Will The Length Of Movies Hurt Them In the Next Generation?

By  · Published on October 28th, 2013

Early this year, Nathan Harden wrote about a bubble on the verge of bursting, saying that “Big changes are coming, and old attitudes and business models are set to collapse as new ones rise. Few who will be affected by the changes ahead are aware of what’s coming.”

He was writing about higher education and the migration of university curriculum’s to the web, but he could have just as easily been talking about the film industry and our relationship to it as viewers. The parallels – particularly the emerging dominance of schools releasing lecture content through online networks – are apt. Minus the “free” part, of course.

We all know about Steven Spielberg’s prescient-sounding condemnation of the top-heavy studio structure, and it’s easy to imagine as we watch the landscape of studio offerings roll by with their capes in hand that a fundamental shift in focus has already happened, but Harden’s piece got me thinking not of the content being created, but the structure of the movie’s themselves. Specifically, the 2-hour average hero’s journey that represents the most-typical formula.

Approximately a billion thinkpieces have been written on the internet’s encroachment into the stale-as-popcorn atmosphere of the movie theater, and they all come to the conclusion that something big is going to happen. My question is whether movies will be able to survive in their current form when that paradigm shift happens. My guess is that we’ll have to greatly expand what we think of when we think of “movies.”

Which, right off the bat, is kind of silly. We’re talking about a century-old art form that comes in many different packages, but somewhere along the way we started thinking explicitly (or at least, certainly, most often) of the cinematic experience as heading to the local theater and expecting to be gone for about 2 hours. On average, we’re going to meet a main character (or a team) and watch as something alters his/her (usually his…) life necessitating a change (and potentially a sweet training montage). It’s why we call them “short films” instead of “movies” and why you never hear someone ask if you want to catch a feature-length down at the multiplex.

Oddly enough, its blockbusters that are toying with that structure, pushing the boundaries of time by delivering massive 2.5 and 3-hour experiences that also naturally stretch the Second Act into episodic new territory. Granted, they are also fighting hard to adhere to the standard by focusing more on plot, which is either a sign of increased dynamism as a trend in Hollywood or a simple desire to shake as many shiny things at us at once. Sometimes that means unnecessary-feeling sequences tacked on to bloat the Eventness of it all; sometimes that means a seamlessly larger scale and scope that leaves us shocked upon looking at our watches in the parking lot. It may seem small, but that’s a factor of storytelling that will play largely in the future.

And what’s in that future? Right now it’s a greater number of people getting entertainment in smaller drips online. Laugh and sweat all you want, but 6-second movies via Vine are here, and they’re incredibly popular. We’ve even reached a moment where we’re (rightfully) questioning the cinematic value of GIFs even as we argue over how to pronounce them.

If that stretches your belief, consider 5-Second Films – the complete stories that have found a popular presence online despite being .07% as long as the normal moving picture and a full second shorter than Vines.

Now, while it’s easy to dismiss claims that the upcoming generation of fans has a shorter attention span as a self-fulfilling oatmeal fist shaking at the clouds, it’s difficult to feel positive about the health of long (read: 2 hours) movies in an age where college kids are tweeting through Halloween while thinking they have an honest opinion of it. (They should have waited to tweet how bored they were until after the credits ran.)

That, of course, also speaks to a structure that doesn’t include plot being thrown at us every few moments. Sometimes it feels like suspense will be a luxury that the mainstream can no longer afford. The box office take for stuff like The Conjuring can counteract that gut tightening, but it doesn’t mean audiences are comfortable sitting quietly.

One of the theories about TV dominating right now (if you buy into the ideas that 1) TV and film should be compared and 2) that TV is “winning”) is that it’s easier to access both physically and schedule-wise. The streaming possibilities are widely heralded, but there may also be something to the idea that it’s easier for us to insert a 22-minute sitcom or 44-minute drama into our day than a 120-minute movie. The other side of the coin is Netflix which has, yes, found success supplying movies and TV shows to the online world, but who has also proven through binge-watching that we have all the time in the world still.

As getting our entertainment through the internet becomes more and more standardized and proliferated, it’s unlikely that the 2-hour hero’s journey will die out or anything, but we may have to explain what we mean when we invite someone to watch movies with us. The good news for everyone concerned that movies will be boiled down is that they won’t. Even if the studio system sees reason to shorten what they’re working with (and that’s unlikely considering their desperate need to hold onto the Eventness of each picture), there will always be a counterbalance to fill the void. Plus, average runtimes have changed over the last century. No big deal. The more interesting question is how long – or how disparately long – movies will be once those of us used to 90-minute horror films and 180-minute thinkers are all gone. Fortunately, the better news is that quality will still rule the experience – making 3 hours fly by or making us click on one more video. At any rate, big changes are coming, and old attitudes and business models are set to collapse as new ones rise. Few who will be affected by the changes ahead are aware of what’s coming.

“You wanna come over and watch movies with me? I just rented a bunch of Vines.”

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.