How (and when) did the standard length of movies come about?

Meaning that most films produced nowadays (and presumably at least back into the 1940s/1950s) are from 90 to 120 minutes long. When did this become standardized? Was it a trial and error process? Did people just gradually realize that 4 hour movies taxed audiences too much, and hour-long movies didn’t lend enough time to tell a complete story? Did a certain studio set a precedent? I understand that the films from the first decade or two of the 20th century were probably short, due to film limitations/etc, but when was the standard movie length settled upon?

Well, here’s some early data points for you. Keep in mind that it’s surprisingly hard to tell exact times with silent films. Le Voyage dans la lune was released in 1902 and is 14 minutes long. Birth of a Nation was from 1915 and is 165 minutes long. Nosferatu was released in 1922 and was around 85 minutes long. Metropolis came out in 1927 and was 153 minutes long.

Some more random data… the best picture lengths for the first 8 Oscars, starting in 1927, were 139, 110, 131, 131, 110, 105, 112, 132, respectively.

So my WAG would be that sometime between 1902 and 1915, movies really caught on, and epics dominated for the first few years, but by the late 20’s the lengths had standardized on 90-130 minutes.

I don’t want to drag out the explanation, so I’ll make it short & sweet. If anything’s not clear, just say & I’ll expand my answer.
smackfu’s on the right track. In the early days of cinema (beginning of 1900) “feature” films were just unusual films that were featured in theater advertising. This came to be a term for longer films too. However, one-reel films were the standard. This does not allow for really long films, so we know that longer films came later than this.
It wasn’t around until 1909 that companies started to make longer, multi-reel films in America. However, the MPPC was the problem in this.
The MPPC, or Motion Picture Patents Company, was a group of film companies (Edision, Vitagraph) that was trying to dominate and completely control the film market. This included suing theaters so they would have to get a liscence from them to show films at all. This also included strong-arm tactics, like trashing theaters that wouldn’t comply.
Anyway, the MPPC standard was one-reel. If you wanted to stay in business, you’d follow their standard. So, when multi-reel films were made, they had to be released at a rate of one-reel/week. When all of the reels were released, though, many theaters showed the reels all together.
In Europe, there wasn’t the restictions (no MPPC) so they could show longer films (started making them around the same time, though maybe a few years earlier). American companies imported them and they were shown in higher-class theaters, in their entirety, for more money. They started to become more popular, and this basically forced American companies like Vitagraph to show films as a whole. Also, nickelodians weren’t as popular, so theaters (that could show longer films for more money) used the longer films.
Around 1915, feature films became the standard. As to the exact length, that varies greatly. 90-120 minutes is quite a range, but this was around when this longer format became the standard.
I don’t think I’d go by the Oscars, though. Since that’s only a small portion of the films that came out.

Are movies becoming longer in recent years? It seems that most of the big-name pictures recently are quite a bit longer than 120 minutes, which was pretty uncommon not too long ago, but is it just that big long epics are getting notice from the awards shows more or are movies in general getting longer?

According to one of those stupid before-the-movie trivia slides, the average length of movies has increased by 30 minutes since 1930. The slide also gave the current and previous average lengths, but I don’t remember what they were. I have no idea how accurate this trivia is, nor where the data came from.

Average attention spans.
Average length of time sitting comfortably in a seat.

Yes but how do films compare with plays? Seems to me that the average play is longer than the average film, even though the effort on the part of the audience is fundamentally the same.

You’d also have expected the theatre to have set the precedent for films in some way at the beginning of film-making


While the movie lengths may have been increasing lately, the average time for a complete movie show was considerably longer in the 1930s. That’s because, in addition to the feature and a few previews, you had a cartoon, a newsreel, a short subject (like the 3 Stooges), and maybe an episode of a serial. These could add at least a half hour to the running time of a film.

In addition, there were often double features, which put two shorter films together. Also, many B movies had short running times; these could be made into double features, or be shown as a lead to the main show.

Because of all these factors, theaters in the 30s usually had one showing a night. Matinees were just on weekends, and were aimed for children. Eventually, theater owners realized they could make more money with two showings an evening, so they began cutting out the short films.

Good answers, and here’s another reason: reels. The length of one reel of film came to about 12 minutes of projection time, depending on the speed of projection. So in the earliest days, films were half- or one-reelers; about 6 or 12 minutes. Around 1908, a few two-reelers began showing—but that reduced the turnover in theaters, so they took awhile to catch on.

