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January 18, 2016

Are movies getting longer?

sleeping cienma goersEither I’m getting older or movies are getting longer… and longer … and longer.   So which is it?  I took a look at the numbers.

I studied the running time of the top 100 US-grossing films since 1994 (2,200 films in total) and all films shot in the UK 2005-14 (2,142 films). In summary…

  • The median length of a top 100 US-grossing films between 1994 and 2015 was 110 minutes
  • Running times have increased in six of the past seven years
  • The longest films are historical and western films and the shortest are animations and documentaries.
  • Peter Jackson makes the longest movies in Hollywood, with a median running time of 169 minutes.
  • The median running time of UK feature films (2008-14) was 94 minutes.
  • Films with lower budgets have shorter running times
  • The complete extended Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies are a combined 21 hours long

Length of Hollywood movies

Between 1994 and 2015, top US-grossing films had a median length of 110 minutes and the years with the longest average were 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. So I think it is fair to say that movies are starting to get longer, although it’s not forming a uniform trend.

Length of Hollywood movies

Half of all Hollywood movies are between 96 and 120 minutes long, with the most popular running time being 101 minutes.

Length of Hollywood films spread

The longest films are historical and western films and the shortest are animations and documentaries.

Length of Hollywood films by genre

Which directors are making the longest films?

If you’ve been in a cinema over the past decade then you won’t be surprised to hear that Peter Jackson makes the longest movies in Hollywood, with a median running time of 169 minutes (i.e. two hours and 49 minutes).

I looked at the films of all 116 directors who had at least five movies on my list of 2,200 top US-grossing films (1994-2015). The table below shows the 30 directors who make Hollywood’s longest movies.

DirectorMedian running time (minutes)Shortest movie (minutes)Longest movie (minutes)
Peter Jackson169110201
Martin Scorsese159121180
Quentin Tarantino154111165
Michael Mann149120170
Michael Bay147118183
Christopher Nolan144113169
Steven Spielberg143107169
Ridley Scott142116157
David Fincher139112166
Roland Emmerich135109165
Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski135127138
Clint Eastwood134110155
Robert Zemeckis13496150
Oliver Stone133118192
Gore Verbinski13398169
Edward Zwick133112154
Ang Lee131120138
Spike Lee129115142
Judd Apatow129116146
Chris Columbus128103161
Wolfgang Petersen12798163
Nancy Meyers127120138
J.J. Abrams127112135
Richard Donner127105135
Martin Campbell127114144
Bryan Singer127104154
Gus Van Sant126105136
Barry Levinson12697147
Sam Mendes125117148
Stephen Sommers125111131

The longest movie was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King at a staggering 201 minutes (i.e. three hours and 21 minutes).  Other long movies included Titanic (194 mins), Nixon (192 mins), Wyatt Earp (191 mins), Grindhouse (191 mins), The Green Mile (189 mins), Magnolia (188 mins), King Kong (187 mins), Pearl Harbor (183 mins) and The Wolf of Wall Street (180 mins).

Titantic old RoseThe second longest film on our list is Titanic.  The story goes, when James Cameron first told studio executives the final running time, they freaked out.  They demanded cuts, to which Cameron responded in his world-renowned measured tone by saying “You want to cut my movie? You’re going to have to fire me! You want to fire me? You’re going to have to kill me!” 

They should count themselves lucky – he originally wrote it as a four hour epic.

Length of British films

I also looked at all films shot in the UK between 2008-14, inclusive.  The median running time was 94 minutes.

Length of UK films by shoot year

At first glance, it may look as though UK films are significantly shorter than Hollywood films but this is a consequence of the differing criterias for the two datasets, rather than there being a cultural difference between the movies that Britain and America produce.  The two datasets are measuring slightly different things; i.e. all films made in the UK versus only the best-performing films in America. This means there is a much higher percentage of low and micro budget films on the UK list.  So that raises the question – does the budget of a film affect the running time?

According to the UK data, yes.  As budgets rise, the running time also rises.

Length of UK films by budget

To spot-check the idea that UK films are not massively shorter than equivalent US films, I compared the data for UK films over £10 million (2008-14) and the top 100 US-grossing films over the same period. The resulting median running times are not too dissimilar, at 112.8 minutes for UK films and 107.7 minutes for US films.

