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The Dartmouth
May 30, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Trends: Despite Shorter Attention Spans, the Most Popular Movies are Getting Longer

The increasing length of consumers’ favorite films harkens to an era where movies are an experience, not just a product.

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A few weeks ago, I finally made the commitment that most moviegoers had made months before me: I sat down to watch “Oppenheimer” in theaters. When the credits rolled, I was mesmerized. Its stunning visuals and masterful storytelling transfixed me at every turn. Despite this, I couldn’t say that the movie’s quality surprised me. Nearly everyone I knew had seen it by the time I did and had given it equally effusive praise. 

Since the movie has been the subject of so much acclaim, one obvious question might stand out: Why did I wait nearly three months to see it? The answer lies in the term I used to describe my viewing experience — a commitment. While I had been excited to see “Oppenheimer” for months, its runtime led me to put it off. At 180 minutes, seeing “Oppenheimer” meant making a massive investment of my time and focus. 

In an era where many artists tailor their content to our reduced attention spans by making it increasingly shorter, we might expect the length of “Oppenheimer” to doom its mainstream success. But, of course, this has not been the case. Instead, it has been one of 2023’s most successful films, grossing over $900 million in the global box office so far. While this may seem surprising at first, perhaps it shouldn’t be. A look at the 10 highest-grossing films so far this year gives us “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One” (164 minutes), “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” (150 minutes), “Fast X” (141 minutes) and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” (140 minutes). The most successful films, in a seemingly counterintuitive way, are trending longer than average run times in the past, not shorter.

The films I have mentioned above are not anomalies, either: The data on movie runtimes validate this trend. A study by data visualization expert Randal Olson compiled the average runtimes of films between the years 1931 and 2013. Interestingly, Olson found that the average length of a film between 2005 and 2013 was 85 minutes, slightly shorter than the 90-minute movie runtimes in the 1960s and 1970s. These findings demonstrate an overall decrease in film length between 1960 and 2013. 

However, Olsen created a second graph of the average run time of the 25 most popular movies from 1931 to 2013 — not just the average length of a film. This graph expressed that the 25 most popular movies have indeed trended longer during this time period. The top 25 films from 2013 averaged slightly over two hours, around 123 minutes, in length — an increase from roughly 110 minutes in 1985, and 102 minutes in 1940. In the mid-1960s, according to Olson’s data, the 25 most popular films had an average runtime of just under two hours — around 118 minutes. Olson interestingly points out that while the length of the most popular films has steadily increased since the 1980s, it has only increased by a margin of around 10 minutes. Before this increase began, there was a decrease in movie length between the early 1980s and 1990s. Olson theorizes that this decrease in length is due to the rise of home video. 

Olson uses this data to support the point that films are, in reality, not getting longer. I think, though, that the data supports a different point. First of all, more recent data, compiled by Chartr — a data storytelling website — confirms that this trend has continued: The average length of the 10 highest grossing films in 2021 was 131 minutes. This points to the conclusion that most commercially successful films, like those I already mentioned, have in fact been getting longer. Beyond this, by emphasizing that the most popular films have only modestly increased in length from the 1960s, Olson ignores the increase of around 10 minutes in length from the 1980s to today. As Olson himself admits, movies may not feel any longer to a person born in 1950, but they will almost certainly feel longer than a person born in 1980. For a large portion of the moviegoing population — current Dartmouth students included — movies have been getting longer our entire lives.

What is behind this increase in the length of our favorite films? To answer this question, I think it is useful to look back at an era where the top movies were almost as long as they were now: the 1960s. During this decade, epic films — sweeping, immersive movies that often totaled three or even four hours in length — were at the apex of their popularity. This summer, I watched perhaps the most famous epic, 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” At a staggering 227 minutes long, “Lawrence of Arabia,” like “Oppenheimer,” was not made for casual viewing. Yet as I progressed through the movie, I realized that was the point. Even at nearly four hours long, the sprawling picture that “Lawrence of Arabia” painted of the Middle East, coupled with the immersive historical narrative it told, left me captivated. If this was how I felt watching the film on my living room TV in 2023, I thought, I can only imagine how someone in 1962 would react to seeing it in theaters. While “Lawrence of Arabia” functioned well as a movie, its character development, storytelling and immersive visuals — coupled with, of course, its length — made it feel like a full cinematic experience. 

This gets to the main reason why, in my view, the top movies of each year have been getting longer again. As home videos were on the rise in the 1980s and 1990s, which Olson theorized went hand in hand with movie length decreasing, movies transitioned away from being strictly theatrical experiences. They became an on-demand commodity. Consumers wanted quick, gratifying products that they could watch and return to the video store the next day. Now, however, more so than in the 1980s, there are a variety of ways to receive this fast and easy gratification — many of which are shorter than even a 90-minute blockbuster. Every form of content is now accessible on-demand, and most are faster to consume than a full film.

Does this make the fact that movies are getting longer counterintuitive, like I proposed at the beginning of the article? I don’t think so. What it points to instead is a desire among those who make movies to distinguish them once again as not just products, but experiences. I think the most popular movies getting longer is a tacit recognition that while movies can no longer compete with other forms of instantly-gratifying content, they can offer something entirely different. A movie like “Oppenheimer” can’t provide me with the same cheap thrill as a five-second video; what it can provide, though, is something to sink my teeth into, to invest in, to contemplate. In a culture saturated with brief, simple joys, perhaps our increasingly long set of blockbusters provide us with an experiential place of refuge.