Movies: Epic Burnout

More power to film makers can be a pain in the butt to audiences.


Two hours into the Kevin Costner film Wyatt Earp, I wondered if it would ever end. Over an hour later, it did.

One of the most conspicuous trends in movies over the past three years has been the increasing number of very long films: Wyatt Earp, 181 minutes; Wolf, 125 minutes; Clear and Present Danger, 141 minutes; True Lies, 141 minutes; Renaissance Man, 129 minutes; Being Human, 125 minutes; and Color of Night, 121 minutes.

Going back over the past couple of years, we find other examples: The Bodyguard, 130 minutes; Malcolm X, 201 minutes; Scent of a Woman, 157 minutes; Chaplin, 144 minutes; Hoffa, 140 minutes; and Lorenzo's Oil, 135 minutes. There are many others. Todd McCarthy, a critic for the show business trade publication Variety, pointed out this trend three years ago. At that time, he noted, "Now, I automatically perk up upon learning that a film runs just 89 minutes." Today, a movie that short still stands out from the pack.

Most critics who have commented on this trend toward longer movies suggest that film makers today just don't know how to make a tightly focused movie. There's some validity to this argument, but the key factor behind bloated, lengthy films is the increasing economic power of the talent behind them.

When is a long movie too long? Traditionally, theaters have preferred a 90-minute running time. Anything more cuts down on their ability to clear out the theaters and clean up between screenings. Lengths much greater than 90 minutes force theaters to eliminate screenings. A 90-minute film can be shown six times on one full day of screenings. A three-hour film such as Wyatt Earp can be shown only three times on one screen on one working day.

But for the purposes of this article, I'll use a more elusive concept of length. Namely, a film is too long when it isn't tightly focused, when scenes could be cut, when it feels padded. As Harry Cohn, the longtime head of Columbia Pictures, once said, "When my butt begins to hurt, the movie is too long."

Judged by this criteria, Schindler's List was fine at 195 minutes. At 120 minutes, Home Alone 2: Lost in New York could have been seriously trimmed. And even at a mere 87 minutes North was way, way too long.

Now, in some of the instances we have mentioned, the length of the film was a deliberate decision. Wyatt Earp and Malcolm X were supposed to be epics. Yet their stories ultimately did not support the length imposed upon them. At some point, this should have been pointed out to the films' creators. But most of the films listed above were not explicitly trying for epic stature. They were just flabby.

In the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood film making, the business of movie making was a study in vertical integration. Large theater chains owned the major studios. And these studios locked up the major talent with long-term contracts. They were the only game in town, and they exercised tight control over film makers.

If an actor balked at playing a role assigned by the studio, he could be loaned out to the small independent studios, banished to the world of cheap serials and B movies. Or worse, he might be suspended, unable to work and receiving no pay.

Directors often did not have any input into the writing of scripts. They sometimes did not even see them until the day they were to start shooting them. Nor did they have the right to determine the final shape of their films. In fact, they often were not even allowed into the editing rooms where what they had shot was shaped into a film. By that time, the director might be off shooting another movie.

This system was geared toward tight films. Not only because that is what theaters, the ultimate owners in this system, preferred to show, but also because that was what maximized the use of resources. Tighter scripts meant tighter shooting schedules. This in turn allowed studios to rush actors from film to film, amortizing their yearly salaries over several movies.

Off the top of my head, I looked up several films from this era in a movie reference book. Their running times were: The Public Enemy, 84 minutes; Red Dust, 83 minutes; The Bride of Frankenstein, 75 minutes; The Champ, 87 minutes; and Flying Down to Rio, 89 minutes.

But in 1947, the U.S. government busted up the old studio system, forcing the studios to divorce themselves from the theater chains. In addition, television began to draw away a large portion of the cinema audience. Soon the studios could not profitably maintain the contract system. Eventually, actors, directors, and writers became free agents bargaining with studios on per-film employment.

One of the ways that Hollywood responded to those developments was with the production of huge spectacle films that television couldn't emulate. The theaters of the 1950s were filled with epics such as Quo Vadis, The Ten Commandments, and Ben-Hur.

