A Brief Overview of Movie Lengths
Today, we’re going to look at average movie length over time in order to answer the question, ‘are movies getting longer?’
We’ll have that answer for you soon enough, but first, we’d like to give a brief overview of film runtimes.
There are a number of factors, both past and present, that have influenced what could be considered standard runtimes for movies released in theaters.
In the early days of film, there were technically limitations for how much film could be shown at one time, since physical film reels needed to be loaded into a projector to show a full film to an audience.
Naturally, studios wanted to keep movies at a reasonable length. Not only would this cut down on costs, but it would also increase the chances that audience members would actually pay attention to each movie and come away with positive feelings about it.
But it wasn’t in studios’ best interest to release films that were too short, either, as it might result in audiences thinking that they weren’t getting their money’s worth at the theater.
On top of all that, we have the Academy, the organization behind the Oscars. The Academy has minimum length requirements for feature films. Surprisingly, the Academy says that any film over 40 minutes qualifies as a feature, while the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) requires that feature films be 75 minutes or longer.
There are a number of reasons why the producers and studio behind a film would want their movie to qualify, officially, as a feature film. Most obviously, it means that the movie is then eligible to be nominated for awards, and basically every movie wants to at least be eligible for these awards.
Additionally, audience attention span needs to be taken into consideration, especially these days.
Personally, we feel that certain movie genres have a harder time supporting a long runtime. For example, imagine watching a three-hour comedy movie with a thin premise and weak characters.
The movie can still be funny, but it’s going to be tough for audiences to really stay engaged for the full runtime.
Also, consider children’s movies. If you have kids of your own, then you already know how difficult it can be to get them to just sit down and watch a movie for 90 minutes, let alone 120.
And on top of all that other stuff, directors and editors and producers all get a say when it comes to runtime, and they need to consider what’s best for the story they’re telling.
This is just a brief overview of the factors that come into play when a movie’s runtime is being decided.
Now it’s finally time to look at average movie lengths over the years and find out whether movies have actually been getting longer over time.
Looking at the Data
The data we’ll be referring to in this article was not generated or compiled by us, but rather by the folks over at Towardsdatascience.com, who did a great job scraping relevant data from IMDb to plot out a graph of average movie runtime by year.
As the article itself admits, there’s room for error here, and this is not definitive data by any means, but it does give us a good general idea of average movie length over time.
Based on what we’ve seen from other questions and posts online, quite a few people seem to feel that movies (they’re most likely referring to wide-release Hollywood movies) have been getting longer in recent years.
The movie runtime graph does technically support this. Yes, on average, according to this dataset, movies are slightly longer, on average, than they have been, on average, in previous years and previous decades.
Having looked around for similar graphs and data sites from other sources as well, the trend seems to be fairly steady.
Yes, movies are a bit longer on average, but it hasn’t been a dramatic increase at all. But we do have a theory as to why many people have gotten the impression that movies are significantly longer now than they used to be.
This theory of ours is entirely unscientific, so please take it with a grain of salt, or even a whole carton, just make sure to watch your sodium intake.
Our guess is that people have gotten the general impression that movies are longer now because the movies they have in mind are some of the biggest Hollywood movies, the most epic movies that do indeed have pretty hefty runtimes.
Especially when it comes to franchise movies, Hollywood flicks can really get long in the tooth.
Many of the Harry Potter film adaptations easily went well over two hours, even early on in the series, before all the crazy world-threatening nonsense.
Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations are worth mentioning here as well. Even the theatrical cuts of these movies are loooong, with the final installment of the trilogy, The Return of the King, weighing in at 201 minutes; that’s well over three hours long, which is pretty ambitious for a theatrical release, even in a fantasy series.
Lastly, we have the mainline Marvel movies. It’s no secret that these movies have been incredibly popular with general audiences, especially in the years since the franchise started to ramp up to its (initial?) conclusion.
Infinity War was a solid two and a half hours long, and the follow-up, Endgame, was just over three hours.
We think that these big tentpole movies tend to stick around in audiences’ memories much longer than, say, some one-off comedy movie they watched in March.
And so, when looking back on recent movies, they’ll probably arrive at these massive blockbusters, almost all of which are quite long.
If it’s not clear already, this is sort of a complicated topic, and we definitely don’t have all the answers, but we hope this article has been an interesting look into movie runtimes, and if you’re interested in the topic, we highly recommend that you continue researching online, as there are just so many great resources for learning about the history of film, especially here in the United States.