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It’s going to be epic: film fans set for numb bums as running times go up

Blockbuster Christmas releases clock in at 140 minutes and more
  • @MrNickClark

Cinemagoers heading to their local multiplex this Christmas won’t be able to complain about being short-changed: some of the biggest films of the season are almost three hours long.

Analysis by The Independent has shown the current crop of blockbusters set to hit cinemas have average running times of over two and a half hours with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and Les Miserables leading the charge.

Some critics have stated these longer films are beginning to turn cinemagoers off, with an article bemoaning the phenomenon appearing in the industry bible Variety last week under the headline: “Crop of lengthy pix test audiences’ patience”.

Yet it appears that running time has little drag at the box office with the average minutes of the most popular films in the UK steadily increasing over the past three decades.

Les Miserables, director Tom Hooper’s first film since The King’s Speech, is due to come out later this month with a running time of 160 minutes. The Hobbit, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Lincoln directed by Steven Spielberg, and Zero Dark Thirty chronicling the hunt for Osama bin Laden are all set to bust through the 140 minute mark. Cloud Atlas, the adaptation of the acclaimed David Mitchell novel, hits a whopping 173 minutes. Kaleem Aftab, a film correspondent for The Independent, said: “The prestige movies, the Oscar hopefuls and the big adaptations of books and musicals do tend to go on longer.”

Experts suggest a series of reasons why studios are not afraid to make high-profile films longer from digital technology, to audience expectation and the power of directors.

Damon Wise, contributing editor for Empire, said: “There isn’t really a single explanation, it involves all sorts of factors. It could be a response to giving value for money, the cinema is pretty expensive now, and the filmmaker appears to be holding the reins again.”

He continued: “The more I think about it, the more I think it’s a symptom of going digital.” The cheaper process allows directors to shoot more, while it is easier to put cuts back in than it was for those cutting with film.

Analyst Ben Carlson said last week that “a movie’s length can amplify negative feelings”. Yet, in the UK, cinemagoers have no problem with the extra minutes, with the average time of the most successful films going up in recent years.

The top 10 grossing films so far at the UK box office this year have an average running time of 125.5 minutes, similar to 2010 and 2009. This marks a 16 per cent rise from than three decades earlier.

While there are aberrations – in 2002 the average run time was 139 minutes, skewed by two whopping Lord of the Rings films – there has been an upward curve in the average times for the biggest grossing box office movies. This year, among the top three movies, Skyfall and Avengers Assemble, are 143 minutes each, while The Dark Knight Rises outstrips them to hit 165.

Blockbusters have increased in length as studios, who have put hundreds of millions into them, “want to give people bang for their buck,” Mr Aftab added. Transformers: Dark of the Moon, a run-of-the-mill blockbuster about robots released last year, was 157 minutes long.

The first The Lord of the Rings film was one of the first to make the three-hour running time part of the sell. “There is an expectation of length for adaptations like that especially from hardcore fans,” Mr Aftab said. The Hunger Games also clocked in at 142 minutes.