On Dec. 28, 1895, Louis and Auguste Lumière staged the first exhibition of a moving picture for a paying audience. On Dec. 29, the first person complained that it was too long. Sure, The Arrival of a Train at la Ciotat Station ran only 47 seconds, and it made such an impression on 19th-century audiences that, according to legend, spectators fled the room for fear of being crushed by an oncoming locomotive as it hurtled toward the Lumières’ camera. But spending almost an entire minute watching the train pull past the camera still felt like the height of artistic indulgence. By the fourth or fifth car, surely the point had been made.
This story, to be clear, is no truer than the myth about the Lumières’ audiences running from the screen. (The Arrival of a Train wasn’t even part of that first public screening.) But if the history of people inveighing against movies’ length postdates the history of the movies themselves, it can’t be by much. For as long as I’ve been aware that people wrote about movies, they have been writing that they needed to be shorter. Under the heading “Bloated Movies,” a 1992 Entertainment Weekly article pointed out that “running times have stretched from an average of 90 minutes in the 1930s to 121 minutes today,” and in 2006, the New York Times took aim at such “needlessly long” movies as Brokeback Mountain and The New World. In the past few months, the Los Angeles Times and Vanity Fair have mounted their own investigations into why, to quote the latter, movies have gotten “sooooo long,” and a couple of weeks ago, the director Alexander Payne laid down the law: “There are too many damn long movies these days.”
The evidence that movies are actually getting longer doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Last month, an Economist article headlined “Why Films Have Become So Ridiculously Long” found that running times had risen by 24 percent on average, but it glossed over the fact that the vast majority of that increase happened in the first few decades of the sound era. From 1960 on, the trend is virtually flat. A data science blogger ran the numbers a few years ago and came to the same conclusion, more honestly phrased: “For the last 60 years, movies on average have [been] the same length.”
But if movies aren’t actually getting longer, it at least, as CNN argued last year, feels as if they are, right? One verifiable trend is that, over the past 20 years and especially the past 10, the box office has been increasingly dominated by longer films. In 1993 the average length of the top 10 movies in the U.S. was only a hair over two hours. At this point in 2023, it’s a whopping 2 hours and 23 minutes—longer than all but one of 1993’s box-office champs. The 1989 version of The Little Mermaid ran 83 minutes; the 2023 remake lasts 135. The movies we’re seeing the most actually are longer, and by quite a bit, than they were not so long ago. But the running-time police tie themselves in knots to avoid the obvious conclusion: The reason the most popular movies are getting longer is because those are the movies the most people pay to see.
It’s too simplistic to say that Hollywood is simply giving the people what they want. The industry has always been adept at learning the lessons it wants to learn and ignoring the rest. But at the very least, there’s no obvious penalty for making a movie that runs a little over. The physical constraints that used to make the exhibition and distribution of longer movies more expensive no longer apply: fewer showtimes on a given day mean fewer tickets, but that’s less of an issue when the movie is playing on multiple screens and you no longer have to factor in the cost of manufacturing and shipping larger and heavier film prints. According to a 2021 poll, more than half of moviegoers who seek out a movie’s length in advance will have second thoughts about going if they know it’s over two and a half hours. But the same poll also concluded that nearly half of moviegoers don’t make a habit of checking running times at all. You have to go nine slots down the list of the 10 highest-grossing movies of all time to find one that’s under two hours, and the top four are all over 2 hours and 40 minutes. If some viewers are being driven away by these films’ length, many more are either indifferent to or attracted by it.
Size isn’t Hollywood’s most subtle way of conveying a movie’s importance, but it is one of its most time-honored and effective. Advertisements for the lavish epics of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille emphasized the grandeur of their spectacle, and for 20 years beginning in the 1950s, studios used roadshow presentations, including printed programs, reserved seating, and overtures, to amplify the power of the big screen and stave off the growing threat posed by television. Although a handful of roadshow movies put the extra resources to good use (Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey among them), many of them now seem vacant and bloated, but the message that this was a special experience, one worth more than the price of a regular ticket, got through to the audience anyway.
