Film running times are set through an expert equation - The Buffalo News
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Film running times are set through an expert equation

What makes a movie long?

Continuing what’s become something of a yearly tradition, films of considerable length have colonized American movie screens this Oscar season, from Hollywood releases like “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (2 hours 41 minutes) and “The Wolf of Wall Street” to art-house fare like “Blue Is the Warmest Color” (both 2 hours 59 minutes long).

In recent years, high-grossing Hollywood movies have swollen in size to accommodate – and justify – costly special effects. (Business Insider found that the 10 top-grossing movies of 2012 were 20 minutes longer than those from 1992.) But end-of-year, awards-ready films have long gone long. Beginning with silent epics like “Birth of a Nation” (1915) and “Intolerance” the following year, serious-minded filmmakers have captivated (and held captive) audiences for 2½ to three hours and beyond.

But just because we’re accustomed to prestige pictures running long doesn’t mean they can’t still be enervating. From the tenor of some recent reviews, you’d think the editor Thelma Schoonmaker had forgotten to cut “The Wolf of Wall Street.” David Denby’s pan in the New Yorker thrice mentions the movie’s three-hour duration, while Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune describes a scene that “goes on two minutes too long,” lamenting that “those minutes add up.” But Schoonmaker said that was precisely the director Martin Scorsese’s design. “A film like ‘Wolf’ is intended to be sprawling,” she said. “Marty wanted things to go just a little too far in the scenes sometimes, to test the patience of the audience just a bit. Because that’s what the whole movie is about.”

Much as composing a long novel presents different challenges than a short story does, there’s an art to editing longer films. An extended running time allows for more ground to be covered, albeit ground over which pace and rhythm, not to mention the audience’s attention, can be hard to maintain. Few editors have as much experience with longer-form features as Schoonmaker. She’s worked on 18 of Scorsese’s features (as well as videos and TV specials) since “Raging Bull” in 1980, for which she took home an Academy Award. Six of the Scorsese films she’s worked on had running times exceeding 2½ hours.

At work in her editing suite in New York, Schoonmaker sat before a wall covered with cards representing more than 200 scenes of the deliriously caustic “Wolf of Wall Street.”

“It’s hard for people to understand editing, I think,” she said. “It’s absolutely like sculpture. You get a big lump of clay, and you have to form it – this raw, unedited, very long footage.”

She said that there was never a target length for Scorsese’s films and that “Wolf” had evolved in shape and tempo to accommodate both classic Scorsesian set pieces and looser, improvised scenes. “It had a strange rhythm – of rushing forward and then stopping, rushing forward and then stopping,” she said. “It was something that we struggled a bit with. Very different from other films I’ve worked on.”

Yet despite the infinite possibilities in that original mass of footage, Schoonmaker said that films eventually found a shape at which they click. “Until you get it to the right length, it’s like a woman who’s on a diet who wants to get into a dress to go to an event,” she said. “She keeps losing weight and losing weight, and finally the dress just fits perfectly.”

But who picks out the dress?

For Schoonmaker and Scorsese, who’ve long danced on the edge of art and commerce, even their more audacious films are shaped with audiences in mind. They preview cuts of the film as many as 12 times and pay close attention to body language.

“When you’re in a movie with an audience, you can feel where a film is dragging,” she said. “People start to move. They fidget. You need that perspective, to give it a cold eye.”Yet editors will say a long film can be made to feel fleet while a tidier one can feel interminable. “One of the paradoxes of filmmaking is that sometimes a film that feels too long can be too short,” said Joshua Oppenheimer, who oversaw the shaping of his critically acclaimed documentary, “The Act of Killing,” into three different lengths (a 160-minute director’s cut, a 120-minute American theatrical version, and a 95-minute television version). A shorter film might have a quicker pace, but when it’s trimmed back too much, he said, “you don’t have the time to rest, to get into the characters in the same way.” Scorsese might be able to get away with a three-hour film, but, apparently, not a four-hour film. Schoonmaker said that a cut of “Wolf” at that length had performed very well in test screenings, “but it’s just not feasible to distribute that.”

That may be true for big-budget Hollywood movies, but in recent years independent distributors have found creative ways to release even longer films. For the historical epic “Che” (4 hours 30 minutes), IFC Films revived the road-show strategy of limited release and higher ticket price. This spring Magnolia Pictures will release Lars von Trier’s four-hour sexcapade “Nymphomaniac” in two parts, two weeks apart. After the second premiere, the entire film will be viewable in succession – though only with the purchase of separate tickets. The same goes for streaming sites like iTunes, which suggests a new way forward for showcasing (and doubling profits on) features that can’t help going long. What might feel like too much movie in the theater could feel just right for compulsive binge-watching at home.

Regardless of format or release strategy, what’s essential for some will always seem excessive to others. “Some people feel it’s long,” Schoonmaker said about her latest. “Some people want more.”

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