I acknowledge that this complaint is going to sound both basic and obvious, not to mention asinine, but still it needs to be said: movies are too long. Especially right now, movies are too long. Last week saw the release of First Man, Bad Times At The El Royale, and on Netflix, 22 July, clocking in at 2 hours 21 minutes, 2 hours 21 minutes, and 2 hours 23 minutes, respectively. A 140-minute movie should be a rare thing (in fact it should probably require congressional approval). When we get three on the same weekend, it’s become a problem.
This isn’t to say that two hours and twenty minutes is always too long, but it was certainly too long for these movies. It’s not that you should never make a movie that long, it’s just that if you do, you should be thinking long and hard about whether it needs to be long. Sometimes the answer is yes, and that’s fine, but it has to feel like someone at least asked. This week felt like no one asked, or didn’t ask hard enough. Which hurts not just individual movies but, to some extent, all movies.
This isn’t just about modern moviegoers having shorter attention spans, although that’s undoubtedly true, and at some point you have to start questioning the ability of art to change that. This generation works longer hours for less money and fewer vacations, with massive debt and no retirement savings, so of course we have stingier budgets for our leisure time. We have to finish the popcorn and go drive Ubers or do Taskrabbits or whatever. (My colleague Brian Grubb argues that nothing in modern life should last longer than two hours.)
But it’s also about the movies themselves. Both First Man and El Royale have plenty to recommend them, visually tasteful and artistically innovative, and both come to feel like a bit of a drag towards the end. It’s the length specifically that’s the problem (22 July had plenty of others). It’s the only thing keeping them from wholehearted recommendations.
People are going to the theater less and less these days, which means people are choosier about the movies they actually do see. Going to the theater is still an experience I value and First Man in particular, as I wrote, demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible (Edgar Wright agrees with me here). Think of the damage it does to word of mouth when people ask their friends whether First Man or El Royale are worth seeing, and the first word of the response is “Well…”
Not being an unqualified, yes, you absolutely have to go see this movie recommendation does incalculable damage to exactly the types of movies we’re always complaining that we don’t get more of — the smart, mid-budget drama aimed at adults. That doesn’t mean the movie has to be uncomplicated or saccharine, with four song and dance numbers so no one gets bored — it just has to feel like it’s not wasting our time.
First Man cost $60 million to make, El Royale about half that, and both are smart, stylish, and gorgeous. And both opened relatively weak — $16.2 million for First Man in about 3600 theaters and $7.2 million for El Royale in about 2800 theaters. First Man‘s Cinemascore of B+ was barely better than Goosebumps 2, despite being a sure-fire Oscar contender (El Royale got a B-) .
As the script guru Robert McKee tells Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation, “I’ll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.”
The reverse is also true. You can make an otherwise brilliant movie, but if the last impression of it you leave people is them sneaking a glance at their watch or wondering what they’re going to eat afterwards, the raves are going to be somewhat muted. And mid-budget awards movies can’t weather muted raves these days.
Of course, it could certainly be argued that when we talk about movies being too long, it’s not really the length that we’re talking about (the old: “it’s not how big the movie is, it’s how you use it.”). In First Man, it may be more that the pacing slows down precisely during the parts of the story that we already know. In El Royale, it could be that the characters never quite become people, that they always feel more like premises, and so the end feels long because we don’t come to care about who dies and who gets away, etc.
And what of A Star Is Born? That’s only about five minutes shorter than the others, but it’s a smash hit (A Cinemascore, $135 million worldwide). That’s true, but also: 1. those five minutes are important. 2. it’s not a “mood movie” like the others. 3. it doesn’t feel as long. The third is probably the most important. At least aim for a shorter movie, and if it’s not going be one have a good reason why.
Look, it’s art. There are no hard and fast rules. I understand that the old writing adage to “kill your darlings” is a lot harder when your darlings aren’t just words on a page but shots that took hundreds of people to shoot and cost millions of dollars. That just means you have to be that much more unsentimental about it. Because if the movie feels too long, it’s going to cost you more in the long run.