Because they often stretched well over three hours, the roadshow presentations usually featured a break between the first and second acts, and as the big-budget spectacles that are their modern-day equivalent have regained their dominance, the cries to bring back the intermission are renewed on a regular basis. Most recently, the alarm has been raised over Martin Scorsese’s 3-hour-and-26-minute Killers of the Flower Moon. When its running time was announced, months before anyone had the chance to see it, the Observer’s chief film critic was quick to label it as the latest example of cinematic “manspreading,” lumping it in with three-hour-plus movies like Avatar: The Way of Water as “another example of men taking up space just because they can.” It didn’t matter what Scorsese did with all those minutes—or that he has worked for decades with the legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who is not known for leaving any fat on the bone—the movie, whatever it was, was simply too long.
If Scorsese and Schoonmaker wouldn’t trim back their movie to a more manageable length, there was only that one solution: Add an intermission. “We had a lot of customers who said they felt intimidated by the length,” Tim Richards, the head of the British theater chain Vue, told the Guardian, “but when they found out we had an interval, they signed up.” Still, after a theater in Colorado tried the same thing, it got a notice from the film’s distributors pointing out that its contract requires it to exhibit the film unmodified, which includes not inserting any pauses. (Often overlooked in this debate: Most theaters don’t want to have intermissions, which lengthen showtimes further without adding to the bottom line.)
The reaction, as with most things that involve Martin Scorsese and the internet, was extremely normal. Forcing theaters to show the film uninterrupted was snobby, ableist, and a slew of other unforgivable sins. Despite the fact Killers runs only 24 minutes more than Avengers: Endgame and 14 longer than The Way of Water—and is roughly the same length as any given show on Taylor Swift’s “Eras” tour—the idea that he would expect people to sit in their seats for nearly three and a half hours was taken as a crime against not just nature but biology itself. It’s one thing for Scorsese to be anti-Marvel. Now he’s anti-pee?
Without getting into the size of individual people’s bladders, I would gently suggest that neither length nor bathroom breaks are the core issue here. When the subject of intermissions came up with The Way of Water, it was framed mostly as a joke, and James Cameron treated it as such. (“Here’s the big social paradigm shift that has to happen,” Cameron suggested, “it’s okay to get up and go pee.”) But Scorsese, whose movie addresses an especially noxious episode in American history, dared to be sincere. “I say to the audience out there, if there is an audience for this kind of thing, ‘Make a commitment. Your life might be enriched.’ ” The reason there’s no intermission in Killers of the Flower Moon isn’t because Scorsese wants to try his audience’s patience. It’s because the movie concerns a string of brutal, racist murders, and the violence needs to feel both mundane and unrelenting. An intermission is an escape valve, and you shouldn’t be able to escape.
Of course, you can get up and pee during Killers of the Flower Moon, the same way you can nip out for popcorn or to check your email or just stay in your seat and let your mind wander. A movie can solicit your attention, but it can’t compel it. It’s true that Killers isn’t much longer than the average football game or an evening’s worth of Grey’s Anatomy episodes, but it requires a different level of, to use Scorsese’s word, commitment. If you miss a touchdown, you can always catch the replay, and there’s plenty of time between possessions to do with your body whatever you’d like. Even a movie like Endgame or The Way of Water hews close enough to formula that you can piece together what happened while you were gone. Taking a break from Killers’ depiction of a historical atrocity feels different, and it should. The good news, so to speak, is that within a few months, the movie will be yours to do with as you please, to pause, to fast-forward, to throw on while you’re folding laundry, and none of Paramount’s lawyers will be able to do a thing. I’ve seen Killers of the Flower Moon twice in theaters without so much as a tinkle, and I’d still be hard-pressed to get through it at home without taking some sort of break. Movie theaters are one of the few remaining places where it’s possible, at least under ideal circumstances, to do one thing and one thing only for hours at a time. It’s worth crossing your legs to keep it that way.