Epic-length films are on the rise -- Granting directors such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Redford final cut results in longer movies

Consider it a new twist on an old joke: How many editors does it take to cut a movie? In the case of Meet Joe Black, directed by Martin Brest and starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins, the answer is two editors, two first assistant editors, one second assistant editor, four assistant editors, and two apprentice editors. But here’s the punchline: Even with all those editors, the movie is still three hours long.

It’s a butt-numbing thought, even to critics who get paid to sit still in the dark. While Meet Joe Black — a remake of the 78-minute 1934 drama Death Takes a Holiday — earned some generous reviews and opened acceptably at the box office ($15 million), the film was universally lambasted for its running time. (”Wildly overlong,” said Janet Maslin in The New York Times; a length ”better suited to the fall of the Roman Empire,” said the L.A. Times‘ Kenneth Turan.) Alas, Meet Joe Black isn’t alone, but rather the latest in a string of movies that confuse entertainment with an endurance test.

Who’s to blame? Well, the studios, at least partly, if only because they’re the ones granting directors the privilege of final cut. Simply put, if Martin Brest has the right to the final cut and he wants Meet Joe Black to be three hours long, all the powerhouses in the Hollywood universe either can’t — or won’t — do a thing about it. But while the studio executives may have gotten themselves into this mess, they will tell you it’s a catch 22: To get the director they want, they often must offer final cut — or risk losing the director to another movie. And now, they’re paying the piper as they watch lengthy movies eat into their box office returns.

Brest, whose membership in the coveted final-cut club was cemented with 1992’s Oscar-winning Scent of a Woman, is in the best of company: Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Robert Redford, and Steven Spielberg all belong. This can leave studios, eager to work with proven talent, in a difficult situation: For every Academy Award-winning, Kevin Costner-directed, three-hour-long Dances With Wolves, there can be a Kevin Costner directed, three-hour-long The Postman.

”Most fights with [final-cut] directors are about length, and filmmakers say the studio is ruining their art,” says one studio executive. ”But the irony is that if you’re taking down the length, you’re [often] taking down the artist’s self-indulgence, and thus making a more artistic movie.”

It’s not always easy to see a squirmer coming. According to Kevin Wade, one of Meet Joe Black‘s four screenwriters, what looks like a two-hour movie on the page can balloon once the director gets behind the camera or into the editing room. Wade estimates that he wrote four drafts over four years. ”They were all 135 pages,” says Wade, which would place their length only 10 or so pages above the average. ”When I first heard how long it was, I thought, This must have been on Marty’s mind for a long time. And when you own it in your own way, you want it all in there.”

In hindsight, allowing the directors to have it their own way enabled the success of films like Titanic and Saving Private Ryan. But it can also earn Beloved the nickname “Belabored” and make Casino seem a gamble. More important, a three-hour running length can result in loss of revenue to the tune of millions of dollars, since a film may get one less screening per theater per day than its shorter competitors. ”There are exceptions where you can’t cut and you shouldn’t cut, but if a studio were to vote on how long a movie would be, most of the time they’d vote that it be shorter,” says Mitch Goldman, head of distribution for New Line Cinema. ”Normal showtimes for movie theaters are 7 and 9, and anything longer than two hours creates a dynamic for a theater owner where they may have one show a night. We just rereleased Gone With the Wind, and no one could argue that it should be cut — but you have to schedule your day around the movie, and that’s not how people run their lives.”

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