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Film: Ninety Minutes or Else

By Henry P. Raleigh
ART TIMES January 2015

Ninety minutes or else drawing by Henry P. Raleigh

In my youth movies ran almost exactly for ninety minutes. It was as if every Hollywood studio scripted their films by the clock - begin on the hour, ninety minutes later, FIN, it’s done. On rare and privileged occasions a movie might break the rule. “Gone with the Wind” ran for two thousand minutes but that was a big deal, all right - hot novel, top stars, huge productions budget- still chancy though, would a ninety minute trained audience last out for nearly four hours even giving them a bathroom break? Now it's not clear how the ninety-minute thing got so firmly established. Early on the nickelodeon one reelers were twenty to thirty minutes and suffered quick turn overs. Vaudeville acts and sing-a-longs were added to these single reel programs to hold audiences longer and it was found, as the story goes, that one and a half to two hours was a convenient for both audiences and theater owners. Toss out the vaudeville acts, bump up the movies to ninety minutes and the standardization suited everyone just fine= and it has, more or less, been that way ever since. Check out your average American movie and you’ll likely find they are seldom less than ninety minutes and while some may venture beyond they will nonetheless hover closely to the ninety-minute mark. Somehow it’s not a real, honest-to-goodness film unless it’s at least ninety minutes. It’s enough to bring tears to your eyes to see a movie that has painfully tried to shove a seventy-five narrative into the requisite ninety-minute mold only to shamefacedly settle for an hour and twenty minutes. There is an oft-told legend of the young filmmaker who missed it by one minute forty seconds and in despair never attempted another film, ending his career as a shoe salesman. Even documentarians strive mightily and often vainly to fit their works into the ninety-minute standard. Can you imagine how difficult it must be to document the life of an insect whose life span is no more than thirty-two seconds and fit this into ninety minutes of entertainment? I can tell you that I too, with my film “--/--” must bend to the rule and have recently begun re-editing. I expect to wind up with “---/---/---/---/---/----/---” . And well, if short, throw in another “---/---” or two.

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