Are movies too long? Hollywood tests the limits of our pandemic attention spans
This is the Nov. 30, 2021, edition of the Wide Shot, a weekly newsletter about everything happening in the business of entertainment. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.
During the last several months, a crop of Hollywood movies has tested the limits of the oft-cited Roger Ebert chestnut: “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.”
The latest is “House of Gucci,” Ridley Scott’s epic drama starring Lady Gaga as the Italian socialite Patrizia Reggiani and Adam Driver as Maurizio Gucci, which runs for two hours and 38 minutes, according to IMDb.
Gaga et al are far from alone in making big asks of an audience that has become accustomed to bingeing short-burst stories on Instagram, pausing Netflix movies for bathroom breaks and watching films in chunks online.
“King Richard,” starring Will Smith as tennis patriarch Richard Williams, lasts two hours and 24 minutes. “No Time to Die” took two hours and 43 minutes to bid farewell to Daniel Craig. Chloé Zhao and Marvel Studios dedicated two hours and 37 minutes to the aptly named “Eternals.” Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” clocked in at two hours and 35 minutes, and he adapted only half of the book.
Given the fragile state of the box office recovery amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has dramatically changed audience viewing habits, are long running times turning off viewers?
More than half of moviegoers look for a movie’s runtime before deciding to buy a ticket, according to new survey data collected by Screen Engine/ASI exclusively for The Times. And in a possible sign of things to come, younger audiences are more apt to do so.
In a poll of 2,055 moviegoers in the U.S., a plurality of respondents (36%) said they often sought out a film’s runtime before deciding to see it, while 16% said they always did, according to the polling. Comparatively, 32% indicated they rarely sought out runtimes. Sixteen percent said they never did.
Younger audiences were more likely to seek runtime information, with 55% of those under 35 either always or often checking length, compared with 48% of those 35 and older.
Audiences don’t always let duration influence their purchases. Among those who at least occasionally check runtimes, 44% said their decision always depended on how much they wanted to see the movie, not its length, according to Screen Engine/ASI.
But for those who do factor in runtime, 38% were hesitant to trek to a movie longer than 120 minutes, and a total of 57% expressed trepidation about movies running past 150 minutes.
Forty-five percent of moviegoers said they would be definitely or probably less interested in seeing a film if they heard it was too long.
How much the luxurious runtimes are affecting business is an open question, given the mixed box office results of the latest crop of marathon movies.
The MGM-produced “House of Gucci” grossed $21.8 million during its five-day Thanksgiving weekend debut in the U.S. and Canada, a decent result compared to other recent non-Marvel and non-horror fare. It’s hard out there for original movies made for adults, such as Scott’s other 2021 movie, “The Last Duel” (two hours and 32 minutes). But it was a so-so showing considering “Gucci’s” $75-million production budget.
MGM declined to comment.
Warner Bros.’ “King Richard,” which is streaming for a limited time on HBO Max, swung and missed at theaters with $11.4 million so far domestically. “Dune” ($102 million), “Eternals” ($151 million) and “No Time to Die” ($158 million) did respectable business in North America, considering the effects of COVID-19 on movie theaters, but the results don’t look so hot when stacked up against similar prepandemic releases.
Conversely, “Venom: Let There Be Carnage,” at around 90 minutes, grossed about $210 million in the U.S. and Canada despite middling reviews.
“The movies are too damn long” is not a new complaint. Every year brings a new headline about the latest endurance tests at the multiplex. My favorite from 2021 comes from Fiona Sturges in the Independent: “No Time to Pee.”
After a year and a half of movies on demand and at home, a 150-minute-plus film with no breaks (plus interminable trailers and increasingly prevalent post-credits scenes) can sound like a slog.
And yet the highest-grossing movies of all time are also some of the longest. “Avengers: Endgame” was more than three hours long, and it made $2.8 billion!
It makes sense that so many of the pictures coming out now are blowing past the 140-minute mark. The movies we’re talking about here were greenlighted before COVID-19 shut everything down and supercharged changes in consumer habits. The pandemic delayed the kinds of movies that tend to run longer and put more demands on the senses — Imax-ready films that generally reward the big-screen experience.
But if there’s a lesson for studios to take from the “Venom” sequel, maybe it’s not to bite off more than the audience is ready to chew.
Stuff we wrote
— Near strike by Hollywood crews could be a sign of things to come. Anousha Sakoui writes: “The close vote portends a new era of labor activism inside the 128-year-old union and could pose a clear challenge to the leadership of IATSE President Matthew Loeb, union members and labor experts said.”
— Column by Jonah Goldberg: I left Fox News after 12 years. Tucker Carlson’s “Patriot Purge” was the final straw.
— How Stephen Sondheim changed theater forever — one musical masterpiece at a time. Theater critic Charles McNulty on the late great’s influence.
— “Rust” producer linked to upcoming Dustin Hoffman movie. Thomasville Pictures is listed as a production company on the movie “Sam & Kate,” and the Georgia-based film company’s founder Ryan Donnell Smith is listed as executive producer.
Number of the week
The Thanksgiving weekend box office numbers are both a sign of how far the industry’s recovery has come since the worst of the pandemic and how far the business still has to go to get back to normal.
Movies grossed an estimated $142 million Wednesday through Sunday in the U.S. and Canada, according to Comscore, led by Disney’s latest animated feature, “Encanto” (opening with $40.3 million).
The total is way up from the same weekend last year, of course, but it’s down 46% from 2019’s Turkey Day haul. Not counting the doldrums of 2020, it’s the worst Thanksgiving weekend tally since 1994, without adjusting for inflation.
A recent survey of 2,500 pre-pandemic moviegoers found that 49% are no longer buying tickets and that 16% of people who haven’t returned to theaters don’t see themselves ever going back. The study, led by film research firm the Quorum and released Monday, said the theatrical movie business still “has much work to do” to win back former filmgoers.
Some movie executives are seeing signs of light at the end of the tunnel for theatrical films, with certain movies performing well. But the new COVID-19 variant isn’t going to help things.
Stories from the week
— Did the Grammys pull a “popular” Oscar move? The New York Times reported that Kanye West and Taylor Swift were added as top nominees at the last minute. “Abba, Lil Nas X and others benefited as the number of competitors in the four all-genre categories grew from eight to 10 in a meeting the day before the nominations were announced,” the paper said.
— Comcast weighs pulling some content from Hulu in effort to boost Peacock. NBCUniversal unit has a window allowing it to remove shows that appear on the Disney-controlled streaming service. (The Wall Street Journal)
— More China trouble for Disney. “The absence of an episode of ‘The Simpsons’ from Walt Disney Co.’s streaming service in Hong Kong is raising concerns about rising censorship in the Chinese territory,” reports the WSJ.
— The loss at the heart of Guy Fieri’s entertainment empire. “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” is a mainstay of basic cable — and a rallying cry for a country that is losing touch with itself. (The Atlantic)
I haven’t read Will Smith’s new memoir yet. But I enjoyed his interview on “Fresh Air.” He talks at length and candidly about his complicated relationship with his father and how that informed his performance in “King Richard” as the dad of Venus and Serena Williams.
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