FILMGOERS: NUMB AND NUMB-ER.
In the beginning was the film. And the film was without form and void. And the director said, Let there be length.
And there was length.
Yea, ever since the epic days of D.W. Griffith, long running times have occasioned much beating of breasts and gnashing of teeth. And not just in line at the concession stand.
This past year may represent a high-water mark. There was a record spree of titles of 135 minutes and up released between Labor Day and New Year's Eve and a whopping 20 marathons over the course of the year.
The slate in November and December alone was larded with 15 films running 135-plus, including "The Insider," "Dogma," "The Green Mile," "Magnolia," "Anna and the King," "Titus," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Topsy-Turvy," "Angela's Ashes" and "Any Given Sunday."
This shift to longer films has occurred in a decade supposedly responsible for shortening attention spans amid the explosion of Internet, cable TV and videogames.
One example of that seeming contradiction may be Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday." The film's frenetic rhythm often approximates that of a musicvideo, yet it runs 162 minutes.
The post-"Titanic" (194 min.) surge of long releases is on many showbiz minds these days. It's already given rise to a well-traveled quip attributed to writer Larry Gelbart: "I haven't seen `The Green Mile' yet, so don't give away the middle."
For both studios and exhibs, longer pics pose stiff B.O. challenges. For every three-hour profit factory like "Titanic" or "Dances With Wolves" (185 min.), there are many more efforts such as "Meet Joe Black" (180 min.), "The Postman" (another 180 min.) that prompt mass snooze-icide.
With a nod to 1960s drug culture, some baby boomers are fond of saying that if you remember the '60s, you couldn't have been there. Film fans could just as well say that if you stayed awake in the 1990s, you obviously weren't at the movies.
The decade past brought us fare such as Kenneth Branagh's "Hamlet" (242 min., 92 minutes longer than Olivier's Oscarwinner); "Scent of a Woman" (157 min.); "Beloved" (171 min.); "Casino" (182 min.) and "Amistad" (152 min.)
If you're so hopped up on triple latte that those counts don't faze you, maybe this bottom-line figure will bring you down: In the past 25 years only eight films longer than 150 minutes have gone on to gross more than $100 million domestically.
Even the select few that reach a lofty gross figure have skimpier profit margins due to higher costs.
A three-hour film costs substantially more to release than a 90-minute film, first because of higher film stock costs and second because of show times.
Those factors are mitigated a bit on wide releases such as "The Green Mile." Film stock is cheaper on a per-unit basis for 2,000 prints than an indie pic's would be for just a few dozen prints.
But consider the ancillary pitfalls awaiting many longer pics. Home viewers, especially Oscar voters, have more control over the film experience and thus can opt to not sit through an extra hour of sweeping vistas.
So then why do modern-day auteurs of longueur like Stone and "Magnolia's' Paul Thomas Anderson still hold sway?
For an explanation, showbizzers point to some larger trends:
* Trophies. The hunt for Oscars has grown increasingly savage, and Oscar films tend to be long. Quintessential recent choices include "Schindler's List" (185 min.), "The English Patient" (160 min.) "Braveheart" (177 min.), "The Last Emperor" (160 min.), "Out of Africa" (160 min.) and "Gandhi" (188 min.)
Those pics enjoyed handsome B.O., but never became true theatrical blockbusters by modern standards.
("Gandhi's" running-time issue revealed itself one night in Cleveland in 1982, when 150 cars were ticketed outside a theater showing Richard Attenborough's epic. It seems motorists had parked in a two-hour zone. The city later voided the tickets.)
* Relationships with talent. New Line Cinema, for example, cut Anderson plenty of slack on "Magnolia" despite its unorthodox structure and what most B.O. watchers feel are lukewarm commercial prospects. Anderson has been quoted as needing extra minutes "to make a great movie" and New Lineeither couldn't or wouldn't dissuade the young "Boogie Nights" (152 min.) helmer from equating length with performance.
New Line prexy Michael DeLuca declines to comment about "Magnolia's' running time.
"You can't tell a filmmaker not to make a three-hour movie," says Jack Foley, distrib chief at USA Films, distrib of Mike Leigh's 161-minute light opera epic, "Topsy-Turvy."
"You don't gain anything by trying to rein a filmmaker in," agrees one vet studio exec. "When a filmmaker tells you his vision, you have to listen accurately. The problem in Hollywood is people are often guilty of hearing what they want to hear and not the reality of what's being presented."
On the exhib side of the fence, longer, more daring fare will sometimes get booked, against the odds, as a form of goodwill marketing for theater chains.
