Shorter Movies, Please! – Puck

A producer’s plea to auteurs (and streamers and “value”-craving audiences) to reconsider run times as both the year-end Oscar contenders and blockbusters try everyone’s patience, even as attention spans are shortening.
Dear Auteurs (you know who you are), I’m writing this because I care deeply about you—we all do—and I only want the very best for your future. Growing up in New York, I spent hours watching your movies, and it was the stories you told so elegantly that inspired me to become a producer. But lately, you have gone down a path that I fear could be dangerous to both you and the audience we both cherish. In short, your movies are too damned long. 
Case in point: On a recent Thursday, my wife and I were headed out the door for a screening of Todd Field’s new film, Tár, at the Academy Museum. The movie has great word of mouth, 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and Cate Blanchett. Before leaving, almost as an afterthought, we checked the running time: 2:40. Nope. Not on a weeknight. 
Listen, this time creep is not something I’m imagining. In 2010, the ten movies nominated for the best picture Oscar ran on average 1:52. By 2019, movies like Ford v. Ferrari (2:32) and Inception (2:28) had pushed that average to 2:20. And it’s not just the prestige movies. In 2021, the top ten performers at the box office averaged a butt-numbing 2:11. 
This year’s crop of Oscar hopefuls seems intent on trying the patience of voters like me. Besides Tár, there’s Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis (2:39), Steven Spielberg’s The Fablemans (2:31), Cannes winner Triangle of Sadness (2:20), the indie hit Everything Everywhere All At Once (2:19), and Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (reportedly 3:08!!). Add in the likely blockbusters Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2:41) and Avatar: The Way of Water (over 3 hours), and I’ll be spending a lot of time with the year-end movies. After Bardo premiered at Telluride at 2:54, Alejandro G. Iñárritu wisely agreed to trim 22 minutes. I have not seen the film yet, but already I applaud his effort.  
Why is this happening? Filmmakers, you know that audience attention spans are shortening, and TikTok is dominating the culture by feeding a constant stream of fast-food shorts. So the idea of making movies that run more than two hours feels like an unforced error. I know, I know: You don’t want anyone telling you how to make your art, especially a producer like me. And you’ve earned that right. But the three-hour movie is not doing you any favors. It’s likely turning customers away, and I feel compelled to take a stand if no one else will. 
Studios used to push back on movies that could be “tightened.” But these days, streamers like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, AppleTV+ and HBO Max don’t pay attention to length the way theatrical distributors once did. If Netflix can book a Martin Scorsese movie with stars (The Irishman: 3:29), letting him run wild on length is a small trade-off. Plus, Netflix is after eyeballs and “time spent” on the platform. Longer movies register more minutes watched on Nielsen. And then, when traditional studios want to compete for your work, they feel they need to fall in line on the creative asks, and conversations about length are buried.  
This dynamic has swung the power pendulum back toward you and away from the financiers and the theater owners, who hate extra-long movies because it reduces the number of daily showtimes. I’m sure that feels good. But no one does their best work in a vacuum, and making yourself sheriff, judge, and jury of your own movie is a mistake.  
Almost all the projects I’ve produced were pre-screened multiple times in numerous locales to gauge audience response. After these tests, a focus group let us know where the movie dragged or felt too fast, what worked and didn’t. Often, we then cut the length. Many of you bristle at this “research”—it feels like an affront to your creative choices. But you alone are not always the best arbiter of how your movie is playing.  
Another reason for these cinematic marathons is that when studios are making tentpoles, they often believe audiences want more “value” on the screen. In an article earlier this year, Sarah Atkinson, professor of screen media at King’s College, in London, said a lengthy experience is “all part of trying to incentivize moviegoers to go out and pay for a ticket.”   
She may be right about some younger audiences. Kids relish multiple endings and extended set pieces. But I just don’t have the appetite (or the bladder) for Zack Snyder’s four-hour-plus cut of Justice League. Come on. 
Research also tells us that older audiences (like me) are more likely to forgive longer running times. “Those of us who grew up without devices have more patience,” Kevin Goetz, C.E.O. of Screen Engine/ASI, told me. But only up to a point. “If the payoff is not there, we are apt to be more frustrated.” A non-industry friend in D.C. put it this way: “I always check the running time. If it’s longer than 2:20, it needs to have spectacular word of mouth. Otherwise, I’ll just wait to see it on my 60-inch TV at home.” 
We can all cite favorite movies that ran long. I loved every minute of The Godfather Part II  (3:42) and it deserved its best picture Oscar. David Lean was famous for making longer movies, and few would dispute the playability of an epic like Lawrence of Arabia
That’s the problem, though; everyone thinks their movie is the exception that justifies the length. Recently, I had the chance to revisit another Francis Ford Coppola classic, Apocalypse Now. Coppola released a 4K “Final Cut” version that ran more than 3 hours. The re-release still resonates. But part of what added considerable length to this cut was a 25-minute plantation scene, mostly in French, that was shaved from the studio release. Now I understand why it was excised; it was long and did not advance the story.
I know I’m not the first person to complain to you about long movies. But if Einstein was right and the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, then all of us must finally recognize the problem and do something about it. Studio and streamer execs: please speak up. Don’t be enablers or co-dependents.  
And filmmakers, next time you want to tell that long story, maybe do it as a limited series. The market is robust for those, and you might find that audiences—and critics, too—are more likely to embrace your work. For those of you that do make films, you should consider trimming the length as a badge of honor, a sign that you can tell your story in a satisfying way that both conveys your art and respects the viewer’s time. That is an Oscar-worthy skill. Remember what the French philosopher/mathematician Blaise Pascal famously said: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”  
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