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February 2002, Week 2


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 10 Feb 2002 20:35:23 -0600
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Darryl Wiggers writes:

>The only obvious change I've noticed is that almost no new films have a
>running time shorter than 80 minutes. In the early days of cinema it was
>possible for a 56-minute film to be released as a "feature." By the late
>1950s the shortest films were about 80 minutes, and that seems to be the
>standard that has stuck. Nowadays only independent films and Woody Allen
>seem to allow for a less-than-90 rule.

Before the fragmentation of the film industry from the late 40s onwards (i.e.
the process of demerging production/distribution from the exhibition sector,
which had its origins in the 'Paramount case' antitrust suit of 1947), the
exhibition practice of the vertically integrated combines was for each
performance to include two features (plus, commercials, trailers, newsreel,
cartoon &c.): a main, or 'A' film and a lower-budget 'B' feature which was
usually substantially shorter. It was this category of release that was
usually between 50 and 80 minutes. The total length of each performance was
tightly controlled, and an usually long main feature required an abnormally
short second film to fill the programme.

There were a number of reasons why double-feature programming declined:
competition from other leisure activities pushing cinema exhibition to adopt
new technologies which emphasised quality of experience over total programme
length being one of the main factors. For more on this see John Belton,
'Widescreen Cinema' (Harvard UP, 1992).

One thing that has surprised me a little bit about the more recent trend
toward longer features is that cinemas are not trying to charge higher
admission prices for 8 reel-plus films. Longer films mean less screenings per
day and so presumably these films reduce the total throughput of customers and
consequently reduce the exhibitor's profit margin. From my time working in
cinema exhibition I can remember that after the distributor and the taxman had
taken their cut (typically 40% and 30% respectively), the proportion of a
cinema's income that derived from box office sales was actually pretty low.
The real money is to be made in coke and popcorn sales. A lower throughput of
customers means lower concession sales too, so all in all I would have
expected considerable exhibitor resistance to the increasing number of
three-hour epics, but that does not seem to have been the case.


Dr. Leo Enticknap
Director, Northern Region Film and Television Archive
School of Arts and Media
University of Teesside
Middlesbrough TS1 3BA
United Kingdom
Tel. (0)1642 384022
Fax. (0)1642 384099
Brainfryer: (0)7710 417383

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