- Chad Pierce, chief film projectionist and theater floor manager at The Texas Theatre, a historic landmark movie theater in Dallas, Texas
- Christi Pramudji, MD, board-certified urogynecologist, pelvic floor specialist, pelvic reconstructive surgeon, and founder of ChristiMD Medical Group in Houston, Texas
Despite earning plenty of praise and claiming a new title as the highest-grossing biopic of all time, Oppenheimer was indeed derided by critics and fans alike for its epic length. After all, sitting still for three hours—maybe more, if you got there in time for the previews—can be pretty damn difficult, especially if you're holding in pee while trying to focus on the heady dialogue.
Now, as Martin Scorcese’s Killers of the Flower Moon hits theaters with a run time of 3 hours and 26 minutes (!), questions and complaints surrounding extra-long films are in the spotlight once more. Whether a film should or needs to be long enough for you to basically forget where you are and what time of day it is can be debated; but so long as movies go to such epic lengths, one thing remains clear, from a health perspective: We're well overdue to bring back movie intermissions (aka breaks in the action once typical for feature films but now largely reserved for live performances).
Unpacking the rise of the extra-long movie
No, you’re not imagining things, and no, it's not just Oppenheimer. According to business, tech, and entertainment data hub Chartr, movies are indeed getting longer.
The company reported this summer that, based on the average run time of the 10 most popular movies at the U.S. box office each year from 1995 through 2022, the highest-grossing films have been trending lengthier and lengthier. In 2022, the average run time of the 10 biggest blockbusters was 136 minutes; from 1995 to 1999, the top films clocked in at shorter than two hours, with an average run time of 117 minutes. These numbers suggest that we've come to expect at least 15 to 20 minutes of additional action per movie. That’s almost as long as a full episode of Schitt’s Creek.
In addition to Oppenheimer and Killers of the Flower Moon, several other 2023 box office releases surpass two hours in length, including The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, Haunted Mansion, and Napoleon. While the reason for why movies are sizing up isn't totally clear, some speculate that it has to do with directorial hubris ("Look how much I have to say!") and the fact that longer films historically been more likely to win big during awards season.
“There has been a trend in epics pushing the boundaries of time limits.” —Chad Pierce, chief film projectionist and theater floor manager at The Texas Theatre
“There has been a trend in epics pushing the boundaries of time limits,” says Chad Pierce, chief film projectionist and theater floor manager at The Texas Theatre, a historic landmark movie theater in Dallas, Texas. But at the same time, he says, the lengthy film certainly isn't new—even if it is en vogue. “Cinema, as a whole, has a habit of going back and forth on long run times and shorter run times,” says Pierce, who has worked in the Texas theater industry for nearly a decade. “The biggest difference [is that] older films would use movie intermissions.”
Making the case to bring back movie intermissions
Indeed, lengthy movies have always been a thing; 1939’s Gone With the Wind was just two minutes shy of four hours, after all. But the way they’re shown to audiences has changed dramatically since the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Back then, movies were shown on reels of film, and the need for a projectionist to swap out the reels mid-movie required an intermission (which many filmmakers of the era accounted for in the narrative structure of their flicks). Moviegoers of theaters past welcomed this break in the action as an opportunity to stretch their legs, go to the bathroom, or grab some concessions—much like people today might do during the intermission of a live performance or the halftime of a sports game (even though both are primarily meant to allow performers or players, respectively, a chance to rest and regroup).
As the movie world embraced digital projection methods, movie intermissions were no longer needed, and theaters began to phase them out in favor of fitting in more screenings each day to maximize revenue. Some directors have opted to create built-in movie intermissions for special projects (Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, for example), but apart from these, movie intermissions in America are all but obsolete.
And yet, a growing amount of scientific research outlining the health issues tied to prolonged periods of sitting makes the case for theaters to bring back movie intermissions. “It's not good for our health to be sitting in the same position, and it's not ergonomically healthy to be sitting all day,” says board-certified urogynecologist and pelvic floor specialist Christi Pramudji, MD. While sitting through a single three-hour movie might not be enough to have a lasting negative impact, repeatedly sitting for long periods of time can add up, in terms of negative health effects. “In general, a sedentary lifestyle is not good for our heart, our joints, our core, our balance,” says Dr. Pramudji. “We have to keep moving to keep ourselves healthy.”
Perhaps one of the most commonly shared experiences among moviegoers is reluctantly having to dip out mid-film for a pee break. If you were watching the movie at home, you could just press pause before taking care of business. But in a theater, answering nature's call means you risk missing a key part of the film. So, plenty of moviegoers try to hold their pee for as long as they can—which isn't exactly great for urinary health, says Dr. Pramudji.
“If someone's having to hold [pee] in, then the bacteria can stagnate and build up, and turn into a urinary tract infection.” —Christi Pramudji, MD, urogynecologist and pelvic floor specialist
“It’s easy for bacteria to get into our bladders, and one of our natural defense mechanisms is to eliminate that bacteria...by voiding it [or peeing it out], which prevents it from accumulating,” says Dr. Pramudji. “If someone's having to hold [pee] in, then the bacteria can stagnate and build up, and turn into a urinary tract infection.” Ignoring your need to go to the bathroom can also lead to voiding dysfunction, adds Dr. Pramudji. “The muscles end up tightening too much to try to hold it in, and the normal signals that tell the bladder to empty can get disrupted because you're blocking what your body wants to do.”
