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Never-Ending Stories: Holiday Movies Running Long

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It’s that time of year again. You’re making the lists and checking them twice, taking note of the holiday’s must-see films. If you want to catch them all, however, you may need to schedule some vacation time.

With many of the season’s biggest movies inching toward and even surpassing the three-hour mark, they will require some serious sitting. Proof? Viewed end to end, the following Oscar contenders — Angela’s Ashes, Magnolia, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, The Hurricane, The Green Mile, Topsy-Turvy, Titus, Anna and the King, Cradle Will Rock, and The Talented Mr. Ripley — will gobble up more than 24 hours.

Long movies are nothing new, of course; 1999 has already seen the butt-numbing likes of Fight Club (139 minutes) and Eyes Wide Shut (155 minutes). But this season is stretching the limits of the trend. ”Multiplexes allow [theater owners to schedule] movies on more than one screen, so they don’t have to worry about losing showings — and therefore money — with a long movie,” explains Jeff Blake, president of worldwide distribution for Columbia Pictures, which is releasing Joan of Arc at 2 hours and 20 minutes. ”There are some growing pains as filmmakers toy with that freedom—but look, not many folks complained about the length of Titanic [197 minutes].”

Yeah, but they sure grouched about Meet Joe Black. And The Thin Red Line. And The Postman. All of them might have done better at the box office with 40 minutes shaved off. On the other hand, the potential for Academy glory can frequently mitigate the risk of releasing a two-hour-plus film. Best Picture winners tend to be sweeping epics (Titanic), complex dramas (The English Patient), or both (Schindler’s List), helmed by name directors who don’t have to trim their movies according to studio wishes. Those factors lead Oscar hopefuls to make loooooong movies.

Dances With Wolves [in 1990] was the turning point,” says Tom Borys, president of box office tracking firm ACNielsen EDI. ”It proved a very long film can win awards and money.” Borys also notes that over the past nine years, Best Picture winners have averaged a bladder-bursting 158 minutes—53 minutes longer than the average theatrical release. ”But it still comes down to quality,” he says. ”A long movie will only succeed if you don’t want it to end.”

For their part, exhibitors seem more than willing to book overlong prestige films, which can do well regardless of running time. ”In 90 percent of the cases, you’ve got films of such caliber that they make up for the length with the number of people seeing the picture,” says Marc Pascucci, senior VP of marketing for Loews Cineplex Entertainment. ”Take Green Mile [at three hours] and Hurricane [at two hours plus]—people are dying to see them, and it doesn’t matter if they’re over two and a half hours.”

But there are limits. ”The studios sense there’s a psychological barrier at three hours,” says Borys. ”It’s too fatiguing to plan an evening and know that your date movie is three hours long.”

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