Why movies went from 15 minutes to 2 hours

Why movies went from 15 minutes to 2 hours


All of this kinda connects to this. We added sound. It’s a silent movie. This chart shows all the movies directed or
produced by legendary director D.W. Griffith in 1912. He was a Hollywood titan, but most of his
movies? They were about the same length. Around 15 minutes, with the exceptions topping
out around a half hour long. Now look at the run time for 1915’s Birth
of A Nation. What happened there? The reason movies changed from 15 minute trifles
to “featured attractions,” can be traced to one silent movie. It changed the game in a way that transformed
all movies. But it wasn’t invented in Hollywood. It came from 6,000 miles away. This is a foot — here you go metric people. Early silent film historians actually talk
about these movies in…feet. And it makes sense — the same way that measuring
tape comes on a reel, movies come on reels too. One reel of film is 1,000 feet, give or take. That’s 15 minutes or fewer, depending on
what frame rate you play it back at. In the early days of movies — the 1900s
— almost all movies were about 1,000 feet. One reel. 15 minutes or fewer. These short movies were usually screened in
variety shows or a smorgasbord of short films. You’d drop into a Nickelodeon — a lower-class
theatre where you’d see a bunch of movies for a nickel — 5 cents. You’d see Laura Comstock’s Bag Punching
Dog, followed by The Trapeze Disrobing Act, followed by the first screen adaptation of
Frankenstein. The whole thing was 14 minutes long – 975
feet. In America, some of this was enforced by East
Coast movie trusts that controlled and licensed movie patents for film and projection. They preferred single and double reel films. But even renegade filmmakers out in Hollywood
kept movies pretty short. And, with some exceptions, so did filmmakers
across Europe. It was just easier to transport and project
one-reel films. That chart, from the beginning? It’s not a chart of time, but feet. And this right here is a thousand feet – that
one reel cutoff. For the most part, movies were…small. Until the Italians thought bigger. Italian movies were were becoming spectacles
in the 1900s. They were breaking out of the standard 15-minute
short, and trying new things. By being outside the American system of high-powered
movie trusts, one film in particular was able to rewrite the rules. That’s 1913’s Quo Vadis — an epic story
of Romans in the time of Nero. To tell that story the Italian filmmakers
took 2 whole hours – not 15 minutes. It was 8,000 feet long! To get people to see it, Quo Vadis’s promoters
needed to invent a new business model. Instead of trying to force the long movie
into those movie theaters playing a bunch of one-reel shorts, promoters rented out classy
concert halls for Quo Vadis alone. They did the same in the US, at the Astor
Theatre in New York, and playing the “mammoth photodrama” everywhere from Arkansas to
the future state of Hawaii. To draw crowds from nickelodeons into those
big halls to watch just one really long thing, Quo Vadis needed to be special. It used real Roman locations, thousands of
extras, and the first big stunts – like chariot races where the actors rode real chariots
and gladiatorial battles with big hits and realistic weapons. The posters sold the spectacle — and sold
out seats. And people noticed. In the years following the release of Quo
Vadis, DW Griffith, increased the length of his own movies. Quo Vadis and other Italian epics were proof
that big movies could work. Griffith’s movies like “Judith of Bethulia”
crept into feature film lengths – 61 minutes, a full 4 reels. He released Birth of a Nation in 1915. It was sold as the “mightiest spectacle
ever produced” — and a long one clocking in at 12 reels. It had big stunts too, like many big battle
scenes. Now this movie was so controversial that people
called it racist in 1915. I mean, the KKK are the good guys. But despite that, it brought the spectacle
of Quo Vadis to Hollywood. The trusts that wanted to keep movies short
were already fading. The public’s love of long movies finished
the job. Birth of a Nation solidified single movies
as a style worth funding and paying for. And even though today, we don’t measure
movies in feet, Quo Vadis is not a relic. This chart shows average movie times for the
most popular 25 movies each year, from 1930 on. This time here? It’s 2013, 100 years after the 120 minute
Quo Vadis came out. The running time? 121.4 minutes. This edition of Almanac’s all about big
changes to the movies that came from outside Hollywood, and there are a ton of other business
model changes like Quo Vadis, so let me know some of the ones that you’ve heard about
in the comments. However, I just to just prove to you one more
time that Quo Vadis really was a huge hit. This is an ad for “When Ursus Threw the
Bull,” a parody movie that was made in response to Quo Vadis’s enormous success.

100 Replies to “Why movies went from 15 minutes to 2 hours

  1. Can you do an episode about the 1948 court case, United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. and maybe talk about contemporary parallels with streaming services?

  2. TLDW
    Before, one reel movies were the norm. One reel is 1000 feet which equals 15 mins. Italians thought grander than that, and to win they used special prep and locations to show the film i.e. auditoriums instead of nickleodeons. Griffith saw this opportunity and created Birth of a Nation. Then the rest is history

  3. Those extra 105 minutes are now essential for shoehorning in sufficient awkward woke tropes to keep the Vox-ilk off directors’ backs. Take “The Last Jedi” as an example. The withering glares and judgmental head tilts of Vice-Admiral Jendar Studees needed almost an hour of scene time to before fully portraying cishet men as cancelled. ✊

  4. If almanac is going going to explore film, maybe you should do an episode on Oscar Micheaux, the first Black film maker in America. He’s a much better touch point for early cinema history than DW Griffith.

  5. A lot of movies just drag on these days due to bad writing and unnecessary special effects rather than having complex stories.

  6. Knowing this, I’m now curious how and why 3 hours is starting to become completely normal. These longer films were epics, and now they’re regular blockbusters! Are we all just movie nerds? Did the 1970s audiences have shorter attention spans? Tinier bladders?! What changed??

  7. so… did they used to swap movie reels to show different parts of the movie (when the movie was 2 hours long) or did they used something different to store them in one tape?

  8. I heard from the DVD extras of the later 1951 'Quo Vadis' was the 'original biblical epic' that started off the trend for films like Ben Hur. Is this true?

  9. (1:30) I want to see "The Runaway Horse"! I bet that was a box office hit! Double billed with "The Haunted House", too! I love these old movie titles that just basically described the plot in a few words. 😛

  10. The Germans were doing some interesting films, following the 1st World War in particular. They went from 'spectacle' to 'Expressionist', which later had influence on films such as 1940's 'noir'. Their experiments with light and shadow, long following shots, framing, etc., changed the way many American films were shot.

  11. Tbf it doesn't surprise at all that innovation in cinema came from Europe instead of America, as someone would normally think.
    Except from Orson Welles and basically every director from the 70s, Hollywood always took ideas from the old continent or Asia.
    That's what I always answer to those that say "cinema is dying". Cinema is not dying, you're just looking at a place that never had any idea of its own.

  12. waiting for the day when north americans will stop being such snow flakes and start using centimeters instead of feet

  13. Feature films were also referred to as long-métrages, metrage being like "mileage," but for rational, standardized metric units.

  14. Woah that USA map at 2:07 included the Philippines. I knew that the country was colonized by the Americans at the time but I didn't know that it was included in their map 🤯

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