How Long is Enough?

I watched Unstoppable recently, a fantastic action thriller from Tony Scott.  It ain’t Shakespeare, but sometimes all you want to watch is two guys trying to stop a bloody great runaway train.  It is also mercifully short at 98 minutes; which is a good thing as I think the simplicity of the premise and characters would have worn a bit thin if it had gone on much longer.  This is something I’ve considered before about films – why are so many of them so damn long?

Surely making a movie that’s shorter is cheaper than making than one that’s longer. You need to make less footage and so can spend less time shooting, pay the actors less, do less editing etc etc.  Witness that films that are made on really low budgets are always really short; usually about as short as they can get away without people complain.  A friend of mine made a horror movie titled F last year which clocks in atabout 75 minutes.  But think about this: you charge the same to watch a short movie as a long one.

Take the example of Kill Bill. Originally Quentin Tarantino wanted this to be one massive four hour revenge-a-thon, but then some bright spark (I think it was one of the Weinstiens)  came up with the idea of splitting the film the film into two “parts” releasing them one after the other.  Think about it: now you could show two screenings of Kill Bill Part 1 in an evening and hence make twice as much money AND you then had Kill Bill Part 2 to release later – you make FOUR TIMES as much money.

So the question has to be asked: why make a long movie at all? Surely the Hollywood studios should wise up to this and make movies as short as they possibly can, thus cutting their costs down as much as possible and squeezing as many screenings into an evening.  Clearly, they don’t do this and we can only assume they have their reasons; but more to the point they frequently make movies that are REALLY long – Titanic anyone?

The best theory I came up with was that there’s kind of less risk in developing a long(er) movie than a short one. If you make a 90 minute movie you’ve got to be careful with what you include and discard; whereas if you aim for 2 hours plus you can afford to have crowd pleasing scenes that don’t necessarily move the plot forward.  You just get more movie and therefore more chance of pleasing people.  I asked a producer friend of mine and his response however was that this was simply director’s perogative: if Christopher Nolan wants to make The Dark Knight Returns 3½ hours long he bloody well will and there’s nothing Warner Brothers can really do to stop him.

Something else that really weirds me out is the placement of actors names on posters. Refer to the Unstoppable poster above: Denzel Washington’s name is on the left, Chris Pine’s name is on the right – yet the picture of Chris Pine is on the left and Denzel Washington’s face is on the right.  Why not swap the name round so it makes sense?  Or swap the faces if you can’t swap the names.  It’s madness!