A film's long length can stall its word-of-mouth momentum

Early on in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” the president apologizes for holding a roomful of people captive by indulging himself one last parable: “As the preacher said, ‘I could write shorter sermons, but once I start, I get too lazy to stop.'”

As the 149-minute movie stretched past its second hour, my increasingly saddle-sore posterior kept Lincoln’s words top of mind. (Fortunately, my attention span wasn’t similarly cramped by the film, which was a fine thing in spite of this tiny hypocrisy.)

But not even “Lincoln” stands as an exception to my strong personal feeling that most movies should hover around two hours — 90 minutes for kidpics and comedies. This is not a popular opinion, I came to find.

When “Cloud Atlas” opened to a cringe-worthy $9.6 million in the U.S., I suggested on Twitter that its 173 minute runtime — close enough to call it three hours — hurt the box office result. I went on to suggest anything beyond two and a half hours was inexcusable, and that no film is so tightly packed with essentials that a sharp edit couldn’t crank it down to a tolerable length.

A sampling of the boiling vitriol spit back in reply, and I’m quoting here: “Boneheaded” … “Dumb” … “Wrong and stupid” … “Need 2b educated about films” … “Hater of movies” … “Closed-minded and dismissive” …. “not man enough” to sit through long movies.”

Dissent on Twitter is no surprise, but the Hulked-out rage over this one got my attention.

I can’t be the only one who gets physically uncomfortable around the two-hour mark, and more mentally mushy with each minute thereafter. And I know I’m not the only one who thinks filmmakers could be more ruthless with their darlings.

Determined as ever to prove the Twitter trolls wrong, I asked a couple of the sharpest social-media analytics experts I know — Kristen Longfield, Fanthropologist at the Cimarron Group, and Ben Carlson at Fizziology — to divine whether a film gets diminishing returns from excessive length.

It turns out that a long runtime causes no positive or negative reaction during a film’s marketing period. And for really big event movies, viewers sometimes feel a longer movie gave them their money’s worth (call it the TGI Friday’s portion-size effect).

But once a film gets playing, social response suggests long length can stall its word-of-mouth momentum, usually emerging as secondary complaint — but a persistent one.

“My new working theory: a movie’s length can amplify negative feelings, but isn’t the sole reason someone takes to social media to share a negative opinion,” Carlson wrote. “BUT… when that opinion is shared, the time commitment is something that may act in keeping more people away.”

In the case of “Cloud Atlas,” only 17% of the negative conversations focused on length before its release. After the film came out, negatives more than doubled, and length accounted for 37% of the grumbling. (“The Dark Knight Rises,” however, being of the “event movie” ilk, suffered no such backlash, with only 6% of post-release negative responses having to do with runtime.)

The data also shows that length is more of a turn-off for younger moviegoers. That may be a silver lining (both puns intended) for this year’s crop of Oscar wannabes, every single one of which eclipses two hours — except “Argo,” which uses each of its 120 minutes to good effect.

And there are some doozies to catch in the coming months: You’ll give up two and a half hours or more for not just “Lincoln,” but “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Django Unchained,” “Les Miserables” and “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” this year, with “Flight,” “The Master,” “Anna Karenina” and “This is 40″ all spilling well over the two-hour mark.

And as I come to the end of my word-count limit, there’s much more to say (watch me get torched at length today at @Variety_JLD). I wanted to touch on the hubris of Hollywood, the missed opportunities to monetize deleted scenes and offer extended homevid cuts, and the sheer self-aggrandizement required to subject audiences to an opus when a tightly-told story would do.

In other words, I could go on.

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