100 years ago the 100-minute standard length in the cinema was "found." Isn't it time now to lose it? The possibilities for long or short movies are wide openby Mark Cousins / May 20, 2006 / Leave a comment
Exactly 100 years ago, an Australian director, Charles Tait, made the world’s first feature-length film, The Story of the Kelly Gang. Before 1906 there had been short and medium-length films, but nothing approaching 100 minutes, the length we in the west now associate with cinema. Judging by the surviving reactions to it, Tait’s 1906 film was no masterpiece, but it had “found” the running time that is now the industry standard, the commercial norm and the duration for which most movie-goers seem willing to escape real life.
The more you think of Tait’s feature ideal, however, the less clear it becomes why we have settled on 100 minutes. The first movies were just a few minutes long, shown in circuses or rooms behind shops and aimed at working-class audiences attracted by novelty and quick thrills. Soon canny producers realised that they had to broaden their audience, and so started turning plays and literary subjects into prestige productions with elaborate costumes and name actors. Films became longer to become more middle class.
Duration has long represented prestige. DW Griffith’s 1916 film Intolerance ran for over 190 minutes. In 1927 Abel Gance’s Napoléon topped it by clocking in at more than five hours. By comparison Gone with the Wind, made in 1939, was a snip at under four hours. B-movies tended to come in at the 70-minute mark while best picture Oscar-winners are often a stately two hours-plus.
The 100-minute standard came about for commercial reasons. Exhibitors like to show a film twice in the evening: at 6 and 8.30pm. Add time for adverts and a quick clean of the auditorium, and you are left with 100 minutes. There is also a vague stylistic reason: three 30-minute acts plus ten minutes of scene setting “feels right,” perhaps fitting Aristotle’s unity of time.
But you can equally argue the opposite, that there’s nothing natural about 100 minutes. At short length—say ten minutes—filmmakers need to be less concerned with sustaining audience interest. As this magazine has demonstrated in its championing of the short story, single-act dramas are more about creating worlds than obviating boredom. The filmmaker or writer is freed to become the architect of a parallel universe, or find a better balance between story, mood and aesthetics.
We tend to meet at cafés for periods of around 40 minutes, so why not have a film industry organised around 30-40 minute blocks rather…