Filmmakers often wrestle with the same question – “How long does my movie need to be to qualify as a feature film? Is there a standard runtime for features?”
I suppose many of us indie filmmakers struggle with this as we’ve been programmed to view runtime as a measure of project legitimacy.
After all, most mainstream Hollywood films seem to be getting longer. Take The Irishman as just one example, which clocks in at 3 hours and 30 minutes.
With studio runtimes like this becoming somewhat common, it’s no wonder why many of us second guess the lengths of our own films.
Chance are, if you’re worried about making a feature film that’s on the shorter side, you’re not working on a studio picture.
You’re likely in some stage of your DIY micro-budget feature film, and are questioning whether a short runtime will have a negative impact on your process.
I’ve experienced this dilemma myself, at least twice.
When producing both of my feature films (each roughly 72 minutes), I often questioned whether such a short runtime would impact festival placement, sales, distribution, and other important targets.
After doing some research however, I came across some findings that put my mind at ease. And better yet, I learned about all the unique advantages that a shorter length feature film offers you as a filmmaker.
Below is a summation of some of what helped me along the way.
There Is No Standard Feature Film Length
Depending on which definition you choose to follow, a film may qualify as a feature if it is 40 minutes, 50 minutes, 60 minutes, 75 minutes, or 80 minutes.
In other words, there is no actual standard.
Subjectively, many of us are accustomed to the typical 90 minute feature film runtime. But 90 minutes is not actually standard by any real metric.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – which in many ways can be considered the greatest authority on this matter – qualifies a feature length film at just 40 minutes. This is also true of the American Film Institute and British Film Institute.
The Screen Actors Guild, suggests that a feature film must have a runtime of 75 minutes or above.
And then of course there are film festivals, which all differ wildly from one another. Sundance states that a feature film must be at least 50 minutes to qualify. See below –
But other films festivals won’t accept a feature film submission under 80 minutes.
Distributors, sales agents, and other industry pros all vary just as much in their definition of “feature length.”
So there really is no such thing as a standard length feature film. As long as your movie is over 40 minutes, it can technically be argued as feature length in one way or another.
Does that mean everyone should run out and make a 40 minute movie though? Probably not.
There are implications to having a short runtime that could negatively impact your film (more on that later). But from a purely technical perspective, a 40 minute feature is still very much considered a feature, even within Academy standards.
Average Runtimes of Feature Films
According to the amazing research on Stephen Follow’s website, up until 2009 the average length of feature films was actually decreasing year after year. This was a huge surprise to me.
Since hitting its lowest average of 93 minutes (in 2009), runtimes slowly began to climb back up again. But even today, the average movie is roughly 98 minutes. Not nearly as long as what I would have guessed, especially when you factor in the trend of the 3-hour Hollywood blockbuster.
My guess is this number will start to trend down in the very near future.
With so many DIY filmmakers now bootstrapping their own micro-budget projects, it seems all but inevitable that average runtimes will decrease. There are WAY more micro-budget features being made every year than Hollywood features, and a majority of those films have runtimes well under 90 minutes.
As it stands, today the average length of a movie is over an hour an half. But that’s just an average, and it will always be a moving target.
There are plenty of brilliant films that barely run 65 minutes and others that are nearly 4 hours. Every story and every production has different creative needs and goals.
Feature Films With Unusually Short Lengths
When editing my first feature film, I had a bit of a panic attack after realizing I had cut so many scenes that my 90 minute feature was now barely above the 70 minute mark.
Was this even a real movie any more? I wasn’t sure.
But then I revisited Chris Nolan’s Following. His debut feature film has a runtime of only 69 minutes.
Oddly enough, I had seen this film years earlier and never realized it was so short. If someone asked me to guess the length, I probably would have just said around 90 minutes.
I was wrong though – Chris Nolan’s first feature film was barely over an hour.
And that certainly didn’t stop it from reaching audiences worldwide and launching his career into the stratosphere.
Later, I came across another a film by another favorite director of mine (Francois Ozon) called See The Sea. Again, this was a debut feature with an incredibly short runtime of only 52 minutes. And like Nolan’s debut feature, See The Sea went on to receive incredible critical acclaim.
It also became an instant favorite of mine.
The more I researched, the more I realized that these types of films were actually relatively common. Perhaps not as typical as your run of the mill 90 minute feature, but they were out there.
As I discovered, many directors found massive success with shorter feature films. It’s hard to know if that success would have been replicated if they hadn’t been able to embrace an abbreviated runtime.
Benefits of a Shorter Feature Film Runtime
For a micro-budget filmmaker, the benefits of making a relatively short feature film are hard to deny, particularly when that goal is present from the onset.
A feature length film (no matter what the runtime) has the power to take your career to the next level in a way that short films rarely do.
