The Feature-Length Fallacy

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I’ve judged a variety of documentary film festivals and grant competitions, and watched scores of them in theaters, on television, on my laptop and now on my iPad. And I’ve come to a conclusion, or at least a generality. Many documentaries would be a lot better if they were a lot shorter.

So many documentaries treat their subject well, but in many of them I can feel the padding. Part of this can be faulted, I suspect, with a malady that strikes all of us who embark upon a film: We come to the particular subject because we are fascinated with the subject, and we often become more enamored as we become more immersed.

But I also think that a lot of filmmakers know they’re stretching, and do so for a different reason. They want it to be feature length. That designation puts it, at least in terms of elapsed time, in the realm of theatrical movies. It also, I suspect, gives the filmmaker the feeling of having “graduated” from short films, which I think are too-easily pegged as being for beginners.

I say, have the courage to go shorter.

What “feature length” really means for a documentary

I know a guy who talks about a car’s natural speed, that which the car will travel if you’re not thinking about how fast you’re going. It’s the speed at which you feel you’re neither going too fast nor too slow. Natural speed, he says, is higher for a sports car than a pickup truck, even if both can reach comparable top speeds.

A film may have a natural length, a property of the story it is telling, but most film lengths are determined by commercial forces. Feature-length theatrical films have to be not so long that a cinema can’t show more than one a night, but not so short that the investment to get to the theater and pay $12 for a ticket don’t seem wasted. The average seems locked at somewhere around 110 minutes.

But the theatrical release is one of the least likely outcomes for your documentary. And even if you get, or self-create, a theatrical release, the majority of your audience is still likely to view your doc elsewhere.

For PBS’s documentary series POV, the preferred length for a feature film is 51 minutes, 50 seconds. For PBS’s Independent Lens, it’s either 56:40 or 86:40. If you go by strict definition, the Academy Awards define the line between a short and a feature-length film at 40 minutes. The Sundance Film Festival pegs shorts at 50, while POV’s maximum, for TV, is 30 minutes.

And think about the typical film festival programmer’s decision tree: You’ve got a two-hour block to set up for which one ticket is sold to each viewer. In that block you’d like a main film, maybe a short film, and maybe an animation or short-short. This is not only because you want to please your audience, but because all but the top-tier film festivals depend on the filmmakers delivering the audience (and even then, top festivals expect filmmakers to be their marketers too). On one extreme, three or four films plugged into a block can bring in three to four times the audience.

Programmers are likely, with all things equal, to program an 80-minute film ahead of a 118-minute film. By the same token, a shorter feature allows for longer shorts. So a program of a 70, a 45, and a 5 can make for a solid offering. Any 5 minutes you can reduce the film’s length without deep sacrifice of subject matter, I’d argue, increases your chance of acceptance.

The theory of viewing relativity

When I was a young newspaper reporter years ago, an editor once told me that “a 15-minute telephone interview is a long interview, but a 15-minute face-to-face interview is a short interview.”

In the same vein, there is a similar relativity to viewing films. A night out at the movies makes a film shorter than if I’m watching it at home, with the draw of so many other options at hand. Time bends further for me if a film is not narrative but rather expositional. I loved films such as Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica and Vanessa Gould’s Between The Folds, but each felt longer than, say, James Marsh’s Man On Wire, which simply drove relentlessly toward one man’s drive to create a single death-defying event. The Academy Award-winning Inside Job felt important but far longer than its additional 16 minutes over the Oscar-nominated Restrepo. I stayed with Inside Job but I hurtled through Restrepo.

Watching a film on my iPad or iPod is rarely a continuous event, but rather a series of bouts. Watching a 30-minute documentary on a laptop feels longer than watching a 60-minute doc on my flatscreen.

For many documentaries, an ideal but perhaps underexploited venue for screenings is the university, be it a classroom or a larger auditorium events. Remember, many college classes run either 50 minutes or 80 minutes. A 120-minute doc almost always needs to be split, and its attractiveness goes down considerably.

My own recent documentary has been screening through late 2010 and 2011 at universities, museums and libraries across the country, and at 85 minutes it illustrates the issue: My hosts have added value to the screenings by assembling panels to discuss the film. The panels bring in good crowds — at some events we’ve had 500 people, at most we average 200. If you imagine there is a perceived event length of two hours, then you have roughly 30 minutes for panelist comments, cross-talk and Q&A. With four or five panelists, to me, the event feels like it’s been packed too tightly.

If my film had been 70 minutes — 15 minutes shorter — it would have opened up the prospect of the film being weaved into a bigger event — with a bigger potential audience. It may have even been a more appropriate event. I’m thinking about all of this as I edit a new film.

Finding the natural length

So, is there an correct length for a documentary film? I don’t think there is. My advice is to bring your film to its natural length without worrying if it hits a perceived feature-length sweet spot.

I’d generalize again to say exposition needs to be shorter than narrative, an ‘idea’ film might have a shorter natural length than a character-driven piece, and a history-based film might have a somewhat longer natural length than a biopic. (Despite its acclaim, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work seemed very long to me at 84 minutes.) Others can argue, but I’m wondering if the food and environmental films that are so abundant these days, and premised on ever-narrower slices of topic, means the natural length is shrinking for those too.

If a film needs to be 90, there’s a place for that. But great stories can be told economically. Don’t discard the notion that there are many great outlets for documentaries at 60, 50 and 40. This may place the film in the realm of the short, but dampening the obsession with feature length can generate an audience for wonderful docs that would otherwise be overlooked — yours.

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Edward J. Delaney
Edward J. Delaney
Edward J. Delaney is a journalist, author, filmmaker and editor of DocumentaryTech, an online project that explores documentary filmmaking techniques and technology.