Aside from these urinary health implications, watching a screen for extended periods of time can also lead to digital eye strain, and sitting in one position for too long can prevent blood from flowing properly in the legs.
But the case for re-instituting movie intermissions extends beyond our physiological health, too, says Pierce. Too-long films can be mentally exhausting for moviegoers, ruining the cinematic experience. While more time may certainly allow for more story development, it’s easy for an audience who's been held captive for hours of narration to lose sight of the plot at stake.
"There’s a reason films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Seven Samurai have intermissions, and it’s to not overwhelm people with the story," says Pierce. "If you keep piling on the story, it can just compound into an overwhelming experience, and [people] miss key elements in the swarm of information." Having a short break, by contrast, allows time for viewers to process what's been happening and perhaps even debrief with one another, much like they might during a performance intermission or sports halftime. "Intermissions give you the opportunity to breathe and digest the information presented to you," says Pierce.
But until we convince filmmakers and theaters to bring back such movie intermissions, it's worth taking steps to prepare yourself should you be in for a viewing of a lengthy film. Below, find a few things you can do to make your next cinematic experience a bit more enjoyable, no matter how (very) long it's scheduled to last.
6 tips to get through any film feeling good, without leaving your seat
1. Go to the bathroom right before the movie starts
It may seem like a no-brainer, but Dr. Pramudji recommends completely voiding your bladder before showtime. Going to the movies can be exciting, and it’s easy to lose track of time between visiting the concession stand and finding your seat—which is why it's a good idea to arrive at the theater earlier than you might typically plan to do so. This way, you’ll have extra time to visit the bathroom beforehand, which will naturally postpone your next bathroom trip (at least by a little).
If you *really* don’t want to miss a single second of the movie, also “avoid drinking too many fluids in the hour or two before the movie,” says Dr. Pramudji.
2. Ask theater staff how long the trailers will run
National theater chains like AMC Theaters typically show five to eight movie trailers before a movie. Altogether, the pre-movie trailers tend to run roughly 15 to 20 minutes, however, at smaller independent theaters, the timing can vary. For example, Pierce shares that an IMAX showing of Oppenheimer he attended started right on time, but the Killers of the Flower Moon showings at The Texas Theater showed four minutes worth of trailers beforehand. (While that length of time may not seem like it would make a difference, anyone who's ever really had to pee knows that every second counts.)
According to Pierce, theater staff can often tell you exactly how much time you have before the show starts, so you can maximize your time standing, walking around, getting concessions, or going to the bathroom before settling in for the film.
3. Avoid bladder-irritating foods
Another way to prevent the need for a mid-movie pee break is to steer clear of bladder-irritating foods and drinks, especially if you’re sensitive to them, says Dr. Pramudji. Caffeinated beverages like soda and coffee, chocolate, spicy foods, and tomatoes are some of the worst foods for your bladder as they irritate the lining of the bladder and can lead to urinary frequency and pain.
Steering clear of the soda and candy can be difficult in a movie theater, but if seeing the film front-to-back is your M.O., it’s best to abstain.
4. Steer clear of eye strain with the 20-20-20 rule
If your eyes begin to strain during the film, try using the 20-20-20 rule to give them a break. This method was created by the American Optometric Association to combat digital eye strain, which occurs when you stare for too long at a digital screen.
For every approximately 20 minutes of movie time, turn your eyes toward an object that’s roughly 20 feet away, and look at it for 20 seconds, repeatedly blinking while you look at it. The object could be anything: the back of a chair 10 rows ahead, the emergency exit door, or even the little step lights that line the theater stairs. In any case, focusing on something that isn't the screen will give your eyes a rest, and blinking repeatedly will keep them properly lubricated.
5. Figure out spoiler-free pee breaks in advance
According to Pierce, you can actually schedule your pee breaks during unimportant or inconsequential parts of a movie thanks to our good friend, the internet. “There are sites on the internet that discuss spoiler-free moments and ideal times to use the restroom that can be helpful,” says Pierce.
One of the most popular online pee-break sources is No-Guilt Fan Girls’ When Can You Pee movie review category. Simply type the name of the film you’ll be seeing into the right-hand search bar, and the site will provide you with a list of scenes (and when they occur in the film) during which you can comfortably leave the theater, pee, and come back without missing something critical to the plot.
6. Exercise beforehand
Plenty of research shows that exercise can improve our mood, cognitive function, and even our ability to concentrate. When we exercise, oxygenated blood gets pumped to the brain, which results in an increase of brain-derived neurotrophic factors, a protein found in the brain that is associated with cognitive improvement. And that's exactly what you want ahead of sitting down to watch a lengthy feature film.
Fitting in a workout before you head to the theater can help you maintain focus on the film so you don’t miss any important context clues or surprise cameos, or lose track of the plot by hour two or three... or more.
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