Sunday, July 24, 2011


'My daughter Annie has a good rule. No movie over three hours should be eligible for Best Editing.' - Ken Levine

Concision is crucial for a filmmaker. If you feel any sort of empathy toward your audience, you're trying to keep the running time down around ninety minutes. For most movies, anything longer is just rude. Romantic-comedies do not need to be as long as 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Actually, 2001: A Space Odyssey probably doesn't need to be that long either. But at least it manages to go from the the dawn of mankind to the birth of a new species. If you take the same amount of time to tell the story of two pretty people deciding whether or not to make out, you're doing it wrong.

I hear a lot of talk about how short audiences attention spans are these days. Really? Here is the list of the ten highest grossing films of all time.

1 Avatar $2,782,275,172 2009
[# 1]
2 Titanic $1,843,201,268 1997
[# 2]
3 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King $1,119,110,941 2003
[# 3]
4 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest $1,066,179,725 2006
[# 4]
5 Toy Story 3 $1,063,171,911 2010
[# 5]
6 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides $1,032,610,000 2011
[# 6]
7 Alice in Wonderland $1,024,299,904 2010
[# 7]
8 The Dark Knight $1,001,921,825 2008
[# 8]
9 Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone $974,733,550 2001
[# 9]
10 Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End $963,420,425 2007
[# 10]

They're all from within the past ten years. Number six is still in theatres as I type. Only two of them are under two hours. The average length is 160 minutes - exactly two hours and forty minutes. Audiences were more than willing to sit through them, multiple times.

Compare this to, say, The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup, which is all of 68 minutes long. If you tried to get a 68 minute film made today, you'd be laughed out of the studio. Barry Sonnenfeld padded the end credits of Men In Black to push it past the 90 minute mark. I used a similar trick to flesh out Benjamin Sniddlegrass and the Cauldron of Penguins.

This seems somewhat emblematic of a trend in media towards over-indulgence, wastefulness and just generally taking things too far. I mean, look at the length of pop songs.

Heartbreak Hotel, a quintessential 50s pop single, is 2 minutes and 8 seconds.
Born This Way, one of this year's bigger pop hits, is 4 minutes and 20 seconds.

It's also worth mentioning the irrelevant guff that makes up most of the airtime on 24-hour cable news channels.

I recently guested on the Elitist Bastards Go To The Movies podcast and was part of a discussion about Super 8. The thing I most admired in the whole film was the opening two shots, which in the space of about 25 seconds with no dialogue, establish that the lead character's mother has died in an accident at her factory job. Incredibly efficient storytelling.

I'm currently in the middle of principal photography on a short film named Access All Areas. It's going to come in around seven minutes long. It follows the Hero's Journey story structure pretty faithfully. I don't think I could tell this story any more concisely, but I could probably make a less compelling half-hour version with less effort. The restrictions of film festival guidelines have forced me to sharpen my knives and cut anything extraneous. Making short films helps keep you concise. I don't intend to direct another feature until I have some more shorts under my belt.

And if I ever make a film that runs over three hours, feel free to slap me.

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