Epic Length – When is a Movie Too Long or Too Short?

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With the market changing rapidly and Video on Demand becoming a new, profitable venue for film distribution, many have to wonder if there is any reason to go to the movie theater anymore.  The way that Hollywood answers that question is to make movies that are more than just an afternoon diversion and instead turn them into all out events.  It’s the reason why we still see movie productions with massive budgets nowadays, because the studios need their tent-poles in order to draw in the big crowds.  While there are many standout epic productions made every year, very few of them live up to their potential, and in turn that has led to a lot of concerns about whether the studio system can sustain the rising costs of making “big” movies year after year.  For most films, a substantial budget can certainly help, especially if there is a visionary director keeping things under control on the set, but sometimes it doesn’t matter how much the movie costs.  Sometimes its the presentation that matters the most.  The one thing that makes or breaks an epic film is how well it is paced and structured in the end.  All the visual pastiche put on the screen won’t matter if there is no momentum to the story, or even if there’s too much.  Epic scale is only effective if it is given the right amount of purpose behind it.  Sometimes, if the story is able to support it, an epic movie can hold our attention for a very extended period of time, but if the foundation is flimsy, epic length can end up working against the film too.  And in order to be profitable, movies of epic size have to be available for multiple screenings as well, so time restrictions can put pressure on a film’s production, and that may also end up compromising the movie’s overall effectiveness.  There are many factors that may influence a film’s run-time, but in the end, you either end up with a small story that can feel enormous or a big story that can feel small, and how well that works in the movies favor is based solely on how well the filmmakers have used the time given to them.

When film-making first started to become a popular art-form, it was usually limited to simple productions that would run for a single reel at most (which is roughly 20 minutes of run-time).  No one in the turn-of-the-20th Century thought to take cinematic storytelling into a longer format, because in that time, cinema was just seen as a sideshow act meant to entertain passers-bys with short, amusing vignettes of life.  It wasn’t until the emergence of D.W. Griffith that we began to see the beginnings of feature length story-telling.  And not only would Griffith show the world that you could tell a screen story in a lengthier format, but he would do so with what is widely considered the first Hollywood blockbuster; the epic scaled and controversial The Birth of a Nation (1915).  Nation dwarfed every film that came before it, running at a staggering 3 hours in length.  And yet, by pioneering the use of inter-cutting between multiple stories and defining the look of epic scale staging (particularly in the battle scenes), Griffith’s picture was able to sustain audience interest over that incredible length of time, and it’s influence is still felt today.  Unfortunately, the film’s racist message mars it’s reception today, and it should be rightfully condemned, despite it’s importance.  Griffith’s even more ambitious follow-up Intolerance (1916) continued to redefine the rules of cinema, cross-cutting between four different time periods connected by a common theme, and it still captivated audiences for over 3 hours of run-time.  But, as Hollywood would define itself in the years after, film-making became more standardized, and studios imposed more restrictions on the length of their movies, choosing nice compact 90 minute crowd-pleasers, over the grandness of a Griffith epic.

In the peak years during the studio system, epic length became more specialized to certain productions.  In those years, a big movie had to be an event, so as to stand out from the regular matinee fare.  Producer David O. Selznick accomplished what he believed to be the epic to end all epics with his grand scale production of Margaret Mitchell’s epic novel, Gone With the Wind, making a movie that defined the genre as a whole.  At nearly four hours in length, it is remarkable to see how well Gone With the Wind is able to sustain it’s size and scale.  It never once looses audience interest, and that’s largely due to assured film-making that never wastes a single moment.  For years afterwards, Wind would be the gold standard for all Hollywood epics, and it wasn’t until the mid 50’s that we would see another film that came close to it’s epic length.  With the advent of television, Hollywood began to relax it’s tight restrictions on film length.  A new practice began to emerge in these years, taking a cue from Selznick’s presentation of Gone With the Wind, which was called the Roadshow feature.  This was a special kind of theater engagement where a film was presented much like a stage production would be; with specially written programs given out to audience members, and the movie would begin with an orchestrated Overture, as well as having an Intermission halfway through.  The inclusion of an intermission was especially helpful for movies at this time, because it helped to justify the longer run-times of epic length movies, making the 50’s and 60’s a Golden Era for the 3 hour epic.  In this period, we saw many of the best examples of epic length productions, like Ben-Hur (1959, 211 minutes), Spartacus (1960, 195 minutes), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962, 217 minutes); all unbound by time constraints and were all considered more than just a movie.

