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- This article first appeared in the March 2022 issue of Sight and Sound.
How do you measure a movie? The feature film is fighting for our lucrative attention spans, again, and James Cameron has a solution. The blockbuster director, who is sitting on a daunting plan to deliver a new Avatar sequel every two years until 2028, has taken time into account. He is hoping he can edit his films into both binge-able six-hour versions for the streaming platforms, for the audiences who prefer to stay at home and fill their evenings on their own schedule, and snappy two-hour versions for cinemas, which have a little more tolerance for human weakness. After all, Hitchcock once said, paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, that the length of a film should be commensurate to the capacity of the human bladder, and that remains as good a rule of thumb as any.
The film industry has long been obsessed with length and current debates about the threat posed by streaming services to the bricks-and-mortar box office only stoke the fire. In the 1950s, Hollywood studios reacted to the growing popularity of TV by making films bigger both widthways and longways, sinking sizeable budgets into epic stories shot in CinemaScope. Recent blockbusters have followed suit, with 2021’s No Time to Die at two hours 43 minutes and Dune (the first of a two-parter) clocking in at two hours 35 minutes. Cameron aims to reverse that strategy.
Doubtless we’ll have to wait until the pandemic is over before we can tell whether the streaming services have inherited the Earth, but we should be wary of assuming that the current situation has significantly muddied the waters. We can all tell the difference between watching four episodes of Succession (2018-) and the entirety of The Irishman (2019), however big or small the screen, and both are an excellent use of nearly four hours. And there are many aspects to Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (2021) that mark it as truly cinematic – surely the two-hour running time is incidental.
Still, many of us are sentimentally attached to the idea that a film should be 90 minutes long, just as a pop song should not exceed three minutes, even though both rules are more honoured in the breach than the observance. Running time is not the measure of a movie. Ask any audiovisual archivist and they will tell you that films exist in multiple lengths anyway. The limits of variation expand vastly if we consider a trailer to be an edit of the film, and any subsequent sequels, prequels or franchise spin-offs to be extensions of the original work. How long is a feature film? How long have you got?
It’s easy to lose track of time, which isn’t even how the first feature films were measured – they were sold on distance rather than duration. Hence the word ‘footage’ and the now-quaint terminology that divides movies into single-reel films, two-reelers and multiple-reel extravaganzas. Even when the single-reel film was king, the length of a movie show, or a tale on film, was elastic. A reel unspooled at around 10-15 minutes, but exhibitors would show them in mixed programmes of an hour or more and there were always filmmakers determined to tell lengthy stories, such as on religious subjects in a series of single-reelers. Popular serials also built short films into much longer, if loosely organised, narratives. The first truly feature-length film was appropriately enough something of an outlier, the Australian bushranger epic The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906). The original 4,000ft release ran for more than an hour, but only a tantalising 17 minutes survives today.
Europe first popularised the longer film, turning historical and literary sources into multiple-reel movies that screamed for attention, epics such as an eight-reel Quo Vadis? (1913), a 12-reel Les Misérables (1913) and the 13-reel Cabiria (1914). These imported films were worryingly popular in the States (Cabiria was projected on the White House lawn) so American studios followed suit, but with reservations. They liked the idea of booking single prints into long runs in select cinemas, but the risks were higher too: studios had to spend big on one film rather than spread budgets, and bets.
By the middle of 1914, feature-film production was in full swing, but an editorial in trade journal The Moving Picture World concluded that it would only result in a revival of the single-reel. Carl Laemmle, then-president of Independent Moving Pictures, also railed against the idea, saying “the long feature is doomed and its death-knell will sound shortly”. This, despite the fact that his company had released Traffic in Souls (1913), notable among the earliest American feature films for not being a literary adaptation. It was a sensationalist film, but also one that prioritised street-level realism and emotional investment over spectacle and grand themes. One of the first features to insist that the extended length of a film was less about dazzling the eyes and more about engaging hearts and minds. The yardstick for cinema is not length, but depth.