Donald Clarke: From blockbusters to bum-breakers – why are films so long now?

The doomsayers despairing at supposedly gnat-like modern attention spans are wrong

We’re never bloody happy, are we? The weather is too bloody hot; the weather is too bloody cold. Music is too bloody loud; music is too bloody bland. Our attention spans have become too bloody short; films are too bloody long. If the rivers ran with Champagne, half of us would be yelling that we “actually prefer cava even though it’s not as expensive”.

The argument that young people can concentrate no longer than the average log has been around since a passing mosquito first distracted infant homo erectus. But those conversations have become fiercer in the age of video games and social media. Many are the unreliable pop science books that tell us nobody under 60 can read a sentence of average length without slipping into a coma. Before the decade is out we will all be running about the garden with buckets trapped on our heads. Or something else stupid.

Where was I? Oh look, a fire engine.

Once we spent our time ploughing through Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. Now we are more likely to be watching someone dressed as a tree miming to South Korean pop music

You didn't have to search too hard to find such complaints circling the recent news that TikTok was to become official sponsor of the Cannes film festival. There is no danger of the Palme d'Or being awarded to a twerking poodle from Boise, but festival director Thierry Fremaux will be presenting prizes to the winners of a #TikTokShortFilm competition during the event. Seems fair enough. Cannes has long had an association with short films, and some satellite event acknowledging the newer platforms can only encourage the wider art. TikTok seems a perfectly tolerable place to share footage of red carpet action and press-conference soundbites.

Yet the popularity of TikTok, a service hosting videos lasting less than three minutes, is repeatedly offered as evidence that the modern mind is being permanently dulled. It annoys the elderly in ways Instagram can only dream of. My upcoming book, Generation Meathead, will quote some study by Madey-Uppy University proving that guinea pigs can now negotiate simple mazes more quickly than the average PhD student. Once we spent our time ploughing through Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. Now we are more likely to be watching someone dressed as a tree miming to South Korean pop music. Or so the feeble argument goes.

Swapping seats

At the same time, people on the other side of the room – often the same people swapping seats for a spell – are complaining that films are getting longer and longer and longer. There is some truth in the assertion. Over the past six months, three English-language movies have bossed every competing release out of the auditorium. No Time to Die, the latest James Bond title, lasts a staggering two hours and 43 minutes. Spider-Man: No Way Home, the sixth-highest-grossing film ever, fills up two hours and 28 minutes. The Batman, still playing at every screen in your local multiplex, is just three minutes short of the full three hours. To put this in perspective, all three films are longer than Stanley Kubrick's "epic" 2001: A Space Odyssey.

"The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder," Alfred Hitchcock famously remarked

A class of gigantism has set in. This is not just the case with popcorn movies. Ryusuke Hamaguchi's Drive My Car, the sole film not in the English language nominated for best picture at next week's Oscars, is even longer than The Batman (just). West Side Story and Nightmare Alley, also up for the top prize, both pass the 2½-hour mark. But we expect Japanese head-expanders and prestige Oscar-bait to stretch to those lengths. This tendency for zippy crowd-pleasers to so test the resilience of mainstream buttocks is new. "The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder," Alfred Hitchcock, who knew a thing or two about entertainment, famously remarked.

Ben Huuurrrrr

It would be wrong to suggest the change is a result of some new, commendable urge to test attention spans to their limits. Other factors are at play. As audiences move towards streaming services, studios are under more pressure than at any stage since the advent of television to make tentpole releases into "events". Back in the 1950s that meant Cinemascope, biblical yarns and, yes, greatly extended running times (none of the films above beats Ben Hur's 212 minutes). Thirty years later there was pressure for films to be short enough to fit on a standard VHS cassette. In the current era, digital projection allows exhibitors to plaster films, however long, across multiple screens throughout the day. Netflix, Disney+ and Prime Video could, if required, accommodate films that last a week. The convention that sets a standard film between 90 and 120 minutes is fading. The greater length of franchise releases also allows space for the studios to develop strands that will be spun off into sequels and TV series.

So, we shouldn’t run away with ourselves and pretend that the gigantic length of popcorn entertainments bears meaningful comparison with the enthusiasm for paving-stone sized novels in the 19th century. But the phenomenon does, surely, confirm that today’s audiences are not so easily distracted as the exhausting doomsayers claim. Pull yourself together. Not everything is terrible.