Moviegoers rushing out to catch "Django Unchained" or "The Hobbit" over New Year's should consider packing an overnight bag.
The average length of a holiday movie has been larded up by nearly 10 minutes since 2011, according to a survey of the running times of the top 10 box office films of the final weekend of the year. They ran well over two hours.
Moreover, the top 10 grossing holiday movies of 2012 were nearly 25 minutes longer than they were just two years ago.
Of the five top earners last weekend, only one film, the family flick "Parental Guidance," clocks in at under two hours. In contrast, three of those movies, "Django Unchained," "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" and "Les Misérables," eat up roughly 160 minutes of ticket-buyers' time.
And that group doesn't even take into account hits like "Skyfall" (143 minutes), "The Avengers" (143 minutes) and "The Dark Knight Rises" (165 minutes) or limited release films such as "Zero Dark Thirty" (160 minutes), all of which boast the kind of languorous pacing usually reserved for a David Lean epic.
The capacious running times are testing moviegoers' patience, as well as bladders. In the Los Angeles Times Monday, Steven Zeitchik bemoaned the series of false endings in films like "Lincoln" and "Life of Pi." He argued that several accomplished filmmakers are piling on the climaxes and prolonging the ending credits in a way that undermines the emotional impact of their word.
"Hollywood films are struggling to find the exit," Zeitchik wrote. "Stories that seem to end, end again, and then end once more. Climactic scenes wind down, then wind up. Movies that appear headed for a satisfying resolution turn away, then try to stumble back."
Also crying out for a bloodier approach in the editing suite was Variety's Josh Dickey. The swollen run times aren't just artistically necessary, he noted — they actually damage a film's box-office take.
"It turns out that a long runtime causes no positive or negative reaction during a film's marketing period," Dickey wrote. "And for really big event movies, viewers sometimes feel a longer movie gave them their money's worth (call it the TGI Friday's portion-size effect). But once a film gets playing, social response suggests long length can stall its word-of-mouth momentum, usually emerging as secondary complaint — but a persistent one."
It's certainly true that exhibitors favor shorter running times for films, because it allows them to cram in more showings on a given day. Despite Dickey's fears, however, the expansive lengths of movies like "Lincoln" (145 minutes) and "Les Misérables" (157 minutes) haven't scared off moviegoers.
Both movies will likely gross more than $100 million domestically.
Overall, the domestic box office is poised to shatter records with $10.8 billion in revenue. Attendance will also likely be up 6 percent by the time 2012 wraps up.
Admittedly, surveying the top 10 grossing films of a particular calendar weekend is a small sample size, but it does appear that audiences and critics are noticing that they are checking their watches more frequently as they follow Bilbo's adventures in Middle-Earth or Jean Valjean's travails.
It's not clear, however, that this is a seasonal anomaly. A decade ago, films like "Gangs of New York" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" similarly strained audience's endurance. The average length of the top 10 films during 2002 was 126.6 minutes, just two minutes shorter than the average this year.