But, once the era of the Hollywood epic came to a close, mainly due to a rise in more intimate and smaller scale films from the New Hollywood of the 70’s, epic length became more about what was called for in the story.  Epics still existed, but they were more exclusive and dictated more by what kind of story the filmmaker wanted to tell.  Sometimes this would lead to some of the most unexpected of epics, including ones that took up a very short amount of screen-time.  Robert Altman, for example, managed to redefine the meaning of epic by creating movies both large and small, but still always grand in ambition.  Sometimes he could accomplish this with a modest sized film like M.A.S.H. (1970, 116 minutes) or a epic scale one like Nashville (1975, 160 minutes), both of which feel both big and intimate, largely due to out-sized performances by his large cast of actors.  Francis Ford Coppola on the other hand, made some the eras grandest cinematic achievements, each with epic lengths to match that ambition like The Godfather (1972, 177 minutes) and Apocalypse Now (1979, 153 minutes), and yet he still managed to do so with the more intimate film techniques of that era.  New Hollywood epics would largely come to define the rules of epic film-making that we still see in practice today, especially with the rise of the blockbuster film in this period.  This included the end of the Roadshow presentation and the beginning of epic scale action flicks that could give the audiences the size and scope they wanted in only a fraction of the time.  And in this blockbuster era, we see more and more examples of how a movies length can impact the effectiveness of it’s story.

The odd byproduct of the blockbuster era is that now we are seeing movies that never would have been given a large amount of screen-time in the past, but are now bloated up to epic size and length, mainly so that they can fulfill the expectations of a tent-pole release. Sometimes this can be a blessing for a film, but that’s only if the filmmakers use their time well.  Other times, we end up with movies that run about 2 1/2 hours, but only feature about 90 minutes worth of story.  Excess is a big problem with epic movies today, which comes from the mistaken belief that bigger always means better.  Sometimes it ends up making what could have been a good film into an underwhelming one, because if the story doesn’t engage the audience all the way through, all the unnecessary action is just going to feel tedious.  That’s often a case of adapting something from one medium to another.  If you have a lot of story to tell, like with Gone With the Wind, than you’ll find it easier to fill every moment of your movie with interesting material.  But, if you’re expanding beyond what’s already there, then you run the risk of wasting people’s time with things and ideas that don’t matter in the long run.  There’s a reason why How the Grinch Stole Christmas works so much better at 30 minutes than at 2 hours in length.  A movie’s length must consider what works best for the momentum of the story.  Sometimes just using the essentials is the best method.  But, if the director has enough good ideas and can execute them well enough over a lengthier period of time, then the opposite can also be true.  This is primarily what separates the Christopher Nolans from the Michael Bays.

