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Why We Must Free Film From Running Time Prejudice

Why We Must Free Film From Running Time Prejudice

With the rise of more time flexible distribution platforms, filmmaker Andrei Severny thinks it’s time
for cinema to break free from the old established running time
restrictions. In this article, which was originally published on Tribeca’s Future of Film blog, Severny argues against the bias towards movies that run 120 minutes. Just because two hours has become the norm, doesn’t mean we should ignore films of unconventional length. Read an excerpt of his piece below and the
full story here.

Time is what cinema is made of. This art form stands out among the rest because its intrinsic nature lies in the visual flow of recorded time. In the book Sculpting in Time (1986), Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky noted how time is the main organizing force in cinema. “The dominant, all-powerful factor of the film image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame.” Tarkovsky was the master of long shots of true cinematic magnetism, which absorb and elevate the viewer from everyday life and carry unparalleled spiritual depth.

We live in a
time when limitations on content are fashionable. Shorter forms of content
often tend to be shallow, encouraging the viewer to jump to the next item
without much thought. Back in 1992, Roger Ebert wrote, “Why is it nobody seems
to realize how lots of short little things are exhausting? You have to keep
setting your mind back to zero. But the long, deep stuff – the long books, the
long movies, and even the TV miniseries — are refreshing, because they give you
the time to understand other lives and even, for a time, seem to share them.”

Freedom and restrictions in literature and cinema

Every media
follows its rules. Twitter limits each entry to 140 characters. Focused and
informative newspapers adhere to article word count of around 800. But the
highest form of literature — a book — enjoys total freedom of length. It is the
content that matters.

popular apps — such as Vine and Instagram — limit videos to a few seconds.
Television is constrained by a rigid schedule grid to allow time for news and
advertising. Why isn’t the art of film allowed the freedom from length limitations
that we so freely grant to books? 

As an
independent filmmaker your job is not only to conceive and give birth to your
film, but to send it off to meet its audience. Even if you gave up the ambition
to show your film theatrically and just want to put it online, major platforms
like Netflix, iTunes and Hulu would most likely not talk to you. You could
proudly put your film on your own website, but no one beyond a fraction of your
Facebook and Twitter friends would even know it’s there.

You could then
try the traditional route. When submitting your film to festivals, you’ll
notice that films are segmented into categories not only by genre, but also by
running time. The most desirable and prestigious is a feature length film
defined by different organizations as films longer than 40 or 60 or 70 or 80 or
90 minutes.

While there are
many competitions and venues for short films, the running time ranges between
20 and 70 minutes and anything longer than 160 minutes is less likely to get

The 120
minute trap of the existing distribution models

Even if your
creation gets this far in the selection process, the next deadly challenge is
to find a distributor. The unwritten rule for feature films is to make it as
close to 120 minutes as possible. Even established filmmakers give in to the

Let us not be
deceived — there is no objective evidence that 120 minutes is the best running
time for the viewer’s experience. The reason is an old theatrical marketing
habit, a compromise between the audience getting their money’s worth and
maximizing the number of screenings per day.

The myth of
the shortening attention span

For decades
people have been talking about the changing appetites of viewers towards videos
of cute cats and flipping channels in search of the next wacko experience.
Kevin Spacey brilliantly challenged this notion in his recent speech at the
Edinburgh Television Festival: “We can make no assumptions about what viewers
want or how they want to experience things. We must observe, adapt, and try new
things to discover appetites we didn’t know were there.”

In today’s
competitive environment, films of unconventional length simply get

irrelevance of shooting format and running time

Advancements in
technology give us a chance to break free from all of the unnecessary
bureaucratic limitations. Digital cinema has brought democracy to the industry.
We have nearly stopped distinguishing films by whether they are shot on
high-end Panavision 35mm film or a cheap prosumer camera.

With internet
streaming we are no longer restricted by the length of reels, tapes, DVDs or
preset air time. Festivals and distributors should revisit their policies of
acceptable film duration. Theater programmers may consider running original
sets of selected films of various lengths —  a successful practice which existed
in the 1930s – 1950s.

Let us set cinema free
from marketing limitations and prejudice. The audience does not discriminate
based on the film length. It is not the distributor who should dictate the
running time, but the very thing cinema is built on — the RHYTHM.

Read the entire story here.

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