A new art form, the feature-length movie, emerged in Australia in 1906; a second, the television drama, in the United States in 1936. Each was a reflection of the medium in which it was shown. Among other things, this constrained its length, which in turn set limits to the kind of story it could tell.
Until 1915 films averaged 15 minutes in length; then five-reel (50-minute) features became common practice. Silent films were typically either five-reel dramas or two-reel (20-minute) comedies. Once sound became a standard feature, the length increased. The average length of feature-film talkies was around 90 minutes as early as 1931 and, possibly as a result of competition from television, almost 120 minutes by 1960 (figure 1).1
From the outset, film production proved lucrative. The first feature film, the 1906 Australian Story of the Kelly Gang, cost £1,000 and was reputed to have returned at least £25,000 to its producers. Yet it was only in 1911 that countries other than Australia began to make feature films. Soon, as the need to produce films to fill the ever exploding number of movie theatres grew, production companies, which often had a stake in the theatre chains, found that the 90- to 120-minute length offered many advantages. It was ideal for keeping the audiences engaged and long enough to complete the storyline. And movie theatres could sell more tickets: a 7 p.m. starting time combined with a length under two hours allowed three showings. Hence, with no input from the directors and writers who actually crafted the movies, the 90- to 120-minute feature film became the norm.
A parallel process took place in television drama, which soon evolved into a standard format. As it began to be seen during the daytime as well as late at night and on weekends, demand for new material increased, while competition for prime-time viewers swelled. The norms for the modern prime-time TV show solidified within the parameters of the 30- and 60-minute blocks of time allocated for these productions (including the commercials needed to fund the business model).
Hence producers, and thus directors and writers, found themselves required to structure their story arc to fit one of the two options available: a feature-length film that could run for up to two hours or a television season that had to be segmented into 43-minute blocks (the actual time of most productions once commercials are subtracted). These arbitrary and yet strict guidelines placed constraints on the story to be told. While many fine works of art were produced within these constraints, other productions, usually based on a story arc that was very long and had many characters, could not comfortably fit into either model. Although a television series offered writers of content the chance to use up to 15 hours of programming to flesh out the narrative, the rhythm of having to cut the story into small chunks that fit neatly in between commercials disrupted the flow of many storylines. At the same time, the two-hour or so maximum for a feature film limited the amount of detail and character development that was possible.
There were attempts to transcend these limitations, in film at least. Some experimental or “art-house” films, typically European or Asian, succeeded artistically but were commercial failures. Two that stand out are the 1994 production of Satantango by Hungarian director Béla Tarr, which runs for 7 hours and 30 minutes, and the 2003 film The Best of Youth by Marco Tullio Giordana, which runs for 6 hours and 23 minutes. Both won many awards, but were shown in few theatres. Only a few longer productions broke out of the “art-house” niche: David Lean’s sweeping productions of Lawrence of Arabia (1962; 3 hours and 36 minutes) and Doctor Zhivago (1965; 3 hours and 17 minutes) were among the best.
By the early 21st century, the internet was becoming the new medium via which more and more people, especially among the emerging generations, were receiving content. As we shall see, recent developments suggest that another art form is emerging, one that transcends the constraints of the feature film and traditional TV series. A good illustration of this evolution can be found in the career of two innovative figures.
Born and raised in Chicago, Andy and Larry Wachowski2 made their way to Hollywood and in 1995 cowrote the screenplay for the mainstream feature film Assassins. Then they wrote and directed the innovative lesbian, neonoir Bound, which debuted at the 1996 Toronto Film Festival. Their next film, The Matrix (1999), propelled them to the Hollywood A-list, winning four Oscars for editing and sound and visual effects.
Seeking to go further, the Wachowskis wanted to make a film adaptation of David Mitchell’s 2004 novel Cloud Atlas. They spent years trying to find a studio willing to invest $100 million. Eventually they produced it independently, collecting the money from a roster of international backers and putting in millions of their own when some of the funding fell through. Cloud Atlas is a huge and sprawling book consisting of six nested stories, each read by the main character of the next. Migrating the complex story arcs and numerous characters and locations into a film was a challenge that many thought impossible – even at almost three hours in length.
The film proved the sceptics right. Slant Magazine ’s Calum Marsh called it a “unique and totally unparalleled disaster.”3 Writing in the Guardian, Henry Barnes noted, “At 163 minutes, Cloud Atlas carries all the marks of a giant folly, and those unfamiliar with the book will be baffled.”4 Nevertheless, Barnes added that “it’s hard to wholly condemn the directors’ ambition – this is fast-paced and cleverly assembled, with the best of the performances shining through the prosthetics.” So what went wrong? “We simply don’t spend enough time with any particular set of characters for a single emotional arc to properly register.”
The novel was far too sweeping, the disjointed story segments far too complex and the characters far too numerous and rich to fit into three hours. By trying to condense the Cloud Atlas canvas into a cohesive film short enough to placate the demands of the Cineplex owners, the Wachowskis ended up satisfying no one. What could have been a brilliant visual adaptation of a hugely popular novel in a six- or eight-hour production failed miserably when edited down to three. It was the lingering “what ifs” of that failure that appear to have been addressed in the Wachowskis’ latest work, Sense8.
