Are films really getting longer? We ask the expert

Zack Snyder’s Justice League: 4hrs 2mins. The Irishman: 3hrs 29mins. The latest James Bond, the longest ever: 2hrs 43mins. Some of the most hyped films of the past few years have been as known for their length as their plot. So is this the new normal – are films getting longer? I asked Sarah Atkinson, professor of screen media at King’s College London.

I loved Tenet, but I remember craving an interval and an ice-cream. Am I the only one feeling films are longer?
Cinema is a bit of a machine, and is surrounded by marketing, so what we hear is often what we remember. These days, there’s a lot of talk about long running times. It’s all part of incentivising people to go out and pay for a ticket, which they won’t do unless it’s for something special – a big, epic film. Just look at the Marvel franchise: almost every one is well over two hours.

The Marvel thing of putting a scene after the credits was a global crime against bladders. Did you come across Przemysław Jarząbek, the data scientist who crunched the numbers around film length?
I did, and he found that, on average, film length isn’t going up; we just think it is. That doesn’t surprise me. It is all marketing.

Why the need to incentivise people to go to the cinema? Aren’t films making money through streaming?
Yes, but Amazon and Netflix cut out the distributors, the marketers, and even the cinemas themselves. Also, films can’t be entered into the Oscars unless they’ve had a cinematic release. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma – another epic – went straight to Netflix but also aired in cinemas. Cuarón himself even said people should see it on the big screen because it’s a cinematic film.

Isn’t a film cinematic merely by virtue of being in the cinema?
I know what you mean. Is a film more epic just because it’s made more use of digital tech?

It’s weird the way a film’s length can be a sticking point, yet many of us have no problem bingeing 10 episodes of a series …
That’s not really a fair comparison. Streamed series are by their nature fast-paced, with multiple storylines and characters and cliffhangers. Whereas epic films such as Dune, and The Lord of the Rings before it, are full of indulgent, long, sweeping camera shots: scenes without dialogue simply to show the beauty of the image.

How has the pandemic changed film?
Virtual production has taken off. So you don’t have to be in a location – you can be in a large studio, projecting whatever image you need, which increases the opportunity for special effects and more dramatic scenes. The TV series The Mandalorian is the epitome of this: the actors performed in front of an enormous LED screen. Progress in virtual production that was supposed to take four years happened in one because the industry knew it was the only way stuff would get finished. I’ve enjoyed seeing film-makers use the tools at hand. I saw one horror film, Host, that takes place over Zoom; it was about an hour long. They say 90 minutes is the optimal time for a horror.

It’s good to hear low-budget and indie films are flying the flag for shorter runtimes – and still getting made.
They’re getting made more than ever, because of the accessibility of technology and the abundance of ways to view. We still have film festivals; it’s just that the marketing machine talks loudest about the blockbuster. It’s an exciting time for film.