Bottom line on long films: There’s no end in sight

THIS IS THE TIME OF YEAR when everyone foists their “10 best” lists on us, but I think the time has come for a new category. What we owe our readers is not a list of the 10 best movies, but the 10 best short movies. Such a list would serve two purposes: It would provide useful information to those filmgoers who want to avoid the hemorrhoidal experience of sitting through an overblown epic. It might also give a nudge to filmmakers to exercise a little more self-discipline in the cutting room. Overblown movies are hardly a new phenomenon — remember the shock when last year’s “Malcolm X” came in at 201 minutes? — but each year films seem to be getting longer and longer. Filmgoers have long shown their willingness to support a “saga” such as “Lawrence of Arabia” (222 minutes) or even this year’s “Schindler’s List” (195 minutes). What was disturbing this year, however, was that more conventional film fare was succumbing to filmic prolixity. Both “The Firm” (154 minutes) and “The Pelican Brief” (141 minutes) were expertly wrought thrillers, but many filmgoers and critics alike complained they overstayed their welcome. Such somber fare as “Heaven and Earth” (140 minutes), “In the Name of the Father” (132 minutes) or even “A Perfect World” (137 minutes) were further examples of the more-is-better school of filmmaking. Despite the remarkable success of “Mrs. Doubtfire,” many felt it, too, could have been sharper had it been honed down from its 125 minutes. By contrast, “Sleepless in Seattle” was a lean 104 minutes, and the classic comedy “The Odd Couple” had a running time of 105 minutes.

WHY ARE MOVIES RUNNING LONGER? I have been asked this question by filmgoers, exhibitors, talkshow hosts and even a few directors. “I’ve asked friends of mine at film studios, but I never get a straight answer,” says the frustrated chief of a theater chain, who, of course, has a vested interest in films getting shorter, not longer. The people who run major studios become a bit defensive on the issue of length, and with good reason. Their inability to control the problem reflects the emergence of several New Realities in the film biz. Reality One: Filmmakers have unprecedented muscle in Hollywood, and hence, unlike their predecessors, can resist pressure from the studios to reduce running time. As one production chief puts it, “I am embarrassed by the number of journeymen directors who have final cut written into their contracts today.” Reality Two: An entire generation of producers who had both the power and the know-how to take on these directors has passed from the scene. When Hal Wallis saw a first cut and brought out his list of changes, he didn’t worry whether the director might not want to work with him again. He was the boss! The “hot” producers avoid at all costs the reputation as “slasher” for fear directors will steer clear of them. Reality Three: The proliferation of rewrites tends to confuse and confound today’s filmmakers. The ideal time to “cut” a film to its optimal length is at the script stage, not in the cutting room, but directors more and more find themselves deluged with studio script notes and demands for rewrites. In the end , the script often becomes a clunky compendium of notes from different writers working under different instructions — a problem that then has to be dealt with in the cutting room. Reality Four: So much money and prestige are riding on every picture these days that filmmakers feel compelled to toss everything into the bargain in the apparent hope that the sheer weight of production values and screen time will justify the expense. The problem is that the “weight” often defeats the project, robbing it of pace and tempo.

OTHER REALITIES COULD BE LISTED as well. The bottom line, however, is that today’s crop of filmmakers is a long way from the fabled Luis Bunuel, who could literally “cut” a film in his head — they can’t even cut it in the editing room. The result: Some very long sits and some very grouchy theater owners. And there’s no sign of change.

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