Notes on movies getting longer

A few notes to go alongside today’s research…

  • All results in today’s article are medians, rather than plain averages.  I chose this as it seems that in most categories there are some very long films which would bring up the overall average, giving a slightly skewed picture.
  • The top US-grossing films are the 100 films each year with the highest box office gross in North America, according to IMDb.  The years linked to top US-grossing films are the years each film was first released in American cinemas.
  • The UK films are all films shot in the UK, according to the BFI (who also provided the budget ranges). The years linked to UK films relate to the year they were shot, not released.
  • The table relates to films within my dataset, meaning that if a director made a film before 1994, or a film that didn’t appear in the top 100 grossing films then it will not have been included.

Epilogue

So it turns out that movies are getting slightly longer, but also that my patience with long movies is getting much shorter.  I enjoyed the Lord of The Rings trilogy but just couldn’t face The Hobbit trilogy.  Together, the extended versions add up to…

  • The Fellowship of the Ring – 228 mins
  • The Two Towers – 235 mins
  • The Return of the King – 263 mins
  • An Unexpected Journey – 182 mins
  • The Desolation of Smaug – 186 mins
  • The Battle of the Five Armies – 164 mins
  • Total = 1,258 minutes (or 2 minutes shy of a whopping 21 hours)

That’s the enough time to watch every Police Academy movie… twice.  

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16 Responses

  1. Sam Beckwith January 18, 2016 at 10:28 am #

    Great post – I hate this trend!
    I’d also be curious to know which directors make the *shortest* films. Woody Allen, perhaps?

    • Mark Pope January 19, 2016 at 1:37 am #

      Just avoid top 100 grossing USA films or at least the films by the select few directors with both final cut and big egos and it’s not a problem.

  2. Talking Point January 18, 2016 at 10:49 am #

    Another great article – very surprised to see the median is 110 minutes…..maybe it’s because they all feel a lot longer?!

    • Stephen Follows January 18, 2016 at 10:51 am #

      Thanks.

      My theory is that it’s because the longer ones mostly come from the people with the biggest profile. Look at the table of directors with longest movies – you’ve likely heard of them all. And I don’t think that’s by chance: Hollywood studios know we don’t like longer movies and so it’s only the most powerful directors who get to fight back.

  3. Katy Napoleon-Hill March 9, 2016 at 1:57 pm #

    What happens to the said 120 pages which us screenwriters stick to? Just wondered…

    • Stephen Follows March 14, 2016 at 10:51 pm #

      Good question. Editing is normally a reductive process so I imagine that time is lost there. Also, many screenwriting books suggest 90 to 110 pages so I don’t think the 120 pages is golden.

  4. Aron January 18, 2016 at 3:05 pm #

    Slight typo. “As budgets rise, the running time falls” – I think you mean the inverse, that is, as budgets rise, runtime swells. Or to go with the graph: lower budgets correlate with shrinking running times.

    • Stephen Follows January 18, 2016 at 3:26 pm #

      Opps, yes, well spotted. Sorry for that, will fix now. Thanks for pointing it out

  5. Dan Becerescu January 18, 2016 at 4:29 pm #

    @Sam Beckwith: I remember Woody Allen saying he hates to sit in the cinema for more than 90 minutes and that no matter how much he shoots he always edits his movie to stay around the 90 minutes mark.

  6. Mark Pope January 19, 2016 at 1:30 am #

    Since I presume most of your followers are in film industry and working on smaller budget films I question how many really care what the trends are for the top 100 grossing American films are, except for use as cocktail party banter. Wasn’t the data available for all your past surveys for American films other than top 100 Hollywood blockbusters? Glad this time you at least hinted indirectly at the irrelevance of these statistics as they relate to 99% of all films made in USA. Lies, damn lies, and statistics using irrelevant data set.

    • Stephen Follows January 19, 2016 at 12:41 pm #

      Hi Mark

      My audience is a real mix, from industry insiders to general cinema-goers. I try to write for all tastes and as I know there is a lot of heavy industry stuff coming (I have a big report coming out in Berlin Film Festival which will generate a lot of ‘inside’ research) I’m trying to ensure I keep serving all my audience groups.

      Larger films are easier to track, easier to find info on and of more relevance to the cinema-going audience. When we talk about ‘films’ or ‘movies’, the vast majority of people think of the products of Hollywood. There also lead the perception of what cinema is, where we like that or not!

      The data to perform the same analysis of much smaller films isn’t there, certainly outside of the UK. We’re very fortunate that the BFI goes to such lengths to track all UK films (hence the work in this article), however we don’t have access to this for many other countries.

      Hope that helps and please continue to brighten your cocktail parties with my charts 🙂

      Stephen

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