Would you watch The Irishman (2019) if it released in theatres today? That's 3 hours, 29 minutes of uninterrupted viewing, one of the factors that put big studios off backing the film. Director Martin Scorsese, in an interview to Sight and Sound Magazine, expressed his relief at Netflix finally stepping in, saying: We had really no sense of people coming in and saying, 'Cut 15 minutes out of it.' Once released, however, a post by one Twitter user suggesting the film be split into four sections and watched as a miniseries went viral.
Even closer home, content is being sliced to make it more palatable. Since 2011, YouTube channel Shemaroo Shorties has been editing full-length features into 15-minute shorts. Films like Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Bawarchi (1972), edited down from 2 hours 10 minutes, lose some of their best scenes, opting for a heavy reliance on voiceover narration to fill in the gaps. More recently, nine minutes of Dabangg 3 were cut after audiences complained of the film's length.
"Every producer now says, 'It shouldn't be more than two hours long' or 'It shouldn't be more than two hours 15 minutes long'," says Nitin Baid, editor of films such as Masaan (2015) and Gully Boy (2019). Is there an ideal length to the Bollywood film then? Increasingly shorter theatrical releases offer some clue. Last year, the top 10 highest grossing films had a combined runtime of a little more than 24 hours. Compare this to the turn of the millennium, when you'd need nearly 29 hours to watch all of 2000's top grossers. "Nobody can imagine a film now being three hours long like they used to be in the 70s and 80s. Right now, with so many things vying for your attention, you're constantly distracted. So you'll invest in something that has a complete hold on your attention," says director Gopi Puthran. He points to his own filmography as a sign of the changing times – at 1 hour, 48 minutes, Mardaani 2 (which he wrote and directed), is eight minutes shorter than its predecessor (which he wrote), released five years earlier. Most current films fall within the two-and-half-hour mark. Even the more recent historical epic Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior, at a brisk 2 hours 11 minutes, stands out in a genre known for its sprawling runtimes. Just look at last year's Manikarnika (2 hours, 28 minutes), Panipat (2 hours, 42 minutes) or 2018's Padmaavat (2 hours, 43 minutes) by contrast.
Last year, the top 10 highest grossing films had a combined runtime of a little more than 24 hours. Compare this to the turn of the millennium, when you'd need nearly 29 hours to watch all of 2000's top grossers
That attention spans are getting shorter is an obvious reason why films are too. Common feedback filmmakers get is that while the content might be great, audiences just don't have the patience to sit through all of it. "Watching so many Instagram and Tik Tok videos all the time, people look for instant gratification," says director Shashank Khaitan, whose Dhadak, a remake of Marathi film Sairat, was 36 minutes shorter than the original. As if to prove his point, Dice Media recently launched an Instagram-only web show in which each episode is a single minute long.
"No matter how good you are, if your film is slightly long, it gets into that category of: Oh achha tha, but it could've been shorter. Then the impact goes for a toss," says Puthran. If reviews for Mardaani 2 noted its tight screenplay, it's because he and editor Monisha R Baldawa cut not just extra minutes but even stray seconds, scene by scene, during the edit.
It's now rare to get scripts that are longer than 100 pages, which translate into a two-hour-long films, says Kahaani editor Namrata Rao
Also prompting filmmakers to cut to the chase is BookMyShow, on which it's easy enough to look up the runtimes of films and decide whether you want to buy a ticket or not. "Everybody checks how long the film is. If you see 2 hours 40 minutes, there's getting into the hall, getting out, everything combined makes it a four-hour-long process, maybe more depending on the traffic. So everybody wants to limit their film to 2 hours now," says editor Namrata Rao, who has worked on films such as Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008) and Kahaani (2012). This editing happens right from the screenplay writing stage – it's now rare to get scripts that are longer than 100 pages, which translate into a two-hour-long films, she adds.
This is an approach that Khaitan, who turned producer with Akshay Kumar-starrer Good Newwz (2019) and the upcoming Bhoot – Part One: The Haunted Ship, prefers. "As a writer-director, you know some things will get chopped, but you still shoot them just in case you want some pacing or some motivation. But on Good Newwz, we ended up almost not having any deleted scenes because we were so prepared from the script stage itself." It's also practical to make shorter films – they cost less to shoot. In an interview with Business Standard, former KPMG entertainment analyst Jehil Thakkar pointed out that a 120 or 150-minute-long-film would cost around Rs 50,000 to 70,000 per print. "Any movie which is 30 per cent shorter will save around 30 per cent per print – a lot, considering that a lot of big-budget movies release films worldwide with over 1,000 prints," he says.
Does this mean long films are having a hard time finding takers? Nope, and most filmmakers and editors cite the massive success of Kabir Singh (2019) to prove otherwise. The Hindi remake of a Telugu film, about a self-destructive surgeon, was 2 hours and 52 minutes long (still 14 minutes shorter than the original) and grossed around Rs 379 crore. "Some films, like a Salman Khan film, can always be long. They're event films," says Rao. Big franchises such as Baahubali (a combined 5 hours and 29 minutes) and even indies such as Sairat (2 hours and 54 minutes), routinely buck the trend, proving that as long as the subject is engaging enough, lengthy films aren't going anywhere.