There are rare exceptions for movies that actually fall victim to the opposite idea, however.  Sometimes we see too much story told in too short of a film.  This is usually a problem found in most animated movies, which is a genre that strangely still is restricted by studio imposed time constraints.  Now, there are many animated movies over the years that have managed to tell grand scale stories in a remarkably short amount of time and succeeded; 1959’s Sleeping Beauty for example tells a very epic scale story, but manages to pack it all into a very tightly paced 75 minutes.  1942’s Bambi even managed to tell a multi-generational story in just little over an hour.  But, given the more sophisticated tools we have nowadays in animation, there should be fewer limits to the run-times of an animated movie.  Sadly most studios like Disney and Dreamworks are still insistent on staying at or under the 90 minute mark.  Now, if you’re movie is something modest like Lilo and Stitch (2002), than 90 minutes is plenty of time to tell a story.  But when you try to make a movie that introduces a complex world with a cast of a dozen or so characters, like 1985’s The Black Cauldron or 2001’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, than 90 minutes is nowhere near enough time to build momentum for your story.  Atlantis in particular is probably one of the most clear examples of a movie stifled by an unforgiving time limit.  It never gives us enough time to absorb the world that it’s trying to create nor does it give enough time for us to gain sympathy for the characters.  The argument can be made here that if you’re going to make an epic than you should make an epic.  Going halfway only makes the end product feel hollow and uninteresting.  Pixar Animation thankfully bucked the trend by making animated movies that didn’t restrict themselves with time limits.  The Incredibles (2004) ran at a solid 115 minutes, and never once lagged, showing that animation can indeed work in a longer format.  It all shows that too little time can also work against a story’s pace, and that a film’s length must again factor in what’s best for the overall picture.

Hollywood, not one to miss opportunities, has found a way to please all sides whenever a film’s length comes into question.  When a movie makes it to home video, we will oftentimes see multiple cuts made available for purchase, enabling the consumer to decide how much they want to see of a particular film.  Sometimes it’s a decision made in collaboration with the director; Peter Jackson, in particular, has made longer cuts of his already lengthy Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies available on DVD and Blu-ray, some of which audiences prefer to the original theatrical cuts.  And then there are extended cuts of the movies that are made available after the original versions left their creators unsatisfied with the results.  These are usually called the Director’s Cut, which sometimes is a lengthier version of the film that includes scenes that the director wanted but had to cut due to time restrictions by the studio.  Sometimes a director’s cut can drastically alter the experience, like with Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic, Kingdom of Heaven, which is vastly improved in it’s longer 3 hour version.  Other times, a director’s cut changes nothing, like Oliver Stone’s multiple attempts to fix his 2004 epic Alexander, or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux, which showed that a shorter version left a better impact.  Ridley Scott in particular has often had the most interesting experience with Director’s Cuts, since both Kingdom of Heaven and his beloved 1982 classic Blade Runner are so drastically altered in their extended cuts.  Whether it adds a little, or a lot, or even subtracts from the original theatrical release, Director’s Cuts are an interesting example of how the usage of time can change the perception of a movie.  It all depends on how strong the vision is behind the story, and whether or not time restrictions benefits the overall product or detracts from it.

Overall, we’ve seen many movies over the years that either felt too long or too short for their own good.  Some audiences out there prefer movies that are quick and easy to watch, not wanting to have their whole day taken up watching just one movie.  I personally don’t mind a film’s length if it runs over three hours or more.  It all just depends on how well those three hours are used.  My two favorite movies in fact are both over three hours long, in fact; David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (217 minutes) and Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic Seven Samurai (208 minutes).  Both are perfect examples of epic storytelling, not once wasting a single moment of screen-time on needless filler.  Watching these two movies in particular makes me wish that more Hollywood movies would display more control over the content they put into their lengthier movies.  When I think about movies that wasted their time, I usually think about bloated films like the 150 minute The Lone Ranger (2013) or any of the Transformers movies.  Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) itself ran for 165 minutes, and yet I can’t even remember anything important that happened in the plot for all that running time.  Other epic films also run the risk of bloating themselves up with self-aggrandizing character monologues, which unfortunately have become a cliche of the genre.  Sometimes it works, like the pre-battle speeches in the 200 minute long The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), while other times it comes off flat like with Brad Pitt trying to sound inspirational in 163 minute Troy (2004).  When it all comes down to it, it’s all about the pacing, and whether or not you’ve used the time you have effectively.  Movies can feel big, even at a shorter length.  But, if you’ve got enough story behind it, a longer length can prove to be better.  A great movie can come in any shape or size, but a truly epic sized one really does become something special in the end, and proves why it is indeed a great experience watching a movie on the big screen.

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