Yes, there are plenty of examples of short films that have launched directorial careers (usually after being turned into features), but from my experience debut short films rarely lead to the same industry interest as debut features.
Making a feature film can be daunting though. Especially when you go in with the assumption that it has to be at least 90 minutes.
But if you’re willing to enter the screenwriting process with an open mind, you can engineer a script that lets you have your cake and eat it too. That allows you to benefit from all that a feature film can offer; project legitimacy, visibility, financial opportunity, and sales potential – while making production far more financially viable.
In fact, that’s exactly what I’m doing with my next micro-budget feature film.
Rather than writing a 90 page script (that will almost inevitably get cut down to 70+ minutes in the edit), I have set a maximum target of 72 pages.
Working with less material will allow me to be far more efficient on set, focusing only on the scenes that are most critical to my story. This will translate to fewer production days, a faster edit, and a more feasible production budget.
By reducing page count you have the choice to:
- Shoot fewer pages/day over the same time period as a larger production, thereby increasing production value
- Shoot more pages/day over a shorter time period, thereby reducing cost
The caveat is, the shorter your script, the more committed you need to be to the material. With a 90 – 100 page screenplay, you have some room for error. You can leave whole scenes on the cutting room floor and still have a movie.
With a shorter script, you don’t have that luxury. It has to be written so that you’re all but certain you can use practically every moment of every scene.
Drawbacks of Shorter Length Feature Films
In my opinion, the benefits of a shorter feature film runtime far outweigh any potential drawbacks. That said, there are still some cons to take into account –
As mentioned above, some film festivals, distributors, and other gatekeepers simply won’t look at your project if it is under a certain length. For the most part, films that are 80+ minutes are pretty safe in any context. But once you dip below the 80 minute mark, your film may not qualify for certain festivals, sales agents, and so on.
Keep in mind though, most of the best film festivals and distributors do not impose these type of restrictions, and typically set their runtime targets much lower (see above).
Also worth taking into account is the audience’s perception of runtime. While I don’t believe the average viewer is overly concerned with runtime when choosing a movie to watch, I do believe it plays a small role.
Just as a 3 hour film might feel like too much of a commitment, a 60 minute feature might not feel substantial enough to make a date night of. So to some degree, the length of your finished film may factor into a viewers willingness to watch it.
To me though, none of these considerations are make or break factors. An amazing 67 minute feature will reach more people and have a greater impact than a sub par 90 minute feature. That should go without saying.
It’s worth noting that certain genres have a lot more leeway in terms of runtime than others, particularly from the audience’s point of view.
For instance, documentaries, horror films, and animated movies tend to have shorter runtimes. Audiences have become accustomed to this, because the shorter runtimes are logical –
Documentaries often tackle a narrow subject matter that simply doesn’t require a full 90 minutes. Horror films can pack a bigger punch when the scares are crammed into a smaller container. And animated movies are often watched by children, who have shorter attention spans.
On the other side, romantic comedies, action films, and musicals typically have longer runtimes. Again, this makes logical sense –
A rom-com is all about character development, and more screen time is needed to explore dual protagonists. Action films need a bigger canvas to pay off dramatic moments with big spectacles. And musicals of course need to fit both storyline and full musical numbers into the finished product.
There are always exceptions to these rules though. Take Aliens, a horror movie with a 2 hour 34 minute runtime. Or Crank, an action film that clocks in at just 88 minutes.
Rules are made to be broken. But it’s important to know the conventions of each genre and recognize how runtime may play into the audiences expectation.
My Experience With Shorter Feature Films
After now making two feature films with runtimes of roughly 72 minutes each, I can say that I have no regrets.
At no point was I ever rejected from a film festival, distributor, sales agent, or any other gatekeeper based on the length of my film.
In fact, the film’s length never came up once in any discussion that I’ve had, whether with other professionals who saw the work in progress, or casual viewers who watched the final product.
The only time the length of the film actually mattered was in my own mind.
In retrospect, I was far too consumed with runtime for my own good. In the end, it truly made no difference at all, yet I wrestled with the idea of making a “short feature” for weeks, months even.
Now though, I’ve done a complete 180. Not only am I okay with making films that are under 90 minutes in length, but I actually seek out those opportunities.
My current feature film screenplay is (by design) 72 pages. This has forced me to edit on the page as opposed in the cutting room, and will lead to a more streamlined production phase.
Every project is different, and I’m not here to suggest that every feature film should set such an aggressive target.
But it’s important to recognize when runtime matters and when it’s irrelevant.
If the idea of a making a feature film with a shorter runtime has been a hindrance to your creative process, hopefully this article has given you some new perspective.
And remember: it’s always about quality over quantity.
Now go make your 40 minute masterpiece.