The Long Game: Super-Sized Movies Are Testing the Patience of Audiences

Netflix
'The Irishman'

'It: Chapter Two' may have left money on the table with a nearly three-hour running time as Martin Scorsese's 'The Irishman' and other fall films require two-hour-plus sits.

Movie theater owners may want to consider resurrecting intermissions.

A decade ago, the top 10 movies of summer 2009 had an average running time of 116 minutes. In summer 2019, that stat soared to 125 minutes as Hollywood studios sought to keep filmmakers happy and lure audiences from their homes with supersized visual effects extravaganzas.

Avengers: Endgame, the summer's top-grossing film and the biggest release of all time (not adjusted for inflation), clocked in at a whopping 182 minutes. And Once Upon a Time in Hollywood pushed past the 160 minute mark. In 2018, the average running length of the top 10 films for the full year was 132 minutes, creeping up from the 129-minute average in 2017.

"It seems that movies are indeed getting longer, and not just the more esoteric or epic historical fare that traditionally has gotten the long-form treatment," says box office analyst Paul Dergarabedian of Comscore.

In fact, audiences should watch their liquids intake "to sit through an entire film without a mad sprint to the restroom and back," Dergarabedian adds, as horror movies (It: Chapter Two), superhero fare (Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home) and literary adaptations (this weekend’s The Goldfinch) strap viewers in for a long ride.

And there may be a financial cost. Over the Sept. 6-8 weekend, New Line and director Andy Muschietti’s It: Chapter Two opened to $91 million domestically, a 26 percent decline from the first It, which debuted to $123.4 million on the same weekend in 2017. The sequel ran a hefty 169 minutes, 34 minutes longer than its predecessor.

"Andy had a lot of story to tell in concluding his adaptation of Stephen King’s book, which is more than 1,100 pages," says Jeff Goldstein, chief of distribution for Warner Bros., New Line's parent. "We strategically added more shows and locations to counterbalance losing a show on each screen."

Adds a rival studio executive regarding It: Chapter Two, "look, $91 million is a great number. But anytime the second film in a hoped-for franchise goes down — and not up — that's not what you wish for. And I do think the fact that it was so long didn't help."

In defense of It: Chapter Two's longer runtime, Goldstein points to Disney's wildly successful Endgame, which earned $2.8 billion at the global box office, including more than $858 million in North America. "There is no question that opening weekend grosses are often hampered by movies with long running times that by their nature have fewer showings per day and thus have a tougher time breaking records," Dergarabedian says. Unless, he adds, "as we've seen on rare occasions, theaters create a special circumstance by adding uncommon overnight showings. Avengers: Endgame was the perfect example of this."

The top-grossing films of the past three years at the global box office have all had running times of well more than two hours; Avengers: Infinity War (149 minutes), Star Wars: The Last Jedi (152 minutes) and Captain America: Civil War (146 minutes).

And it's not just the sci-fi and action blockbusters that were supersized this summer.

A24's July horror pic Midsommar, written and directed by Ari Aster, ran 147 minutes and has earned $27 million to date, compared to the 127-minute runtime of the filmmaker's 2018 horror Hereditary, which earned $44 million at the box office.

And then there's the return of auteur Quentin Tarantino, this time pairing Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. With an impressive running time of 161 minutes, the Sony Pictures flick has earned $310 million to date globally, and will soon pass up Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds to rank as the filmmaker's second-highest grossing film behind Django Unchained ($425.4 million), not adjusted for inflation. Django sported a run time of 165 minutes, while Inglourious ran 153 minutes.

Box office analyst Jeff Bock of Exhibitor Relations doesn't believe a movie's length is a factor in its box-office performance. "Longform is fine as long as you can justify it," he says.

"There's no magic number," adds former Fox distribution chief Chris Aronson. "If a movie is more than 2:20 [140 minutes], it will likely cost you a showtime per screen. But if the director's vision is beautiful and dynamic, then it doesn't matter."

Disney — which commands more than 44 percent of global marketshare so far this year — isn't afraid to go past the two-hour mark for its live-action fare, particularly when it comes to Marvel's superhero movies. Among titles from Disney Studios proper, Guy Ritchie's live-action Aladdin, starring Will Smith, ran 128 minutes, while its all-star virtual production The Lion King was just shy of that at 118 minutes.

While summer has come to an unceremonious end — revenue was down 2 percent year-over-year — the trend for longer runtimes isn't showing signs of slowing down as Hollywood gears up for a fall slate stacked with supersized awards-worthy offerings.

At an estimated 210 minutes, or three and a half hours, Martin Scorsese's Netflix mob drama The Irishman easily eclipses the 180-minute runtime of his 2013 Oscar-nominated The Wolf of Wall Street to mark the longest narrative feature of his career. The Irishman will screen exclusively in select theaters for four weeks beginning Nov. 1, and may test the bounds of consumer patience.

In fact, a slew of awards contenders run well past two hours, including Bong Joon-ho's acclaimed black horror-comedy Parasite (132 minutes), Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story (136 minutes) that stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as a couple going through a harrowing breakup, Destin Daniel Cretton's civil rights legal drama Just Mercy (136 minutes), David Michod's period epic The King (133 minutes) and James Mangold's racing car biopic Ford v. Ferrari (152 minutes).

In recent times, the average length of an Oscar best picture nominee has hovered around the two-hour mark. Now, that average is on the rise. Among last year's class, best picture winner Green Book was 130 minutes, while longer best picture nominees included Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman (135 minutes), A Star Is Born (136 minutes) and Roma (135 minutes). In the past decade, the longest best picture winner was Fox Searchlight's 12 Years a Slave at 134 minutes.

"In a perfect world for theater owners, every movie would be an hour and a half to two hours," says Wall Street analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners. "But in reality, the most important thing is the film. If the story needs to be more than two hours, that's what matters. You want people to have a good experience." 

Sept 12, 8:45 a.m. A previous version of this story had the incorrect North American gross for Avengers: Endgame. THR regrets the error.