Is a film’s length a sign of its quality?

A few months ago, Stuart Heritage wrote an article for the Guardian entitled “How to spot a bad film without even seeing it“.  It used the example of the Will Ferrell / Amy Poehler comedy The House to discuss his telltale signs that an upcoming film is worth avoiding. These included:

  • Embargoed reviews
  • Production rumours
  • Poster chicanery
  • Interviews about anything but the film
  • Sub-90-minute running time

The first on Stuart’s list – little to no early reviews – has already been covered well by Walt Hickey over at FiveThirtyEight.  In the article When Should You Buy Into A Movie’s Hype? he looked at the correlation between when movie reviews are released and the quality of the movie. Walt notes:

How early the reviews come in can tell us something about a movie’s quality. If a movie doesn’t have more than five reviews from top critics early in the week of its release, that’s a red flag that the movie may be very bad… If a studio is not confident in a movie, it doesn’t do critic screenings. If there aren’t any critic screenings, then there won’t be bad reviews.

It’s hard to measure and quantify production rumours, poster chicanery and evasive interviews, but we can look at the correlation between running time and quality.  To do this I looked at all movies released in US cinemas between 2000 and 2016 (that’s 7,617 movies in total).

How long are most movies?

Let’s start by familiarising ourselves as to how long movies normally are. Alfred Hitchcock once said that the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder. I don’t know if moviemakers use this as their yardstick, but four out of every five movies run for between 80 and 120 minutes.  

Many movies are on the lower end of that spectrum, with 44% of movies lasting between 80 and 100 minutes long. The most common length is exactly 90 minutes.

Are shorter movies better than longer ones?

Let’s look at how the scores given to movies by film audiences and critics differ as the running time increases.  I’m using IMDb user votes to represent audience opinion and Metacritic to reflect the views of film critics.

It seems that Stuart’s suggestion that sub-90 minute films are more likely to be below par is broadly right.  Movies under 90 minutes long received an average audience score of 5.9 out of 10 and those over 90 minutes received 6.4.  Similarly, film critics gave sub-90 minute movies an average of 50.8 out of 100, and longer movies 55.4.

Let’s zoom in and look at the detail.  The average score given by audiences across all movies was 6.4 out of 10, and 54.8 by critics.  The lowest rated movies were 83 minutes, according to audiences and 87 minutes according to critics.

I don’t have a neat answer as to why we’re seeing this.  My best guess is that it’s two effects:

  1. Can’t make them any shorter. Movies need to be at least around 80 minutes if they want to secure distribution deals and so even if a movie stinks they can’t cut it down any shorter than that.  A bad movie coming in at 140 minutes could theoretically have some of its offending material chopped out, whereas an 80-minute long bad movie needs to be released pretty much as is.
  2. Permission to make them longer.  Cinemas don’t like long movies as they limit how many showings they can book in during a day.  Therefore, the pressure is on to make them shorter.  It could be argued that one factor that allows filmmakers to push back against the pressure for a movie to be shorter would be the quality of the movie.

But these are just my best guesses.  What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Notes

My data came from IMDb, The Numbers, Metascore and Wikipedia.  I only included IMDb scores when the film had at least 500 votes, and it’s worth noting that not all movies have Metascores.

Epilogue

If you want to read more on this topic then you may enjoy an article I wrote a few years ago. It covers some related topics, including whether movies are getting longer, the directors who make the longest and shortest movies and the relationship between running time and budget.  You can read that piece at stephenfollows.com/are-hollywood-movies-getting-longer.