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Peter Bart: Do Hefty Running Times Impact Movie Marketability? It’s A Long Story

The angriest filmmaking fights that I’ve witnessed over the years have not been about cost or cast; they were about length. The movies were too long but so were the fights.

I re-lived some of them this week when I saw Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. It’s is a big success with audiences at 3 hours and 26 minutes. That’s about an hour longer than Napoleon, Ridley Scott’s epic that opens next month, and half an hour longer than Oppenheimer.

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My confession: I start getting twitchy when movies lunge pass the two-hour mark — an attention deficit problem that supposedly affects Gen Z more than geriatrics. I’ve been influenced by filmmakers like Hal Ashby, who started as an editor and believed that “films should tell their story and move on” (I worked with him on Harold & Maude and Being There).

Given my twitchiness, I suspected early on that I would not survive the 2013 screening of Sleep, which played at eight hours. On the other hand I’ve argued with Clint Eastwood that a couple of his best movies were too short. As a decisive director, he usually felt his best take was his first.

Scorsese, who started as a writer, admitted that he was suicidal when he saw Mean Streets cut to 45 minutes for its TV run. On the other hand, I felt Netflix may have been overgenerous running a four-hour cut of The Irishman.

Decisions like this seem more about aspiration than about art. Studios believe that a film can pre-establish its importance through its running time.

That was Steven Spielberg’s belief about Schindler’s List ( 3 hours and 17 minutes) and James Cameron’s on Titanic (3 hours and 14 minutes). But I thought the much-ballyhooed cut of Cleopatra in 1963 was a study in excess at 4 hours and 8 minutes. It was hooted at, not revered.

The short-and-sweet cuts of some well known movies stemmed from poverty rather than decisiveness: The Graduate (Mike Nichols) simply ran out of money. So did A New Leaf, whose filmmaker (Elaine May) decided to sue rather than meet the studio’s demands for a shorter cut. The funding disappeared.

That was almost the case on The Godfather when its studio distribution chief suddenly ordered Francis Coppola to make a 20-minute cut or he’d cancel its release. Its premiere was delayed three months while the battle raged (Coppola won).

With the exception of Godfather, I usually have found myself on the side of brevity in battles like this. This particular column, in my view, should have wrapped at least two paragraphs ago. But writers, too, rarely understand the power of economy.

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