"One question people always ask in the suburbs is whether we're going to have the same films that play in big cities," says Marc Pascucci, advertising veep at Loews Cineplex Entertainment, one of the top U.S. circuits. "A lot of times that means longer films."
* Megaplexing. When "The Towering Inferno" scorched the B.O. charts in 1974 on the way to a $107 million cume, perhaps its biggest feat was overcoming a 2-hour 45-minute running time.
Single-screen houses or even early multiplexes could only screen the pic three or four times a day. Many markets didn't -- and still don't -- offer weekday matinees, so that meant one 8 p.m. show a day.
That schedule still happens now in some venues. Foley, who'll expand USA's "Topsy-Turvy" this month, notes that with an indie like "Topsy," a limited release "pressurizes those showtimes."
More frequently these days, with the advent of megaplexes boasting 18 or 20 screens, longer releases such as "Green Mile" get pre-booked into multiple auditoriums featuring staggered showtimes.
Longer recent pics had been in development well before "Titanic" sailed away with $600 million domestically. So showbizzers struggle to pinpoint when film cans started getting fatter.
Did it start with McDonald's Super Size meals? Baggy jeans? SUVs?
"Right now we're in the stage of `Make the best movie we can make,'" shrugs Tom Sherak, chairman of Fox's domestic film group. "There are fewer arguments now. There's more give and take. People just want the best movie."
The give and take is mostly take -- by a growing roster of directors with final cut, one veteran high-ranking indic exec says.
"As the industry gets more and more supportive of the filmmaker and more geared toward an independent model in the creative process, you'll see a lot more longer pics."
Alex Gartner, executive veep of production at MGM, was an exec at Fox 2000 when Terence Malick's 170-minute "The Thin Red Line" was in production. He believes each film has an "organic length" whose determination involves more intuition than stopwatch.
"You can't just factor commercial viability of movies based on length," he says. "Sometimes you get involved with filmmakers and projects that just tend to run a little longer."
Cameron Crowe's "Jerry Mauire" clocked in at 138 minutes. Now in post-production on his untitled autobiographical pic, Crowe blames the arduous process of getting films made.
"You've fought for your cinematographer, you've fought for your star, you've fought for the time to make the film, so of course you do the lush version of every scene. You see it in dailies and it feels right. But then you put all those scenes together and you've got a four-hour film."
Everyone interviewed repeats a single caveat: As long as you have a great story to tell, go ahead and take your time. "If the film is there, you can do anything with it," Foley says.
Warren Beatty certainly seemed confident he had the goods in 1981 when he was whittling "Reds" down to 200 minutes. Dede Allen, the editor of that pic and dozens of others, says the fact the film screened with an intermission may have sent auds the wrong message.
"That was unheard of in that time," she says. "Now you sit through a three-hour movie like it's nothing. You have many more directors making films their own way."
Just another cycle
But if history is any guide, this could be another one of those cycles that rule Hollywood for years before receding again. Studios could easily break out the scissors if their big 747s this season fail to take off.
"Whoever comes along now and delivers a taut, entertaining script that comes in at 98 pages is going to be king for a day," Crowe predicts.
Most execs develop an instinct to cut that can border on obsession. Allen recalls one radical episode that highlights the tension between the creative side and the business side on the length issue.
After editing the 1958 sci-fi pic "Terror From the Year 5000," Allen and director Bob Gurney, whose wife starred in the film, shipped it to American Intl. Pictures distribution execs for release.
When Allen finally caught a screening of it, however, her jaw immediately dropped. The execs had excised an entire reel of the film, trimming the running time to just 66 minutes.
"All the logic of the story, the whole point of the movie was in that reel," Allen says. "I asked them why they would do such a thing and they said, `We can't stand the wife.'"
While those AIP execs might consider the current cinematic crop to be terrors from the year 2000, they'd also have one bit of consolation.
In November and December, three of the hottest releases -- "Pokemon: The First Movie," "Toy Story 2" and "Stuart Little" -- have had an average running time of 86 minutes.
"As long as the family product stays at 90 minutes, we'll be OK," says Loews' Pascucci. "I just don't see how those films would work at three hours."
And so we reach the finale of Variety's epic about epics. If you want the unexpurgated version, you'll just have to wait for the reporter's cut.
RUNNING OF THE PICS
Longest running English-language pics since 1970 Mins. 1 Hamlet ('96, Sony) 242 2 Woodstock 228 (reissue '94, WB) 3 Gone With the Wind 222 (reissue '89, MGM) 4 Lawrence of Arabia 222 (restored '89, Col) 5 Last Emperor 222 (reissue '98, Art)
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|Date:||Jan 10, 2000|
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