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Long movie runtimes are great for streamers — but they're bad for movie theaters

Jason Guerrasio   

Long movie runtimes are great for streamers — but they're bad for movie theaters

When audiences head to theaters to see "Dune: Part Two," they'll be treated to a cinematic sci-fi epic.

Just as epic? The film's nearly three-hour runtime.

To watch both parts of Denis Villeneuve's two-film adaptation of the first book in Frank Herbert's "Dune" series (the two-hour, 35-minute "Dune" premiered in 2021) you'll need to block off five hours and 20 minutes from your schedule.

In the case of "Dune," a long runtime doesn't seem to be a deterrent for audiences — "Part Two" is already garnering rave reviews from critics, and is poised to invigorate the 2024 box office. But spending over two hours in the multiplex feels like it's becoming an increasingly common occurrence that doesn't always translate into time well spent.

Think about it: Did "The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes" need to be two hours and 37 minutes? Was every minute of Joaquin Phoenix ordering armies into battle in "Napoleon" (two hours and 38 minutes) really necessary? The people love seeing Keanu Reeves kick ass in "John Wick: Chapter 4," but does that become less special after he does it for almost three hours?

Bloated movie runtimes have become so common that Netflix has a "90-minute movies" category for those craving something breezy. And back in 2022, "Saturday Night Live" did a spoof on movie runtimes in which Pete Davidson rapped about needing "Short-Ass Movies" while joking that his movie, "The King of Staten Island," which clocked in at two hours and 17 minutes, "needed all those minutes."

There are a variety of reasons a movie's runtime might be bloated. Maybe an ultra-famous auteur couldn't kill any of his darlings, and he was too powerful for anyone to protest. Maybe the bosses at the streaming service the movie will debut on prize minutes watched as a new metric of success.

"Long movies are fine!" Hollywood seems to be saying.

Movie theater owners, however, disagree.

Long movies are costing movie theaters

For a movie theater, playing a longer movie can often mean fewer showtimes, which in turn means less business coming through the box office.

And if the theater doesn't want to cut down their showtimes, they'll have to pay staff to work longer hours to keep the moviehouse open later.

"Long runtimes are difficult for theater operators," Russell Vannorsdel, the vice president of the Iowa-based chain Fridley Theatres, told Business Insider.

"What you find with these really long movies is in order for the guest to be able to have a lot of available showtimes to work within their schedule, you want as many shows as possible. But even putting it on two screens and being that long, it takes a lot longer to clean auditoriums between shows. All of a sudden, you just don't have very many shows available to your guests."

Of course, long movies aren't new. In the 1950s, biblical tales like "Ben-Hur" and "The Ten Commandments," both of which stretch over three hours, were the blockbusters of their time.

But fast-forward to modern Hollywood, and it seems like every IP-fueled blockbuster is trying to be "Ben-Hur," and is gunning for a runtime to match.

A long movie that's a box-office smash is still financially worth it for a movie theater to show. But a critical and commercial flop like "Argylle" (two hours and 19 minutes), less so.

"It becomes where you ask yourself, where are you making your sacrifice?" Michael Barstow, executive vice president of Main Street Theatres, which operates out of Nebraska and Iowa, told BI. "Is it your 7 p.m. set? Maybe you're pushing your start to 6 p.m. so you can get a 9 p.m. or 9:30. Or you focus on getting a 7 or 7:30 showtime, but then you get a 10 p.m. late show and tank on the 9. That definitely is a thing there. That is more prevalent in our smaller complexes of three or four screens, where we can't have it on multiple screens."

These executives say theaters lose tens of thousands of dollars when screen times are taken away. For an industry that's still trying to recover from the pandemic (The New York Times reported in 2023 that there are about 5,000 theaters running in the US, compared to 5,869 in 2019), it's troubling for business.

Some smaller theaters are thinking outside the box to make a buck.

Josh Frank, known around Austin for his Blue Starlite Drive-In, recently bought The Eastside Cinema, the city's last single-screen movie theater.

At first, he programmed Hollywood titles, including some that had over two-and-a-half-hour runtimes.

"Nobody showed up," he said.

It was when he allowed community organizations to curate his offerings that he found his niche. The only stipulation is they have to choose titles that are under two hours so Frank can have two showings a night on the screen.

"It's working big time, huge," Frank said. "They show documentaries, alternative films, it's galvanized the community to come to the movies and share an experience with their friends."

