I realize this might cause some controversy out there. In fact, in a few months or a few years I might not have the same views I do now. But this idea has come back to me this week while working for the Heartland Film Festival. It’s been an amazing experience; I’ve had the chance to watch lots of movies, update the internet on the same, and talk to a variety of directors, producers, and writers. But what has struck me again is how many movies are simply too long.
This brings me to the part where I’m being a little legalistic. Or maybe a lot legalistic. And this is the part where I will probably change my mind down the road. Reading Roger Ebert’s reviews through the years it has been interesting to see how his opinions change from time to time, and I have no reason to believe my thoughts shall remain as they are years from now.
The vast majority of movies should be no longer than 93 minutes. Seriously, most movies have no business being more than 93 minutes in length, for a couple primary reasons. The first is that many movies do not have enough story to justify the length. In most cases a couple scenes can be cut because they are not essential to the plot or characters, and the film would almost always be better for it.
Secondly, for movies in certain genres it becomes difficult to continue to engage the audience after about 90 minutes. Comedies and horror films immediately come to mind. Most comedies (in fact, I can’t really think of any exceptions) cannot be continually funny after about 90 minutes. Good comedies know this. Airplane! is 88 minutes long and Dr. Strangelove is exactly 93. Even though I love both of those movies I am often “laughed-out” by the end and would only suffer if forced to endure more film.
Horror is even worse. There is no reason for a horror movie to go past 93 minutes. Except in the hands of a genius (Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining) a horror movie doesn’t work after it reaches the mid-90 minute mark. The ones that attempt to keep going often feel bloated and unnecessary. There are too many examples to mention here.
And that’s the beauty of a short feature film. Everything in it becomes essential to the plot. There is nothing extraneous floating around; every scene, every shot is necessary to tell the story and create the characters. I realize this is extraordinarily hard for a director to do, since he or she has filmed so much amazing footage and wants to include it all, but when it comes time for final cut ego must be set aside. One of the best examples I can think of is Christopher Nolan’s first feature film Following. It clocks in at an amazing 69 minutes and still tells a story that puts many longer movies to shame.
I realize some films need to be long. Epics like Lawrence of Arabia need to be four hours long. The problem is, there are not very many epics like Lawrence of Arabia. I also realize that the 93 minute limit is rather arbitrary, and that many great films exceed that length. Unfortunately, 95% of films are not great films and most of those don’t deserve more than 93 minutes. I’m also quite certain I have omitted some examples of both good short movies and good long movies, so feel free to leave comments to fill in my ignorance.