Harry Cohn, monstrous mogul of Columbia Pictures, knew how to tell when a movie was wearing out its welcome.
“If my fanny squirms,” he announced, “it’s bad. If my fanny doesn’t squirm, it’s good.”
He’d never get through a picture today.
The last Bond film, “No Time to Die,” was two hours and 43 minutes long. “The Batman” was two hours and 56 minutes. And the movie version of “Wicked” … well, no one knows how long that’s going to be, yet. But if you take the filmmaker at his word, it’s apparently so long it can’t even fit into one movie.
“It became impossible to wrestle the story of ‘Wicked’ into a single film without doing some real damage,” director John Chu announced recently on social media. “We decided to give ourselves a bigger canvas and make not just one ‘Wicked’ movie but two!”
“Impossible”? Try harder. In 1948, David Lean adapted Dickens’ “Great Expectations” — 535 pages, in my small edition — into a very compact 118-minute film. In 2012, Joe Wright sped stylishly through most of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” — an 800-plus-page doorstop of a novel — in 130 minutes.
Here is a more direct comparison: On Broadway, the 2009 (uncut) revival of “West Side Story” ran two hours and 45 minutes. The original uncut production of “Wicked” also ran two hours and 45 minutes. When Steven Spielberg adapted “West Side Story” for the movies last year, he managed to get through it in two hours and 36 minutes.
The upcoming “Wicked” film, however, will only deliver half the musical in December 2024 — and then, a year later, the rest.
Don’t people know how to tell a story anymore? Can’t they just get to the point?
Of course, in some cases the length is the point. Generally, studios prefer movies around the two-hour mark. Go much over that and it cuts down on the screenings theaters can squeeze into a day. So running times (along with ratings) are usually spelled out in contracts; the finished film can’t be longer than, say, two hours and 20 minutes, or rated “harder” than PG-13.
But directors or stars who have acquired some clout can afford to push back. And if studios think a movie has some Oscar potential, they’re willing to let things get a little epic.
Seriously, “King Richard” did not need to be two hours and 24 minutes. “House of Gucci” did not deserve two hours and 37 minutes of your time. But studios were willing to let them stretch out a bit because they thought it made them look like genuine contenders. (As if Academy voters are checking running times and thinking, “Wow, this isn’t just some 90-minute flick. This movie must be important!”)
So yes, there are reasons why some movies push past that two-hour mark. A faithful adaptation of “Wicked” undoubtedly would have. But when even three hours isn’t enough time to tell your story — when your film suddenly becomes two films, or even three — something else is at work. And it is usually simply, crassly, money.
I’m not talking about movies in which the characters and situations are so rich that you want to see them back for a sequel. I’m talking about films adapted from a single best-seller or musical that grow and grow until they practically become their own mini-franchise.
Of course, the studios and filmmakers always say they’re doing it for the fans — there were so many great characters they didn’t want to disappoint by leaving any of them out!
Or they’ll insist it’s because they’re “building a world” — adding all sorts of new backstory and subplots that somehow the original author didn’t get to.
There’s no reason why a slim, YA novel like the “The Hunger Games” sequel “Mockingjay” had to be stretched over two films and four hours and 20 minutes. Or how about “The Hobbit” — the simplest of Tolkien’s elvish adventures? That got dragged out over three films and seven hours and 54 minutes (eight hours and 52 minutes if you shell out for the “extended” cuts).
You could have read the book in less time, even with a regular break for mead.
No, there is really one reason for this cine-flation. And it’s money. Why sell one ticket when you can sell two? Why give them “Dune” and be done with it, when you can give them half of “Dune” and then drag them back two years later for the rest?
Besides, you’re not only selling a second ticket (and, eventually, a second Blu-ray). You’re extending all the shelf time your merchandizing is going to get.
Nothing gets marked down faster than a toy tied to last year’s kiddie film. But with a sequel around the corner, you can buy at least another year. And as long as you keep turning out “Wicked” movies, you can keep hawking your Elphaba masks, and Glinda dolls, and Munchkinland games, and everything else you can think of.
Believe me, Elphaba’s skin isn’t the only green Hollywood is focused on.
Movies aren’t taxi meters, though, and there is more to making money than keeping an audience in their seats. Fans aren’t impressed by how long it takes you to tell a story, and they often resent going to a picture only to find out they’re getting half of what they were expecting.
That’s because moviegoers don’t just want value for their money. They want value for their time. And if today’s studio execs can’t realize that … well, they’ve got less sense than Harry Cohn’s fanny.
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