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I've personally always really enjoyed 'shorts', and always wondered why feature length films are the length they are, especially given my experience that most people's attention spans only last 30-40 minutes at most; meaning I get the feeling most people would not mind shorter films.

What is the history for the feature length film durations, and has there been any research on the fitness/effect of this duration?

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If most people's attention span was only 30-40 minutes at most, then I suspect 2- and 3-hour feature films wouldn't exist. Do you have a source for this claim? I find it highly unlikely. –  Flimzy May 13 '12 at 18:24
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While audience tolerance and production costs likely drive the current decade-ish cycle between shorter and longer movies, I expect the main reason for movie length to be heavily tied to live theater and play/opera performance length over a century ago. Which likely had many factors influencing it. Now I'm curious if anyone has a definitive answer... ^_^ –  Scivitri May 13 '12 at 18:31
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Hmmm...median bladder endurance for someone who has been eating or drinking? –  dmckee May 13 '12 at 19:57
    
@Flimzy: As stated, it's based on my experience, that said, did a quick Google, and found this, "The perfect length of a presentation is..." –  blunders May 13 '12 at 20:22
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During the 20 years or so that VHS tapes were the primary medium for retail movie sales and rentals, few movies were released longer than two hours, since that was the capacity of a VHS T120 tape, played at standard speed. With DVDs now the medium of distribution, that limit no longer applies. –  tcrosley May 13 '12 at 21:59
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Thats a very interesting question. Though I couldn't find a precise answer, here are some interesting takes on t he subject that I learned while researching.

From this article on wikipedia:

A feature film is a film that runs for 40 minutes or longer, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, American Film Institute, and British Film Institute, though the Screen Actors Guild states that it is 80 minutes or longer.

The majority of feature films are between 90 and 210 minutes long. The Story of the Kelly Gang was the first feature film based on length, and was released in 1906. The first feature-length adaptation was Les Misérables which was released in 1909.

Feature films for children are usually between 60 and 120 minutes.

Cinemablend has an interesting article on this very topic:

There's a school of thought that says 90 minutes is the perfect length for a movie-- the length of 3 TV episodes, just enough time to get in, tell your story, and get out without wasting any more of the audience's time. There are countless examples that prove the rule, economically told stories that feel perfect and tight without a second wasted.

Finally, there is an answer on wikianswers which has a different take:

Most movie scripts are 120 pages and a page translates to roughly a minute of film, hence most films being about just under 2 hours. It's quite genre dependent as comedies and animations are rarely more than 90 minutes, but summer blockbusters and thrillers are usually about 2 hours.

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History of theatre:

  • Appears the Greeks liked full-length dramas, though the Romans did not; which is to say that the idea of "full-length" is very old, and it's likely impossible to know the reasoning behind story lengths 1000s of years ago.

First feature length films:

Modern history:

  • VHS: During the 20 years or so that VHS tapes were the primary medium for retail movie sales and rentals, few movies were released longer than two hours, since that was the capacity of a VHS T120 tape, played at standard speed. With DVDs now the medium of distribution, that limit no longer applies. (Source: Comment to question.)
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