Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit,” which partly explains why there’s only one good joke in Hamlet. John Michael McDonagh (Calvary, The Guard) said in an interview with this site, “If it takes you two hours to tell a story, you have failed as a filmmaker. 105 minutes tops is all you need, if you’re talented.”
The recent Tina Fey/Amy Poehler film, Sisters, is two hours long. While I enjoyed it, and laughed a lot, it starts to drag slightly in the middle of the party sequence and feels like it might have benefited from a more brutal editing process. It is a film with more to it than creating laughter, but not to the extent that it doesn’t feel like there’s material that could be cut.
But then, isn’t that typical of modern cinema? Judd Apatow’s hugely influential movies usually last for more than 105 minutes, but if 80 minutes is good enough for Spinal Tap, it should be good enough for everybody, right?
Well, history would suggest otherwise. The Blues Brothers is over two hours long. Four Weddings and a Funeral clocks in around the two hour mark, as does Some Like It Hot, with Animal House only ten minutes shorter. Over the years, classic comedies haven’t stuck to brevity, but it is also true that film lengths have been increasing recently. Since the 1980s, in fact.
Since then, cinema running times have roughly increased from around 90 minutes to two hours (based on the average running time of the most popular films of each year). There are several factors for this, with technology playing an important role.
In the 1980s, VHS tapes won the format war against Betamax, and home video took off. The longer the film, the higher the cost of manufacture for the video release. VHS was replaced by DVD, and film reels were replaced with digital projection. This meant long films didn’t have to have intervals while the reels were replaced, and films became more widely available to cinemas that previously had to wait for the film reels to make their way to them from other cinemas.
A change in the market, from mid-price movies to either blockbusters or low-budget pieces, means that films are invariably epic and hefty or cheap and brief. While CGI meant that previously unfilmable projects became achievable, it isn’t a case of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter changing everything. Even before The Fellowship of the Ring pushed three hours in 2001 (the distant future), the year 2000’s top ten highest grossing films contain six over two hours in length, including What Women Want. Another romcom in the top ten highest grossing films of 2000, Meet the Parents, might have been under two hours in length but was still slightly longer than the first X-Men movie.
So, comedy films are getting longer because films are – generally speaking – getting longer. Some movies – adaptations, for example – have excusable reasons for their lengths. I have watched the extended editions of Lord of the Rings enough times to have lost count, but even these don’t contain everything from within their source material. Harry Potter, too, is a series of long films that cuts out whole swathes of the books. Since The Deathly Hallows, though, we have seen that audiences are willing to sit through two films, each over two hours long, from one book.
Comedies, though, are generally original stories, albeit ones that follow a long-established formula (note the number of times the lead male gets the girl in comedies that aren’t classed as romcoms, as that’s been a long established part of what comedies are). They are also expected to make you laugh consistently. This is obviously harder than good comedies make it look (the ratio of good:bad Will Ferrell movies is testament to that), and if a comedy is longer, it will obviously require more jokes.
Having mentioned Will Ferrell, let’s look at two of his films.
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004) is 94 minutes long, according to IMDB. The sequel, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013), is 119 minutes. That’s a significant amount of additional screen time to fill with gags, especially when the shooting method for Anchorman – and indeed many American comedy films – is to film the script as written, and then suggestions are made for tweaks, changes, and ideas to riff on (this is similar to the way The Thick of It was made). Occasionally, scenes get rewritten on the fly, with new beats laid out for the actors to improvise over, but no actual dialogue (more akin to Christopher Guest’s approach, where the film is assembled in the editing suite).
This approach involves long takes (The 40 Year Old Virgin shot over a million feet of film), and the choice then is whether or not to stick with the scripted version or include the longer takes in the final cut. If the latter option is chosen, then there’s the question of how far to edit them down. Generally speaking, the free-flowing, meandering banter takes are incorporated enough to push what is presumably quite a long script over the two-hour mark. It’s no coincidence that many popular American comedians have their background in improv, but This Is Spinal Tap demonstrates that this approach doesn’t have to mean lengthy movies.
Equally, tightly scripted films can still last for hours. Shaun of the Dead might clock in at 99 minutes (a similar running time to another comedy-horror classic, An American Werewolf in London), but Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s 2007 follow-up, Hot Fuzz, lasted for 121 minutes, and The World’s End (2013) is 109 minutes long. While there are moments of improvization in these movies, they remain moments, due to an increased emphasis on plot and visuals. They’re more cinematic, essentially, and in their ambition push the running time up in an attempt to be successful across two or more genres.
Crucially, most of the films I’ve listed here have been well-received by audiences. Film length is only a problem if it’s not a good movie, and there are many examples of popular movies over 105 minutes long that suggest audiences disagree with John Michael McDonagh. While average running time appears to have increased, it’s harder to say average film quality has changed. But even if the quality remains at similar levels, if the films are longer, then they may feel worse. There will always be bad movies and patchy comedies, but we’d all surely rather sit through a bad 90-minute film than a bad two-hour one.