Studios, filmmakers clash over running times

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is certainly one of the longer monikers in recent memory. But the pic’s running time is even longer, clocking in at a hefty 160 minutes. Critics are divided between those who think the length adds to the pic’s impact and those who think it would have benefited from a shorter runtime.

Every film has its own shape and focus, to be sure, but figuring out a movie’s ideal scale requires a delicate balance of art, commerce and talent relations.

Cut a would-be epic too slim, and you wind up with truncated frustrations like Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven,” Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” or Oliver Stone’s “Alexander,” three forced edits that later blossomed in longer form on DVD.

Let a film run too long, and you limit its audience appeal. Think Martin Scorsese’s meandering “Gangs of New York,” Michael Bay’s inflated “Pearl Harbor” or Peter Jackson’s “King Kong,” which added 1½ hours to the 1933 film’s 100 minutes.

Since the dawn of Hollywood, studios have lavished money and length on sprawling epics such as “Ben- Hur” and “Intolerance” while wrestling other pics away from runaway cineastes like Orson Welles and Eric Von Stroheim.

The trick is knowing which kind of moviemaker you’re dealing with. The risk-reward gamble is that big movies can deliver not only big returns but often Oscars as well. When everything lines up right, the results can be stunning, from “Gone With the Wind” (running time 238 minutes) to the spectacular “Lawrence of Arabia” (216 minutes), the lengthy “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “Titanic” (203 minutes).

Heading into awards season, this year’s crop of fall entrants runs longer than ever. Filmmakers fought hard for their respective running times. And in the current “just-say-yes” climate in Hollywood –in which studio heads are loathe to say no to talent — most got their way.

After tussling with Revolution topper Joe Roth, Julie Taymor skimmed just four minutes from “Across the Universe,” which runs a relatively modest 131 minutes and is performing solidly in limited release.

Long and winding Westerns are a Hollywood tradition, from “How the West Was Won” (162 minutes) to the 183-minute Oscar-winning “Dances With Wolves.” James Mangold’s “3:10 to Yuma,” with its two-hour running time, will likely reap more financial rewards than Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James,” which uses the shorter version of the title even in the voiceover of TV promos. Behind the scenes at Warner Bros., Dominik’s meticulously detailed examination of the myth of 19th-century gunslinger Jesse James languished for a year, stalled by editing-room battles. Studio production execs were tearing their hair out, because they saw a potential B.O. winner in a downsized version. But with Plan B producer-star Brad Pitt calling the shots, there was nothing they could do.

Stars often help get a great movie made, but sometimes a star prevents a studio from arm-wrestling a director into making worthwhile changes. In the case of “Jesse James,” a year of tinkering finally yielded a 160-minute movie.

“Jesse James” might still see some awards attention, particularly for cinematographer Roger Deakins, but the pic’s length may have seriously hurt its chances for success. Reviews ranged from Todd McCarthy’s glowing one for Variety – “This is one film whose length seems absolutely right for what it’s doing.” — to pans from the likes of the New York Post’s Lou Lumenick: “A gorgeous snooze.”

Plenty of other fall movies are super-sized, as well.

At September’s Toronto Film Fest, critics debated the 140-minute length of actor-director Sean Penn’s $20 million adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s “Into the Wild.” The film, unlike Krakauer’s lean 224-page non-fiction narrative, takes its time sending its young antihero to meet his fate in North Alaska. “Penn can’t stop swirling around mountaintops, as if he were selling SUVs,” wrote the New Yorker’s David Denby. But the pic earned mostly positive reviews, and Paramount Vantage was not about to tell Penn to cut his movie.

Another fall fest entry, Ang Lee’s erotic period spy drama “Lust, Caution,” clocks in at 157 minutes. Coming after Oscar contender “Brokeback Mountain,” Lee’s Chinese-language labor of love falls in the category (like post-”Lord of the Rings” director Jackson’s “King Kong”) of a movie that no studio exec would tamper with — especially when the studio (Focus Features) is run by Lee’s long-time collaborator-screenwriter, James Schamus. Certain directors are untouchable at certain times in their careers. A disappointment or two usually returns things to status quo.

Also jumping into the awards race is Imagine-Universal and Ridley Scott’s Nov. 7 release “American Gangster,” a period gangster epic pitting kingpin Denzel Washington against honest cop Russell Crowe. Its running time: almost 2½ hours. In this case, Oscar-worthy predecessors include Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” and “The Departed” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” trilogy. Back in 1972, in fact, when Paramount told Coppola to add 20 minutes to his cut of “The Godfather,” the director couldn’t believe his ears.

There are still more clock-defying epics on the way this kudos season, and it remains to seen whether bigger is better.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” a Texas oil saga spanning three decades, clocked in at 158 minutes when it was unveiled at a sneak showing at Austin’s Fantastic Fest recently. But response was rapturous.

In this case, producer Scott Rudin worked out a way for Paramount Vantage to partner on the ambitious film with Miramax, splitting the $30 million budget and its global returns 50/50. The pic has already been compared to George Stevens’ “Giant,” the 201-minute epic that was nommed for 10 Oscars. Stevens won the directing prize.

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