In today’s modern, fast-paced world, we are so geared towards instant gratification that we often tend to forget just how much easier and convenient life has become in the past few decades. Nowadays, when you want to chat to someone, you can quickly send them a voice note via any number of social media platforms. Just taken an awesome HD photo with your brand new smartphone? Share it with the world with the tap of a button, thanks to seemingly ubiquitous wireless Internet. When last did you stop to think about how on earth we ever got by in, say, 1999? Mobile phones were still in their infancy, and only the cool kids had polyphonic ringtones. Movies, too, weren’t quite what they are today with exceptional CGI effects, even though there were certainly a fair number of classics in the works by the late 80s already. Still, VHS tapes struggled to record or screen anything of decent quality for more than 2 hours, which is why certain feature length films would be split across 2 cassettes when migrating from the big screen to the retail outlet.
James Cameron’s 1997 classic, Titanic, was probably our generation’s first 3-hour long movie. If you were around back then, you’ll distinctly remember the intermission, half-way through. For most of us, this was a first. Not only did it give you the chance to pop to the restroom or refill your popcorn, it gave you the distinct realisation that: this is a long movie. In years to follow, the 3-hour mark served as something of a benchmark for filmmakers and producers alike. Not in the sense that a movie had to be long in order to be successful, but a feeling of confidence that, should a movie exceed at least 120 minutes, it would be bound to get attention.
The Introduction of the Modern Epic
While Titanic was, by no means, the first movie of such epic proportions, it set something of a modern standard. For me, personally, when someone says something will take 3 hours, I immediately think ‘I could watch Titanic in that amount of time!’ Other movies to follow suit in terms of exceeding 120 minutes include the likes of Avatar, The Lord of the Rings (with extended DVD editions hitting close to 4 hours, each), and even some Harry Potter films. With the upcoming Avengers: Endgame film set to break the box office at a staggering 180 minutes, the film has received unprecedented attention not only as the conclusion to a multi-million dollar film franchise, but also because it has the potential to stand beside other modern day classics. While I am not a fan of the franchise myself, I can understand why fans worldwide are excited. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was split into two, full-length films, with the finale bringing the entire cinema to applause and tears. There’s something incredibly special about growing up with your favourite characters, and sharing in the sense of wonder with other fans. There is no hard and fast rule that a movie needs to be a specific length in order to be memorable (just think of all those cute and moving Pixar shorts), but it speaks to the confidence of the filmmakers that what they will deliver will be worthy of audiences’ time. We live in an age where, for better or worse, bigger is better. Longer is more engaging. Fuller. More epic.
But Why 3 Hours?
Let’s be honest: we’ve become so spoiled in terms of speed and convenience that we have also become incredibly impatient. Microwave dinners, high-speed trains, mobile airport check-ins. We want what we want and we wanted it yesterday already. Our attention spans have gotten shorter, and there are even apps that help trick our brains into reading full books in a matter of minutes. So, why do we relish 3-hour movies and nothing longer? Because we just haven’t learnt to invest that much attention to something like a film. Unless the saga spans more than one full length feature, 3 hours is the perfect amount of time to get comfortable, get engaged, get thrilled, and possibly watch it again at another time. Time can only tell if Avengers: Endgame will stand amongst the other modern classics, but from the hype we’ve already seen, we have no doubt.