Theater chains can't be as bold. They can only wait for the successful shorter titles to come around — recent hits "Anyone but You" and "Bob Marley: One Love" were under two hours — and cash in on as many showtimes as possible.

"There's an art to making movies no matter what it is, but to me, there's an even more interesting level of art that you can tell a story and do it successfully in 90 to 120 minutes," Vannorsdel said." "It definitely would benefit movie theaters."

Long movies were once box-office kings. Now they're some of Hollywood's biggest busts.

For a long time, lengthy movies were tolerated because they were successful. Though the industry was up in arms when James Cameron released the three-hour, 15-minute-long "Titanic" in 1997, it went on to become the highest-grossing movie of all time. Well, until Cameraon came out with "Avatar" 12 years later, and that took the crown.

Its runtime? Two hours and 42 minutes.

In between the two Cameron epics were "Lord of the Rings," "Harry Potter" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchises, all of which clocked in at over two hours and were hits.

To put it mildly: The three-hour, 21-minute runtime for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" clearly didn't hinder the film's success — it brought in over $1.1 billion worldwide and went on to win 11 Oscars, including best picture.

But recently, titles with meaty runtimes have fallen flat at the box office.

"Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny," which ran just over two and a half hours, underperformed to the point that Variety reported it lost Disney nearly $100 million. "Argylle," with its $200 million budget, only recently crossed $75 million worldwide. And "The Flash," the movie that confirmed audiences were burned out on superhero movies, was just under two and a half hours and only took in north of $100 million domestically.

"The movie theater experience is unique, and what makes it great is you are a captive audience," Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian told BI. "However, if you're captive for a movie that's too long and you don't like it, that's not any fun."

The complaint that movies are too long has grown louder. But what do the studios have to say about it?

"I have never heard directly from them," Vannorsdel said.

Filmmakers sign a contract with studios promising to make movies at or under two hours — but it's never enforced

BI was able to have a frank conversation on the topic of runtimes with a veteran studio executive, as long as we did not reveal their identity.

The studio exec didn't hold back, admitting that "there's a lack of institutional control" when it comes to studios keeping running times in check. But it's not for lack of trying.

One of the dirty secrets in Hollywood is that every studio has its feature film directors sign a contract stating they will deliver a movie with a runtime at or under two hours.

Unfortunately, those contracts are worth as much as the paper they're printed on.

"I will tell you that depending on the director and depending on the studio, it's probably ignored more than it's enforced," the executive said of the contract.

"That's where it gets really interesting," the exec added. "Do the people who write the checks want to enforce it? And that's where the rubber meets the road."

We are far from the days when larger-than-life studio execs like Jack Warner and David O. Selznick ruled Hollywood with dictator-like control. Today, it's the filmmakers who have the leverage — especially if they have a money-making hit under their belt.

"When you are an established director, and Netflix pays you top shelf and says, 'Go forth, give us your vision,' They love that," the exec said. "That's what complicates things. A director comes to a studio and says, 'Hey, don't fuck with me, I'll go back to making movies at Netflix.'"

The streaming giant has been able to seduce best director Oscar winners like Alfonso Cuarón (2018's "Roma"), the Coen brothers (2018's "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs"), and Guillermo del Toro (2022's "Pinocchio"), but their crown jewel was being the home for Martin Scorsese's long-in-development gangster movie "The Irishman" in 2019.

Its running time: three hours and 29 minutes. (Scorsese's latest, "Killers of the Flower Moon," which has a similar runtime, was financed by Apple and released theatrically by Paramount).

The exec said when production heads ask what runtime will impact the number of showtimes per day, his answer is over two hours and 20 minutes. But he also gives a piece of advice.

"What I say time and time again is don't worry about the running time if it's in service of the story," the exec said. "It's when it's not in service of the story — then you need to worry about the running time. And that's not an unusual situation to be in. I can tell you films that we've released in the last year and yet to be released where we've said, 'We have to find eight minutes to take out of this movie because it needs it.'"

The difference between the "we need to trim it" note in today's Hollywood compared to 15 years ago is the Teflon-like swagger of directors today, the exec said.

"If you have an established director, it's a tough row to hoe, but guess what? That's what studio heads are supposed to be doing," the exec said. "It's a critical part of their job."

When it comes to long runtimes for big titles, the exec doesn't see change coming anytime soon. That means movie theaters will have to adapt.

"I think the audiences have generally proven that if it's the right case or the right filmmaker, they don't care about the length," Barstow from Main Street Theatres said. "We've always come at it as we are going to bend our operations around what people want to see."

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