Ian McKellen stars as Gandalf in "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,"… (James Fisher, Warner Bros. )
You can fly from Los Angeles to Seattle in less time than it takes to watch "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." Elite runners can finish a marathon faster than the total time of "Django Unchained." And you can roast and carve your Christmas turkey quicker than going to see "Les Miserables."
Daily life may be swinging toward two-minute YouTube videos and brutally succinct tweets, but there's still one place where time practically stands still: the multiplex. Extra-long films have proliferated this holiday season, a consequence of "final-cut" directors who wield near unilateral control over their films' running times and digital filmmaking tools that allow for longer and repeated takes.
VIDEO: Holiday movies: A video guide
Some movie theater owners say the current crop of long-winded movies are costing them at the box office, as films approaching three hours in length can be shown only once an evening. To squeeze in extra showings, some are forced to book fewer films, giving ticket buyers fewer options.
Exhibitors and more than a few movie critics have bemoaned this spate of prolonged productions. Yet some members of the most important constituency in the film business say the long films don't really feel that time-consuming.
"It never lagged," said 12-year-old Jesse Serrato, who joined his family for the 169-minute "Hobbit" movie this week in downtown Los Angeles and clearly has more fortitude than many adults. Added 15-year-old Jeremy Saborio: "It should have been even longer."
The young men are not alone: In a recent online survey conducted by the ticketing company Fandango of more than 1,000 moviegoers, 78% of the respondents said they feel long movies give them "more bang for their buck."
The year's maximalist movies include not only typically longer prestige titles such as "Lincoln" (149 minutes), "Les Miserables" (158) and "Zero Dark Thirty" (157) but also a comic-book movie ("The Dark Knight Rises," 164), a James Bond sequel ("Skyfall," 143) and even a comedy ("This Is 40," 134).
The epic running times haven't hurt some of these long movies at the box office. "Skyfall" has garnered domestic ticket sales of $272.6 million, "Dark Knight Rises" took in $448.1 million in North American theaters and "Lincoln" has grossed $108.5 million domestically.
But those outsized revenues have largely come from megaplexes, where theater owners can utilize more screens for a hit film. The operators of smaller complexes say they don't have that latitude, and are consequently suffering.
Best of 2012: Movies | TV | Pop music | Jazz
Ted Mundorff, chief executive of the 229-screen Landmark Theatres, said that when movies exceed a little more than two hours, exhibitors lose a showtime a day — at a cost of about $3,600 per theater per night. With an average-length movie, Mundorff can book about five showings a day, with two in the sweet spot between 7 and 9:30 p.m., when theaters generate about 80% of their business. But movies like "The Hobbit" can be shown only four times a day, with one prime-time screening.
"We know there's going to be a cap at our box office," Mundorff said, adding that running times this holiday season are "way worse" than in previous years.
Rafe Cohen, president of the 126-screen Galaxy Theaters that are mostly in smaller California and Nevada cities, said he is having to make some Solomonic choices in terms of what films he can book — to accommodate demand for a popular long movie like "The Hobbit," he may have to bump a movie that's been in theaters for a few weeks. So a film like "Rise of the Guardians" or "Life of Pi" that is still doing modest business, for instance, may get bounced.
"This Christmas, there are things we are going to choose not to play because we don't have the screens," Cohen said.
Traditionally Hollywood's longest movies were historical epics such as "Gone With the Wind" and "Lawrence of Arabia," and running time was synonymous with prestige. But now even genre films have grown longer thanks in part to digital filmmaking tools that enable directors to work faster and cheaper but sometimes with less narrative discipline, according to Jan-Christopher Horak, director of UCLA's Film & Television Archive.
When filmmakers used real film, directors shot roughly 40 minutes of footage for one minute of screen time, Horak said. Now shooting ratios are closer to 200 to 400 minutes shot for every one minute on screen, because crews are no longer concerned about wasting costly film stock.
"There's a kind of overkill at work here," Horak said. "Film directors have this mistaken notion that digital is free, so they shoot a lot more footage. And they're in love with what they shoot."