Are long films the key to saving cinemas?

Dune Part Two
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They might be the favourite punchline of awards show hosts, but are audiences more likely to seek out long movies on the big screen?

It’s difficult to enjoy anything with a numb bum.

For decades, that undeniable truth has defined the conversation around any film longer than 140 minutes. “The only thing longer than the movie was the queue for the bathroom!”, Golden Globes hosts line up to snigger in their droves, remembering the agonising three hours of fidgeting they had to endure during Oppenheimer.

For some, though, the placation of their rear end might just be the whole point of going to the cinema at all. While the average household is stuffed full of phones, gadgets and a menagerie of pets, family members and house guests, in a distraction-filled age being forced to switch off from the world is a luxury worth its weight in popcorn buckets; no demographic feels the benefit of this more than the generation most likely to spend movie time at home glued to a second screen.

“The youth love to watch long movies,” Denis Villeneuve told The Times last week. “If they pay, they want to see something substantial. They are craving meaningful content.”

The numbers seem to hear Villeneuve out, too. On its opening weekend in the states last year, Oppenheimer surprised everyone when 32 per cent of its audience turned out to be aged 18-24. More than 60 per cent of The Batman’s earliest viewers were under 35. Now, with the 167-minute runtime of the director’s Dune sequel paired with the biggest young actors on the planet, Warner Bros is surely hoping to repeat the same trick this coming weekend.

Read more: Dune: Part Two review | Bleak, beautiful blockbuster filmmaking

But why might a longer movie, counter-intuitively, hold particular appeal for a generation whose attention spans have been reportedly obliterated by TikTok? Well, for young people coming of age during the pandemic, the idea that a trip to the movies is an ‘event’ is a tricky one to shake off. In fact, cinemas seem to have been heading in this direction for a while. With ticket prices soaring to accommodate comfier seats, bigger screens and ushers armed with to-your-seat delivery menus, a longer movie is at least one way to make all this faff feel worth the effort.

There’s also a sense with long films, much more than the 90-minute comedies or mid-budget thrillers which have long since migrated to TV, that the cinema is the only way a distracted audience can force themselves to experience an epic movie uninterrupted. At home, the temptation to self-edit The Irishman into a miniseries or pause Beau Is Afraid to reply to a voice note is powerful. The (theoretically) phone-free environment of the cinema, meanwhile, is one of the few places our attention can be monopolised as the filmmakers intended.

In the battle to bring a new generation back into cinemas, then, the film industry is stuck between two conflicting truths. The same kids who can’t sit through an episode of The Bear without a cheeky glance at a group chat are more than happy to engage with a three-hour biopic at the cinema.

Then again, perhaps this obsession with a film’s length ignores the elephant in the room when it comes to the success of Oppenheimer, The Batman and other three-hour epics on the big screen. Maybe people flooded to multiplexes in their droves because they couldn’t trust themselves to watch at home; maybe they just felt the movies were worth enduring a numb bum for.

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