Oh, Do Go On: From ‘John Wick’ to ‘Oppenheimer,’ Audiences Love Long Blockbusters

For major theatrical releases, bigger is better. “John Wick: Chapter 4” is 169 minutes — more than an hour longer than the original. “Avatar: The Way of Water” is 192 minutes. “Dune” was 155 minutes. “The Batman” clocked in at 176 minutes, a franchise record. Matt Belloni at Puck reported that Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” will be around 180 minutes, his longest. In a world where short attention spans are the norm, why are top franchise filmmakers willing to go on (and on?)

The short answer: because they can, and because audiences don’t mind it. Previous generations faced format restrictions from theaters and other platforms; they also didn’t have a binge-watching public that’s increasingly comfortable with longer-form storytelling. Streaming platforms court the best directors with the chance to go as long as they see fit.

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The supersized “John Wick 4” is a rarity as an R-rated action film — even George Miller managed to contain his acclaimed “Max Max: Fury Road” to 120 minutes — but the real holdouts seem to be animated titles and comedies. With those audiences skewing either young or older, it might be catering to more pronounced audience realities, or just the difficulty in sustaining concepts for these films over a lengthier period.

Compared to the early days of Hollywood, current films are models of economy: “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 and 1916’s “Intolerance” were each over three hours. The 1939 “Gone With the Wind” was just under four hours, at 238 minutes. By the mid-’50s, lengthy titles were prestige items with higher ticket prices. Between 1956 and 1972, 10 of the Best Picture Oscar winners ran over 150 minutes, intermissions not included. Length became a signal of quality and importance.

THE GODFATHER: PART II, Al Pacino, 1974 - Credit: Everett Collection / Everett Collection
THE GODFATHER: PART II, Al Pacino, 1974 - Credit: Everett Collection / Everett Collection

Everett Collection / Everett Collection

And then, length became bloat. For every “The Godfather Part II” (202 minutes) there was a “The Towering Inferno” (165 minutes) and “Airport” (137 minutes) Running times went into decline. Today, running times are on the rise once more as the conditions that once inhibited length no longer exist.

“Titanic” was an immediate success when it opened in December 1997. It debuted over Christmas, and most theaters couldn’t give it more than one screen. At 196 minutes, that severely limited showtimes and meant it grossed only $70 million (adjusted) in its first weekend. That’s less than five percent of its ultimate adjusted total of $1.5 billion domestic.

That would be unheard of today. In 1997, there were 31,865 screens, and today there’s over 42,000. Theaters now hold two or more screens for long-running, highly anticipated films, which increases capacity and allows for a wider range of showtimes. The new “John Wick” film will have a minimum of three screens for its opening weekend at top theaters — in many cases, four screens or more.

Attention spans aside, practicalities of exhibition shaped audience expectations for running times. Before 1970, virtually every theater in the world had only a single screen; they strongly favored lengths of 100 minutes or less, which allowed for five showtimes.

Classic-film fans might believe the standard length was 90-120 minutes, but that perception stems from what outlets like TCM now choose to show. Almost all American films released in the 1930s and 1940s were under 90 minutes, with the majority under 75. Many were “B” movies intended as the second in a double feature or to play at lesser theaters; the shorter run times made it easier to pair them.

When television emerged as a vital secondary exhibition outlet (albeit three years or more after release), Hollywood had to take their concerns into consideration as well. With commercials, a movie longer than 100 minutes couldn’t fit into the two-hour prime-time slot. VCRs and laser discs brought more flexibility, although not by much; capacity issues meant an overlong movie could suffer in in playback quality.

Finally, length was no object with the rise of DVDs, Blu-rays, and cable. In fact, longer movies could be an asset for cable programmers; they needed fewer to fill a schedule.

“Avatar: The Way of Water” - Credit: ©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection
“Avatar: The Way of Water” - Credit: ©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection

Very long movies still find marketplace challenges. Films like these tend to feature awe-inspiring special effects, often shot on IMAX cameras, but IMAX and other premium screens are singular to their complexes and usually are not the largest capacities. Though “The Way of Water” had unlimited seating when it opened, the audience’s preference for the less-available premium screens reduced its opening gross.

If and when filmmakers decide to pare their running times, one way might to try to reduce the length of credits. Eight minutes is not uncommon; 10 minutes is not unheard of.  By contrast, only two of the 238 minutes that belong to “Gone With the Wind” went to credits — at the time, an extreme.

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