Are movies getting longer?

The other day I was watching the fantastic film Spotlight. After two hours and eight minutes the film concluded and two thoughts popped into my mind. First thought related to how incredibly important investigative journalism is to our societies and how it is of uttermost importance to make sure that this institution lives on. My second thought was “two hours and eight minutes, I thought it would be longer”.

But, then I realised that if I had watched a movie that lasted more than two hours when I was 15 (in the year 1999) I would have claimed a victory of concentration and focus. I would have come out telling people that I had just been through an epic journey at the cinema. After all Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me was 90 minutes.** And, my sense was always – and still is to a degree – that movies are 90 minutes.

What is exactly going on? Are movies getting longer? Not unlikely, but it could also be that movies are just getting more boring and therefore feel as if they are longer. Or could it be that my attention span has improved over time and no longer two hours at the cinema equates to an eternity in my mind?

Of all the possible explanations above for some reason I think the first – movies are getting longer – is the most likely one. Most sensible people, when fronting few theories where one is obviously superior to all others settle for that theory probably being the correct one. Unfortunately I am not particularly sensible and decided to test my theory empirically.

Now my first task was to define the research question. After great thought and a rough look at imdb.com I decided to answer the two following questions:

  • Have movie runtimes increased since the fifties? and
  • Have movies runtimes increased in my lifetime?

Now, I had questions and theories and all I needed to confirm or reject my theory was data. To do that I created a computer program that visit the imdb profile page of the 50 most popular movies on imdb.com in the years spanning from 1950 to 2015. The pogram then proceeded to download the data available on those films (including runtime).*

What did the data conclude? It concluded that my theory was good. There is a clear trend both since 1950 and since my birth towards longer runtime of films (see chart below). Indeed The average movie in 1950 ran for just over 1h and 5m minutes. In the next 15 years films started to get really long. In fact in 1965 the average movie ran for a whopping 2h and 6m.

Figure: Movies are longer than in the 50’sruntime1

While you might be thinking to yourself that the result is mainly driven by Akira Kurosawa’s 3h and 5m epic, Red Beard. That is however not the case. In fact, while in 1950 only one film ran for more than 2 hours whereas in 1965 20 films exceeded two hours.

Figure: Number of ‘top 50’ films running for more than two hoursruntime4

1965, the year of Sound of Music year (runtime 2h 54m), market a peak for movie durations.  From there on and into the early 80’s movies runtime regressed and cinemagoers would now spend only around 1h 50m at the cinema (a good 12 minutes reduction from the peak year of 1965). By the time I was born, the runtime had been reduced by good 15 minutes (in 1983 the average film runtime was 1h and 51m).

Figure: 20 seconds added to film runtime every year since I was bornruntime2

But in the year of my birth, 1984, the year in which the the film 1984 – based on the book 1984 – was released, the runtime started growing again. In 1984 they films were already running for one minute longer than in the year before. Since, on average, films have been adding more than 20 seconds to the cinemagoers cinema time every year. This development has been so persistent that in 2015 cinemagoers would spend the same amount of time as their 1965 counterparts to get to the credits at the movies.

But don’t despair, the you will probably be able to avoid haemorrhoids developing from all those long cinema sessions. This is because history tends to repeats itself, and if it does, then we should expect runtimes to regress back to a more modest number (most likely under two hours).

 

Thanks for reading, but and if you enjoyed the numbers and analysis then stay tuned in the coming weeks as I intend to interrogate this data and share with you on Eikonomics over the coming weeks.

Cheers,
Eiki

—–Footnotes—–

*Most popular movies I defined as the movies that most imdb.com users have voted on. Therefore the analysis is analysis is only properly representative of the movies that are popular amongst modern movie hobbyist and could not be representative of movies that the people at the time would watch.

**Actually it was 93 minutes, but it could well have done without the title sequence.

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