In the U.S., “feature-length” (four reels or more) films began showing after 1912 and the popularity of the French import “Queen Elizabeth.”

By the 1940s, most films were 90 minutes or two hours; this still depended on a certain number of reels. Nowadays—when “reels” are being replaced by newer technology—length is not as important. I agree with John Waters: “no film should ever be over 90 minutes long. If it is, it needs editing.”

Actually absoul is the closest to the truth. In 1947, right after the War, there was a huge increase in movie-going peoples. So Edward Koch gets this funding from the American Association of Directors (whose most famous member was probably Enzo Antonelli - director of such ‘huge’ hits as Who shot O’Hanrahan and Beaches[yes, Beaches was a remake.]) Anyways, the AAD decided to better suit their audience they needed to figure out what was the best way to present a movie. They did massive studies on film length, toyed with intermissions in the middle of movies, had some movies with news reels and cartoons in the middle… They were the people responsible for the goofy “scent-o-vision” and such gimmicky B-movie staple that you don’t see today. But I digress. Koch was largely in charge of the length of film studies. He had to do a bunch of crap like study the demographics (what age groups go to what films, how long they can sit before they get restless, what kind of seats they like, where they sit in relation to the screen). On a related note, the younger a movie-goer is the closer they end up to the screen. I guess they like cracked necks. Where was I? Oh yeah, it’s all Edward Koch’s fault. Or gravity. you pick.

punk snot dead,

(and if you believe that I have some passes to the pool on the roof i’ll sell ya…)

Indian films are typically up to two hours longer than American films. It’s just what the audiences in India have come to expect. They always have intermissions scheduled near the midpoint. What pads them out is not only the extravagant, convoluted plots, but also a half-dozen extended song-and-dance sequences that can add nearly an hour to the length of the show. Also, Indian movies are not divided by genre – you have to combine something from every genre in each flick. You have to throw in sexy sirens for the guys, weepy emotions for the ladies, comedy for the kids, preachy speeches for the moralists, and (almost invariably) top it all off with multiple fights to the finish, car chases, and explosions. Or the audience won’t feel they got their money’s worth.

At the D.C. International Film Festival in 1998, I went to the Tamil director Mani Ratnam’s excellent film Iruvar (The Duo). Overheard an American guy on the way out complain that at 2½ hours it was way too long. I said to him, “Man, this was way short for an Indian movie! They’re usually 3½ hours!”

Right you are my little brussel sprout. Use of platter-feed projectors has changed some of this, but I’ll stick with you on the overall idea. Besides, who wants to piss off John Waters? I can’t imagine what he’d do to you if he caught up with you.

I’d also offer a WAG. Television’s influence. By the time motion pictures were being telecine’d (new word. Use at your own risk.:smiley: ), time on the fledgling networks was already being sold, and handled in 30 minute segments. An attempt to make a movie that could be cut a wee tad for sales to TV a smart move, from the script level on out. ( Traditional wisdom says that a page of script equals a minute of screentime. I don’t cotton to this, but it’s how scripts are read these days, and have been for decades).

This being the Double Aught’s and all, we know that movies are digitally compressed to fit air time, without removing key shots or scenes. One can only pull that crap so far, but it’s done more than you’d think. I do seem to remember seeing adivsories before a Hollywood movie is shown on T.V., stating basically that the film has been altered to fit it’s air time. i.e.-digitally compressed in scenes where it’s not as noticeable.

  For a somewhat more lengthy treatise on the mechanisms of film and script development, I'd heartily recomment William Goldman's "Adventures In The Screen Trade". It's a bible to me. ( That, and "Masters of Light").


p.s. Movies are, to this day, shipped as they were 50 years ago. In steel octagonal containers, two reels per box. They’re wound down and spliced together at the prjection booth.

Frankly, I always thought it has to do with the number of pages in the script, which comes first, which is usually around 120 pages.

It seems to me that serious films tend to push the length envelope. Probably because they can then pack more character and plot development in. If you’re watching a low-brow comedy for a few cheap laughs, you’ll notice they tend to be very short (90 minutes, often). There is definitely a corollation between movie length and respectability of a given movie.

Of course, there were oddities back then, like the original cut of “Intolerance” (1916), at more than three hours; and “Greed” (1923), which clocked in at, I think, a month and a half.

Distributors and theater owners insisted the former be cut, and the latter was never seen by the general public at its original length.

Good answers so far. I’ll throw in just a couple of additional details.

