Are movies really getting longer? Were films in the 1980s really shorter? We test the data...
Are movies really getting longer? We looked at the biggest movies over the past few decades to find out...
Are movies really getting longer?
If the news that The Batman, easily one of the biggest movies in 2022, has a runtime just shy of three hours filled you with dread, or you just barely made it through films like No Time To Die or Dune last year without dashing to the toilet during the movie, you might be wondering whether the biggest movies are just running longer these days.
It definitely feels that way. Whilst epics like Cleopatra, Ben-Hur, Gone With The Wind, and Lawrence of Arabia have been around for decades, it feels like more and more movies are creeping well beyond the two-hour mark these days.
We're not here to debate whether or longer movies are a good thing, as there's not really a perfect science to determine when a film is "too long". If the story is worth getting invested in and the pacing's just right, a long movie can be the perfect thing to lose yourself in. Nevertheless, we wanted to find a way to determine if more movies were really getting that much longer.
To test this idea, we've taken a look at the top 10 best-performing movies at the US Box Office in 2021, 2011, 2001, 1991, and 1981 (stats from boxofficemojo.com).
So, are movies really getting longer? In a word, yes! And quite a bit!
The most recent set of movies we looked at (2021) was, on average, nine minutes longer than the top ten in 2011, and that trend becomes more noticeable when you look back even further.
2021's average runtime was 14 minutes longer than the average for 1991, and 21 minutes longer than the average runtime of the top-ten movies released in 1981. Essentially, this could suggest that the top-performing movies have gotten longer over the last few years, as the average runtime is steadily creeping up.
The takeaway here is not that long movies have started cropping up, as three-hour+ films have been released for decades. The Batman is shorter than plenty of classic epic movies, and it's no longer than Dances With Wolves or Pearl Harbor.
For a more detailed breakdown of the runtimes and which movies were in the top 10 at the box office in each of the years we looked at, read on:
Are movies really getting longer? Our data
2021 — average 131 minutes
At 131 minutes, 2021's average runtime is easily the longest. Only A Quiet Place 2 and Venom: Let There Be Carnage came in around the 90-minute mark.
Meanwhile, the majority of the year's top ten movies ran well beyond the two-hour mark, and the longest (No Time To Die) clocked in at 163 minutes.
2021's top-ten movies at the US Box Office:
- #1 Spider-Man: No Way Home - runtime: 148 minutes
- #2 Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings - runtime: 132 minutes
- #3 Venom: Let There Be Carnage - runtime: 97 minutes
- #4 Black Widow - runtime: 134 minutes
- #5 F9: The Fast Saga - runtime: 143 minutes
- #6 Eternals - runtime: 156 minutes
- #7 No Time To Die- runtime: 163 minutes
- #8 A Quiet Place II - runtime: 97 minutes
- #9 Ghostbusters: Afterlife - runtime: 124 minutes
- #10 Free Guy - runtime: 115 minutes
2011 — average 122 minutes
The average runtime amongst the top ten movies in 2011 was 122 minutes. Looking at the group, there wasn't a single movie in the top ten that ran for less than 90 minutes, and half of them ran for over two hours.
The longest film of the group was the third Transformers movie, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which ran for 154 minutes and offered up plenty of robot-fighting action in the meantime.
2011's top-ten movies at the US Box Office:
- #1 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 - runtime: 130 minutes
- #2 Transformers: Dark of the Moon - runtime: 154 minutes
- #3 The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part I - runtime: 117 minutes
- #4 The Hangover Part II - runtime: 102 minutes
- #5 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - runtime: 137 minutes
- #6 Fast Five - runtime: 130 minutes
- #7 Cars 2 - runtime: 106 minutes
- #8 Thor - runtime: 115 minutes
- #9 Rise of the Planet of the Apes - runtime: 105 minutes
- #10 Captain America: The First Avenger - runtime: 124 minutes
2001 — average 126 minutes
2001 is an interesting year in our sample purely because it's the only year out of the five we looked at that bucks the trend, as the average movie runtime clocked in at 126 minutes, 4 minutes longer than the average in 2011.
It's easy to see how that average has been skewed, though; although there are four movies around the 90-minute mark in the top ten, this year saw the release of both Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (152 mins) and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (178 mins).
Plus, they weren't even the longest movie; that honor belongs to Michael Bay's war drama Pearl Harbor, which beat out The Fellowship of the Ring to be the longest film (183 minutes) in the top ten.
2001's top-ten movies at the US Box Office:
- #1 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - runtime: 152 minutes
- #2 Shrek - runtime: 90 minutes
- #3 Monsters, Inc. - runtime: 92 minutes
- #4 Rush Hour 2 - runtime: 90 minutes
- #5 The Mummy Returns - runtime: 130 minutes
- #6 Pearl Harbor - runtime: 183 minutes
- #7 Jurassic Park III - runtime: 92 minutes
- #8 Planet of the Apes - runtime: 119 minutes
- #9 Hannibal - runtime: 131 minutes
- #10 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring - runtime: 178 minutes
1991 - average 117 minutes
Kevin Costner clearly loved a long movie! Even though the theatrical cut of Dances With Wolves premiered in 1990, it was still among the top ten movies of 1991. The nearest rival to Costner's epic war drama was Kevin Reynolds' Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (which also starred Costner as Robin of Loxley).
However, this group also contains some of the shortest movies in our entire sample size, so it's understandable why the average runtime for 1991's top ten was only 117 minutes.
1991's top-ten movies at the US Box Office:
- #1 Terminator 2: Judgment Day - runtime: 137 minutes
- #2 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves - runtime: 143 minutes
- #3 Home Alone - runtime: 103 minutes
- #4 The Silence of the Lambs - runtime: 118 minutes
- #5 City Slickers - runtime: 113 minutes
- #6 Dances With Wolves - runtime: 181 minutes
- #7 Sleeping With The Enemy - runtime: 99 minutes
- #8 The Addams Family - runtime: 99 minutes
- #9 The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear - runtime: 85 minutes
- #10 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze - runtime: 88 minutes
1981 — average 110 minutes
Although the average runtime for 1981's top-ten movies clocks in at just 110 minutes, the split is more even than some of the other years on this list.
The longest film, Excalibur, clocks in at 140 minutes, but most of the films on this list fall between the 90-min to 2-hour mark; even the second-longest (and top-grossing) movie of the year, Superman II, just crept over the 120-minute mark.
- #1 Superman II - runtime: 127 minutes
- #2 Stripes - runtime: 106 minutes
- #3 The Cannonball Run - runtime: 95 minutes
- #4 For Your Eyes Only - runtime: 127 minutes
- #5 The Four Seasons - runtime: 107 minutes
- #6 Excalibur - runtime: 140 minutes
- #7 History of the World, Part I - runtime: 92 minutes
- #8 Bustin' Loose - runtime: 94 minutes
- #9 The Great Muppet Caper - runtime: 107 minutes
- #10 Endless Love - runtime: 116 minutes
So, if anyone asks you are movies really getting longer, you can say "yes"... so maybe don't buy a coffee before the start!
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