The stage was first set in January 2008 when Netflix, once a company that merely rented DVDs, lifted the restrictions controlling access to its streaming library, at which point virtually all rental-disc subscribers became entitled to unlimited streaming at no additional cost. Netflix’s groundbreaking decision affected every corporation that owned media content, both television and film. Soon thereafter, in response to competition from other online media providers like Hulu and Amazon, Netflix began offering its entire library of past television shows for online viewing on demand. Consumers could now watch television shows when they wanted to and, more importantly, watch as many episodes as they wished at one time. Moreover, because they are paid for through subscriptions, there are no commercial interruptions in Netflix programs.
Thus was born the phenomenon that is rather unfortunately termed “binge-watching.” A 2014 survey conducted for Netflix found that it most commonly consists of watching between two and six episodes of the same TV show in one sitting.5 As binge-watching transforms the way people watch television, it is changing the way television content is being developed. Vince Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad, began writing for television while working on the series The X-Files. There, he was schooled by creator Chris Carter in building cliffhangers that would lure the audience through the mandatory commercial breaks of network television and into the next episode. Now, in creating their weekly narrative, season by season, writers must also cater to fans who, notes Gilligan, take the story “in a giant inhalation.”6
It is this “giant inhalation” that now allows creators of original content to go beyond the constraints of the single television episode or the two-hour feature film. The ability to present story arcs that run as long as 10 to 12 hours without the restrictions of commercial breaks or movie theatre showtime limits has opened up a whole landscape of possibilities. And some of the brightest and most creative minds, many from Hollywood itself, leapt to the challenge.
Since this introduction of online streaming and the instant availability of entire seasons of popular television shows, binge-watching has become a global phenomenon. And since Netflix (estimated to have over 75 million subscribers worldwide) began releasing episodes of its own series in entire blocks of seasons, binge-watching has gone some distance toward becoming the norm rather than the exception. According to a 2014 survey, some 84 per cent of those 14 to 25 and even 37 per cent of those over 68 years old engage in binge-watching TV series.7 The Nielsen rating company recently calculated the time it would take to watch the entire breadth of some of TV’s most popular series. Figure 2 sets out the results. While it is highly unlikely that anyone would actually commit the more than four days needed to view all of the episodes of The West Wing in one sitting, there is clearly an interest in pursuing such possibilities that has gained the attention of the industry.
Hence binge-watching has been evolving from the consumption of vast amounts of previously produced television into a broadly accepted manner of viewing content that has begun to affect production. Producers and writers have been exploring creating shows with arcs designed to take advantage of this burgeoning art form to tell sweeping and intricate stories that demand a greater investment in time from the viewer. No longer limited by time constraints or the strict schedule of weekly episodes, the storytellers of television have become free to explore the boundaries of story arcs that flow over much longer periods of time.
Many television series have lent themselves to binge-watching as they become available online. These include past masterworks that can now be seen on view-on-demand streaming services and are being gobbled up at a frantic pace as viewers immerse themselves into stories that they may have missed the first time around. Netflix reports that nearly 75 per cent of viewers who streamed the first season of Breaking Bad completed all seven episodes in a single session, a figure that rose to 81 and 85 per cent for seasons two and three. The Internet site BrandWatch, a marketing analysis company, tracked social media for mentions of binge-watching and which shows were being consumed. BrandWatch’s research found 40,065 specific mentions of binge-watched shows surveyed over eight months in 2015. Figure 3 shows the results.
It is not surprising that the content creators who have made perhaps the most innovative use of this medium to transcend the length limitations of traditional television and film have been the Wachowskis. Sense8, which first appeared in 2015, is a science-fiction series about eight strangers who discover that they are emotionally and mentally connected to one another and must work together to save humanity and themselves from an organization hunting them. The scenes jump from continent to continent as the protagonists make contact from distances thousands of kilometres apart through a form of symbiotic connection. At the outset Sense8 focused on the individual characters’ conditions and concerns, but the story develops organically as the subplots intertwine – something made possible by the 12 hours that Netflix allowed the Wachowskis.
With a second season projected for 2017 and a potential for three more (the Wachowskis have stated that their vision involves a five-year story arc), Sense8 has opened doors to a narrative that flows at its own pace and created a chaotic and imperfect world that could inspire viewers when least expected. Unlike almost all television that preceded it, Sense8 episodes are uneven in length, allowing each one to unravel with the story arc. It could never have worked either as a movie or as a conventional episodic television series.
The world of streaming media affects every form, including standard television fare and movies, but binge-watching fundamentally changes the basic structure of cinematic storytelling. Netflix, as an online provider of content that can be viewed at a person’s own pace, evolved from delivering traditional television shows to creating a new art form that will only grow and mature as the years go by.
1Randal S. Olson, “Movies Aren’t Actually Much Longer than They Used to Be,” blog entry, January 25, 2014, retrieved here.
2 Andy is now Lilly Wachowski and Larry is now Lana Wachowski.
3 Calum Marsh, “Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Cloud Atlas,” Slant, September 9, 2012, retrieved here.
4 Henry Barnes, “Cloud Atlas – Review,” The Guardian, September 9, 2012, retrieved here.
5 Kelly West, “Unsurprising: Netflix Survey Indicates People Like to Binge-Watch TV,” CinemaBlend, 2014, retrieved here.
6 John Jurgensen, “Binge Viewing: TV’s Lost Weekends,” Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2012, retrieved here.
7 “Percentage of Consumers who Ever Binge Viewed TV Shows in the United States as of November 2014, by Age,” retrieved here.