Theatrical plays have generally hovered between the two- and three-hour marks. If you eliminate the time taken by intermission, actual duration of performance is towards the low end of the range. According to my “Performing Classical Texts” instructor, even Shakespeare’s plays, in his day, rarely exceeded 2.5 hours, and most were faster. We think of them as long today only, he says, because we have to be slower and more careful with the language to ensure audience comprehension; in 1600, he says, they would have rocketed right through the complete text of, say, Othello in two hours flat. The basic rule about audience attention span is very simple, and is based on a fact of human anatomy: bladder capacity. :slight_smile:

:smiley: The non-facetious answer for readers who aren’t film geeks is that Von Stroheim’s Greed was, depending on who you read, between seven and nine hours in its original incarnation. The original cut is long since lost, and any statement of length is a guesstimate. (But it’s still a funny remark, Eve. From you, we expect no less.)

Not necessarily; it depends on the writer (or writers). Playwright G.B. Shaw’s work always prints long, because of his excruciatingly detailed scene descriptions. And director David Cronenberg says he tries to bring his scripts in at around 80 pages, which is very short, but because he’s directing them himself he knows he’ll be doing tinkering during the shoot and wants to give himself lots of room for experimentation. General Hollywood guidelines for screenplays suggest 100-110 pages as ideal.

There’s a lot to this. Read The Last Mogul, which chronicles the rise of MCA, first as a talent agency and then as a production company. They pioneered vertical integration in the entertainment industry, which is to say they owned the talent, the productions, and the outlets. (At least until the Kennedy trustbusters came along.) They were very cognizant of the television market in its early years, and were careful to make sure their products were easily adaptable from one medium to another.

Very true. But it’s important to note that, in some parts of the East, mainly the less-developed areas, moviegoing habits are very different than they are in the West. An Indian film has a musical number, followed by a fight, followed by a love scene, followed by a chase, followed by another musical number, etc., etc., for four hours or so, because audiences don’t necessarily sit through the whole movie at one go. They can come in at any time, watch an hour or two, and get a whole lot of movie in that time, after which they leave. Indian film is a heckuva lotta fun if you look at it from this standpoint; it’s kind of like the trivia book you keep by the toilet, in that you can dip into it as much or as little as you like, depending on need or desire.

The influence of TV was probably major for other reasons as well. Besides smell-o-vision, this also included the advent of using the wide-screen to its full extent. Saying that you get so much more at the theater. This is just a hypothesis, mind you, but I would assume that longer films also became more popular with theater owners because they would say that you get more by going out than watching television. As people started to move out of urban centers to the suburbs, television gained popularity and films actually lost popularity for quite a while.
Oh, also, vertigal integration was actually pioneered by the Motion Pictures Patents Company (Edison, Vitograph, etc.) in the early days of cinema. They wanted to, and succeeded for quite a while, in controlling all aspects of film industry (production, distribution, & outlets). That was in the early part of the century. They even kept foreign films out of America, and built theaters in Canada & wouldn’t allow Canadian films to be shown.
Anyway, the courts decided that they were an oligopoly (similar to Microsoft, but a few corporations doing it) and they lost a lot of power. That’s how the Independents like Warner Bros. & many of the others got some power. MCA revived vertigal integration later, but not to the extent of the MPPC. They, however, ran into similar problems.

According to Guinness, there’s a late 1980s film called Cure for Insomnia that’s literally a little bit over a day long.

Just discovered this thread today. As I endeavor to contribute to every single movie thread, I felt I must bump this one.

This also ties in with earlier comments about movies in the 30’s. Up to the late 50’s or so, the movies would literally be that–movies. For a single admission, you would get newsreels, a serial, cartoons, and either one long or two short movies, trailed by ads for upcoming movies (hence the word trailers). There were no set admission times (although there were set start times) and the theaters were not routinely cleared in between showings, so people would be trickling in and out constantly. My father, in the mid fifties, remembers going to movies on a Saturday and sitting through some movies he liked three times on a single admission.

Given such a system, filmmakers were free to make 60 minute features, as they were just one piece of the pie, and could be used as one ingrediant to assemble a 3 hour bill.

Now days, features and trailers are the entire bill. 1:40 to 2 hours is ideal for this purpose, because it is long enough for the audience not to feel cheated, but short enough for three evening showings (one matinee at 5, two prime time at 7 and 9, and extra at 11 on weekends). “Event” movies can be up to 3 hours long, and certain classes of movies can be shorter (screwball comedies, animated, straight action pictures), but not by much.

Studies were made to determine how long it took for the average persons butt to fall asleep.