The Guide #137: A genre-by-genre rundown of the ideal film length | Culture | The Guardian

In this week’s newsletter: A poll of US cinemagoers states that 92 minutes is the ideal movie duration. But isn’t it more complicated than that?

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Here we go again, with another round of long/short culture discourse. Just after we had got through double album April (thanks Beyoncé, Taylor and Cindy Lee), May brings us the latest skirmish in the movie length wars, with a poll of US cinemagoers establishing that the ideal movie running time is a sprightly 92 minutes.

That number is unsurprising. An hour and a half has long been fetishised as the perfect length for a film. Never mind that the average run time of films is actually increasing, or that only one of IMDb’s Top 20 greatest movies of all time – 12 Angry Men – is close to that number. (Every other film in that top 20 is two hours-plus, with several of them hitting the three-hour mark.)

As you might be able to guess, I’m not on board with 92 minutes being the unimpeachable ideal film length: for a start I actually find it too short, feeling closer to an extended episode of TV than a standalone movie. Give me a two-hour film instead. But also I’m not sure you can just declare one uniform length for the broad universe of “film”, which encompasses both Oppenheimer and Kung Fu Panda 4. So, instead, in this week’s Guide we’ve tried to find the ideal length for each genre of film. Should a superhero movie be longer than a biopic? And what’s the perfect run time for a kids’ animation? Here’s what we reckon …

Action and thriller films tend to be all over the map – the engagingly daft Colin Farrell knee-rattler Phone Booth is a tiny hour and 20 minutes (although that film does basically stop dead just as you expect it to launch into a propulsive third act), The Terminator is a tidy hour and three-quarters; Die Hard, rather surprisingly, is two-and-a-quarter hours. So we’ll split the difference between the two and go with 1h 55m – enough time for a decent smattering of wisecracks and the obligatory scene where a police officer portentously says that they’re one week from retirement.

Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, fall out, meet again at a mutual friend’s wedding/funeral/boat party/showjumping tournament and reunite in swoonsome fashion. Come on – you can get that done in a tight 1h 40m surely? When Harry Met Sally managed it in 96 minutes!

Telling the cradle-to-grave story of a public figure is going to take some time, so it’s to be expected that many biopics are heavy on the length: see Malcolm X, which clocks in at a chunky 202 minutes. But the welcome recent-ish trend of slimmed-down biopics, focusing on a single flashpoint rather than the whole sweep of a life, has brought the average down a bit: a film like Judas and the Black Messiah can get the job done in just over two hours. Let’s say 2h 10m to be safe.

Exceptions can be made for slow-burning psychological shockers – The Shining, for example, runs close to two-and-a-half hours –but otherwise horror should be nasty, brutish and short; permitting just about enough time for five or six big kills, the lightest dusting of character development and a memorable ending. 1h 40m seems a fair number – that’s nine minutes shorter than an absolute classic of the genre (seen above): Psycho.

Here is perhaps where the most leeway should be given: these are the big, weighty, auteur-driven spectacles. They need to feel substantial, so it seems perfectly reasonable for them to run into the high two-hour, even three-hour mark. Do you really want someone like Paul Thomas Anderson to be asked “can you trim your new one down to 92 minutes”? Still if we’re going to suggest a rough benchmark for PTA and co to aim for, let’s opt for 2h 20m – long enough to feel significant, short enough to not require too many toilet breaks.

Conversely here’s where we can really cut things down, to match shorter attention spans of the wee ones. Glance at the run times of the classic Disney animations and you’ll see that most of them don’t hit the 90-minute mark, and some – notably, Dumbo – barely scrape an hour. Even the more recent kids animations tend to top out at an hour and a half. So 1h 20m ought to do it, though we should probably make an exception for the more leisurely delights of Studio Ghibli films.

The superhero genre has perhaps shown the most visible sign of movie-length bloat in recent years, its svelte spandexed form now carrying a noticeable spare tyre. Marvel films now regularly cross the two-and-a-half hour mark – and Avengers: Endgame was a full three. That’s absurd, obviously, but superhero movies do need to be epic in scale. Let’s trim the runtime down to a neat 2h then – enough time for some world-building but also hopefully short enough to deter creators from padding things with endless CGI-heavy, city-smashing fight scenes.

… can be as long as the great man wants it to be, frankly. Go on, Marty – do us a four-hourer, no intervals!