John Wick 4 Long? Such is Oppenheimer: The audience loves long blockbusters

The best franchise filmmakers have become fearless in the face of short attention spans, and they’re not wrong.

For major motion pictures, bigger is better. “John Wick: Chapter 4” is 169 minutes — more than an hour longer than the original. “Avatar: The Way of Water” is 192 minutes long. The “dune” was 155 minutes. “The Batman” clocked in at 176 minutes, a franchise record. Matt Belloni at Puck reported that Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” will be around 180 minutes long, the longest. In a world where short attention spans are the norm, why are the franchise’s best filmmakers willing to keep going (and on?)

The short answer: because they can, and because the audience doesn’t mind. Previous generations faced the format limitations of theaters and other platforms; they also didn’t have an overly attentive audience that could tolerate more and more long-form storytelling. Streaming platforms offer opportunities to the best directors for as long as they see fit.

An oversized “John Wick 4” is a rarity as an R-rated action movie — even George Miller managed to squeeze “Max Max: Fury Road” down to 120 minutes — but the real holdouts are animated titles and comedies. Because the audience is skewed by young or older, it may be more in line with the reality of the audience, or just the difficulty of sustaining a concept for longer with these films.

Compared to the early days of Hollywood, current films are models of economy: 1915’s “Birth of a Nation” and 1916’s “Intolerance” were more than three hours long. 1939’s “Gone with the Wind” was just under four hours, 238 minutes. In the mid-50s, long titles were prestige items with higher ticket prices. From 1956 to 1972, 10 of the Best Picture Oscar winners ran more than 150 minutes, not including intermission. Length became a sign of quality and importance.



Everett Collection / Everett Collection

Then the length inflated. All “The Godfather II. part” (202 minutes) included “The Towering Inferno” (165 minutes) and “Airport” (137 minutes). Running times are reduced. Today, running times are rising again as the conditions that once inhibited length no longer exist.

“Titanic” was an instant hit when it opened in December 1997. It debuted at Christmas and most theaters couldn’t give it more than one screen. At 196 minutes, it severely limited screen times and only grossed $70 million (adjusted) in its opening weekend. This is less than five percent of the final adjusted domestic total of $1.5 billion.

That would be unheard of today. In 1997, there were 31,865 screens, and today there are more than 42,000. Cinemas now have two or more screens for long-running, highly anticipated movies, increasing capacity and allowing for a wider projection range. The new “John Wick” movie will have at least three screens in top theaters during its opening weekend — in many cases, four or more.

Attention aside, the practicalities of the exhibition shaped the audience’s expectations of running times. Before 1970, all theaters in the world had only one screen; durations of 100 minutes or less were strongly preferred, allowing for five presentations.

Fans of classic movies might think that the standard length was 90-120 minutes, but that perception comes from what publishers like TCM are showing now. Almost all American films released in the 1930s and 1940s were shorter than 90 minutes, and most were shorter than 75 minutes. There were many “B” movies that were meant to be second in double plays or in smaller theaters; the shorter running times made it easier to match them.

When television became a vital secondary exhibition channel (albeit three years or more after release), Hollywood had to heed their concerns. In the case of commercials, films longer than 100 minutes did not fit into the two-hour prime time slot. VCRs and laserdiscs brought more flexibility, though not by much; capacity issues meant that the playback quality of a film that was too long could suffer.

Finally, length was no obstacle with the rise of DVDs, Blu-rays and cable. In fact, longer movies can be useful for cable programmers; they needed less to fill a schedule.

AVATAR: THE WAY OF THE WATER (aka AVATAR 2), Tuk (voiced by Trinity Jo-Li Bliss), 2022. © Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures / Everett Collection

“Avatar: The Path of Water”

©Courtesy of The Walt Disney Co./Everett Collection

Very long films still present market challenges. Such films tend to feature terrifying special effects, often shot with IMAX cameras, but IMAX and other premium screens are unique and usually not the largest in capacity. Although “The Way of Water” had unlimited seating when it opened, audience interest in the less-available premium screens reduced its opening receipts.

If and when filmmakers decide to shorten their running time, one way they can try is to reduce the length of the credits. Eight minutes is not uncommon; 10 minutes is not unknown. In contrast, only two of the 238 minutes of Gone with the Wind were credited – at the time, this was extreme.

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