer? Some moviegoers think so. A 2015 survey of 1647 British movie fans reported that 55 percent found a movie under two hours to be preferred. But that may depend on the genre. Comedies average 90 minutes in length; dramas tend to run longer. The average running time of a Best Picture winner from 2000 to 2016 was 131 minutes. Which makes it seem as though audiences are willing to accept films running longer if they perceive them as more serious.

Exhibitors still have a say in movie length, too. Longer films tend to mean fewer screenings per day, which means reduced profits. It also means long films get sub-optimal screening times during the day. Ideally, a film should be screened around 8 or 9 p.m. to afford people a chance to see it at a convenient hour. If a film is under two hours, it can also screen at 5:30 and 10:30. But if it’s creeping toward three hours, that means other showtimes begin much earlier or much later than moviegoers prefer. Not many people will opt for a three-hour epic that begins at 11 p.m.

But exhibitors are outside forces motivated by financial interests. At home, there’s no such concern, which would make an entity like Netflix perfect for evaluating audience preferences. The service is famous for analyzing viewership data, which informs many of their acquisition and original programming choices. So what’s the average length of a Netflix-produced film? As of 2017, roughly 97 minutes long—about the average length of all movies in 2018.

While there are always exceptions—Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic The Irishman is three hours and 30 minutes, Quentin Tarantino’s lauded Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is two hours and 41 minutes, and Avengers: Endgame, the highest grossing film of all time, is nearly three hours—such seat-squirming lengths are usually reserved for filmmakers who have earned the confidence of the audience. Seeing a new Scorsese film run long might be a cause for celebration. After viewing, you may think it impossible to be as satisfied if an hour had been hacked from it. But if a first-time director releases a nearly four-hour film, you may be more inclined to skip it.

In the end, it might be best to follow Ebert’s rule of thumb: “Bad movies are always too long," he wrote, "but good movies are either too short, or just right.”

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8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas

“No one fears Santa the way they fear Belsnickel.” - Dwight Schrute.
“No one fears Santa the way they fear Belsnickel.” - Dwight Schrute.
The Office/Youtube

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Year's Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: The punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names.

1. Krampus

A Krampus figure in Heimstetten, Germany.FooTToo/iStock via Getty Images

As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on the region and what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. In recent years, the tradition has spread beyond Europe, and many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.

2. Jólakötturinn

A representation of Jólakötturinn in Iceland.Atli Harðarson, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat; in fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this was mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores. A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

3. Frau Perchta

A Bohemian depiction of Frau Perchta from 1910.Wikimedia // Public Domain

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.

4. Belsnickel

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.

5. Hans Trapp

Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.

6. Père Fouettard

The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.

7. The Yule Lads

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls, that is.

8. Grýla

All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this list originally ran in 2013.