These films were huge in every respect, running well over two hours each and having casts of thousands. At first audiences responded enthusiastically, but as time wore on, size alone was no longer a drawing card. Such epics, with their huge budgets, became riskier projects. And the failure of Cleopatra, which nearly destroyed 20th Century Fox in 1963, brought this cycle of films to an end.

But an even more profound process was taking place, little noticed by movie goers. Behind the scenes in Hollywood, power was slowly but steadily shifting toward the creative elements of film.

At first, though, this didn't make that much difference in the making of films. Studios were still about the only game in town when it came to financing movies, and they were also about the only ones with national distribution systems. So there was still some balance between the business and creative elements; there was some check on artists.

If one looks at the non-spectacle films of the 1950s, one finds that they generally were well-edited and well under two hours in length. Again, picking a few movies at random, I found Father of the Bride was 93 minutes, Cheaper By the Dozen 85 minutes, and Cinderella 74 minutes. More to the point, at whatever length, the movies of this era generally don't seem flabby.

Jumping ahead to the late 1960s, I found some movies slipping when it came to simple length. For example, The Graduate was 105 minutes, Easy Rider was 94 minutes, and Midnight Cowboy was 113 minutes. But again, I dare anyone to find many major studio releases from this era that really fail the Cohn tired butt test.

But in the 1980s, the economics of film making began to change. Videotapes and premium cable channels became viable sources of revenue, making film makers less reliant upon the theater box office for their profits. A host of new media companies sprang up to try to capture these revenues. In addition, privatization and liberalization of media in Europe and other foreign countries revitalized their industries. Those newly empowered companies looked to Hollywood for product for their pipelines.

All of those companies started bidding for the services of star actors, directors, producers, and writers. That demand was expressed in the rapidly escalating salaries for those people. But the creative elements also saw their pay go up in another, less obvious way: They demanded greater control over their product. Top directors and producers now routinely demand, and get, final cut—the right to determine the ultimate shape of a film—as part of their contracts.

If one looks at the long films listed at the beginning of this article, it is quickly apparent that most of them were made by directors with big successes in their past. True Lies, for example, was by James Cameron, the director of the enormously successful Terminator 2 and Aliens.

Indeed, Cameron's career is a good example of how a director's increasing clout can affect the length of his films. His first feature was Piranha II: The Spawning at 88 minutes. Then came The Terminator, 108 minutes. Since then, he hasn't done a film less than 138 minutes long. On the other hand, those films that are made by some of Hollywood's lesser lights—such as Cool Runnings, Candyman, or Benny & Joon—still tend to come in closer to 90 minutes than two hours in length.

Some have even taken advantage of the money flowing into Hollywood to form their own production companies and truly take control of their careers. Rob Reiner, for instance, was one of the founders of Castle Rock, the movie production company recently purchased by Ted Turner. Cameron formed his own company, in part with foreign backing, to retain ownership of his films. As owners, directors obviously have greater control over their final product.

But even where control over the final shape of the film does not explicitly belong to a director or producer, if he has a good record, he still has a lot of leverage. As I noted above, Home Alone 2 was 120 minutes. This film would have been tighter and more geared to the attention spans of its target audience of children at 90 minutes. But the first Home Alone, from the same creative team, grossed something like $200 million. Given that past success, a movie studio might have figured they ought to trust the instincts of the film makers, or alternatively, they may have just been unwilling to jeopardize a successful relationship by criticizing them over a product that would still make money.

Of course, the world of film isn't the only place where such things happen. I defy anyone to read Stephen King's last few novels, bloated works all, and tell me that the man isn't lightly edited. Successful writers may still need a strong editor, but they may not always have one. And this raises an interesting point: Does length really matter, or more accurately, is conciseness really a virtue? After all, Stephen King's novels continue to sell well, even if some of us think they would be much improved if shortened. And some of the films that have been criticized for their overlength—True Lies, for example—have been quite successful at the box office.

The truth is that within certain limits an audience will tolerate a certain slackness in a movie, or book, that they otherwise like. Alternatively, if someone dislikes a movie, the thought that it could have been several minutes shorter isn't likely to impress him. Critics may rail, cineastes may carp, but we are about the only people likely to leave a movie saying, "That was pretty good, but 10 minutes could have been cut from the third act."

Contributing Editor Charles Oliver is a reporter for Investor's Business Daily.