Brian Viner: Why are modern movies so bum-numbingly long

Why are today’s films so bottom-numbingly long? BRIAN VINER reveals why directors (and writers) are keener on indulging themselves and flexing their egos than serving their audiences

The first James Bond film, Dr No, was released 60 years ago this year. President John F. Kennedy requested a private screening in the White House, which kept him away from running the country for an hour and 49 minutes. At the time, sword-and-sandals epics aside, that counted as a pretty long film.

If, by contrast, Joe Biden had asked to see the latest Bond movie, No Time To Die, he’d have needed to take two hours and 43 minutes out of his busy schedule.

The point is that cinematic story-telling has become a great deal flabbier since 1962, and has reached ridiculous levels in recent years, with directors (and writers) keener on indulging themselves and flexing their egos than serving their audiences.

JFK watched Dr No in the White House and needed an hour and 49 minutes  – which in 1962 was a long movie. If Joe Biden wanted to watch No Time To Die he’d have needed to take two hours and 43 minutes out of his busy schedule

House Of Gucci — about the murder of the fashion titan Maurizio Gucci by his ex-wife Patrizia — lasted two hours and 38 minutes, roughly the duration of a train journey from London to Newcastle

The worst miscreants are the big-name directors, because too few studio executives will stand up to them and order a cut.

Sir Ridley Scott’s recent House Of Gucci is a good example. At the London premiere, the picture’s star, Lady Gaga, wore a spectacular purple Gucci frock with an extravagantly long train. It looked great from the front, but went on for ever at the back. That symbolised the film perfectly.

House Of Gucci — about the murder of the fashion titan Maurizio Gucci by his ex-wife Patrizia — lasted two hours and 38 minutes, roughly the duration of a train journey from London to Newcastle.

It should have stopped at Darlington. With half an hour or so taken out, it would have been a much better film.

But the producer was Giannina Facio, whose husband of almost seven years is . . . Sir Ridley Scott. For all we know she might tell him to cut his toenails, but apparently lets him keep his movies as long as he likes.

The irony is that before Scott made films he made TV commercials, such as the famous 1973 Hovis advert with the delivery boy pushing his bike up a steep hill. Back then, he understood the art of rigorously concise story-telling. Even his 1982 sci-fi classic, Blade Runner, came in at under two hours.

Psycho by Alfred Hitchcock, in 1960, one hour, 49 mins

Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 classic Reservoir Dogs was one hour, 39 minutes

But fast-forward 40 years and it’s a different, much longer story. Before Gucci came The Last Duel, Scott’s film about a rape accusation in medieval France, with Matt Damon and Jodie Comer.

That, too, lasted more than two-and-a-half hours. Scott, 84, is a wonderful film-maker with some seminal movies to his name. But that shouldn’t mean he is allowed to do exactly what he wants.

Of course, there have always been long films, and there are still succinct films. Next week sees the release of Belfast, Sir Kenneth Branagh’s beguiling autobiographical drama about a boy growing up in The Troubles. It won Best Screenplay at last weekend’s Golden Globes, and is among the front-runners for Best Picture at the Oscars. But here’s one more crucial detail: it only lasts 97 minutes. Branagh tells his tale with huge charm and, just as importantly, admirable economy.

Regrettably, too many celebrated directors have forgotten that economy matters. Perhaps as giants of the business, they feel an obligation to make gigantic films.

Another offender is Martin Scorsese. His 2019 film for Netflix, The Irishman, about a Philadelphia mobster played by Robert De Niro, lasts an almighty three-and-a-half hours. In parts, it is like watching a concrete overcoat dry.

It’s true that Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 masterpiece The Godfather lasts only just under three hours. But it never drags. Every frame, every line of dialogue, moves the story forward.

Even Michael Curtiz’s 1942 movie Casablanca  is one hour, 42 mins

That doesn’t happen any more, or at least, not nearly enough. So why are films getting longer and longer? According to Scottish director Jon S. Baird, whose delightful 2018 picture Stan & Ollie, about Laurel and Hardy, was another little gem of brevity, it all starts with the script.

‘I think there’s not as much attention given to scripts as there used to be,’ he says. One reason for that is most features nowadays are shot on digital video rather than film.

‘Before, when you were shooting on film, you had to be very disciplined because it was so expensive,’ says Baird. ‘Everything you shot had to be of value, and a 35mm magazine of film would last only so long before it ran out.

‘But digital will record for ever. So now, when you shoot on video, you can do take after take after take.’ But there are many other factors in play, including test screenings falling out of favour.

Some directors these days are apparently too powerful and too arrogant to allow their films to be judged by a random audience, even though there are countless examples of test screenings making great films greater.

For some, James Cameron’s 1997 epic Titanic seemed to last as long as the ill-fated voyage itself, but had it not been for test screenings, the movie would have required even more bladder-control.

Cameron cut no fewer than ten scenes after they tested badly and reaped 11 Academy Awards.

If there were more test screenings now, this dispiriting trend of ever-lengthening movies would surely be curtailed. After all, look at television. There are single hour-long episodes of great dramas such as the HBO hit Succession, with a coherent beginning, middle and end, that could almost be satisfying little films in their own right.

They are made with greater discipline than feature films largely because they have to fill a time slot. The movies we see at cinemas are subject to no such constraint which should be a positive, but is all too often a negative.

But then TV is part of the problem, too. With so much fantastic drama available to us in our living-rooms, especially since the advent of subscription streaming services, cinema releases are getting longer in the mistaken belief that if we are to be persuaded to leave home we need more bang for our buck.

In fact we need less bang, ideally for fewer bucks. Data released this week suggests that Britain is currently the tenth most expensive country to go to the pictures.

Encouragingly, the cinema industry has survived existential crises before, not least when TV became a mass-medium in the 1950s. If it is to do so again, especially after the devastating blow dealt by the pandemic, then directors need to be less self-indulgent, and to stop assuming their wares are worth quite so much of our time.

The seemingly unstoppable surge of superhero movies over the past decade hasn’t helped. Marvel’s 2019 behemoth Avengers: Endgame lasted more than three hours and has so far made more than $2.7 billion at the global box office.

All the major studio executives like the sound of that equation, and appear to have concluded that we all like sitting on our backsides so much that we’ll do it, interminably, even for films that aren’t about saving the galaxy.

Jon Baird, however, prefers the sound of another, much simpler equation. ‘If you can’t tell a yarn to your pals in five minutes down the pub you shouldn’t be a film-maker. Because making films is just an extended version of that discipline . . . that’s what it’s all about.’

Unquestionably, he’s right. Sixty years ago in Dr No, Sean Connery’s James Bond observed that ‘our asylums are full of people who think they’re Napoleon, or God’.

It would be a little unfair to suggest that modern-day editing-suites are, too. But we need film-makers more willing to prioritise our entertainment over their own egos. Otherwise, cinema as we know it could be finished. 

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