During Hollywood’s heyday in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s when long-form epics were all the rage, films, especially the higher-grossing ones, would run over three hours long. Lawrence of Arabia, the poster child for movies with intermissions, was aided tremendously by a break because the tonal shift between the two parts is much more jarring kept as one long piece. When I caught a revival of it a year ago, I thought, “Why can’t we still have those today?”
Of course, that film was released over 50 years ago and the time of three-hour-long period pieces is largely behind us. Intermissions no longer seemed necessary with the death of massive epics. Yet here we are in the 21st century and running times continue to crawl north of two and a half hours. This winter alone sees the release of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, all of which run over 140 minutes. Couple these lengthy features with an additional 10 minutes of advertisements and then another 20 minutes of previews, and viewers begin to go numb from sitting for three-plus hours.
I often found myself wishing for a brief reprieve during the last few segments of the Harry Potter saga and the latest Peter Jackson excursion to Middle Earth. Given the average length of summer blockbusters now, I imagine I’m not alone in that regard. Needing a break during a long film is not symptomatic of cultural ADHD and a hyper-active audience addicted to texting and tweeting (though that problem might also be remedied with a break). And don’t forget, some of us have small bladders! Eventually, a film can run so long that an intermission just seems like common courtesy.
If you’re still not convinced Hollywood should bring back the Intermission, consider this: Music fans complain that modern scores lack the oomph that pieces composed by William Goldman, Bernard Hermann and John Williams used to, and intermissions can allow the composer to spice things up a bit leading in and out of a break. It also provides an interesting challenge to filmmakers who need to re-capture an audience’s attention and deliver a satisfying ending: great movies will suck you back in regardless of if there’s a break.
The most difficult part of reintroducing intermissions into theaters will be convincing theater owners that doing so would be pragmatic. Films with longer running times because of intermissions ultimately result in fewer showings a day, and thus less tickets are sold. But what about the sizable portion of movie fans who wait for the DVD or Blu-ray because of the comfort a pause button affords them? An intermission is basically a way of pausing the movie, and giving those people that bathroom break could bring them back to the multiplex.
Intermissions also offer theaters an extra chance to push concessions. The industry is losing customers to services like Netflix and Redbox, which allow viewers to catch a flick at their own pace in the comfort of their own homes. No cinema can offer that level of convenience, but a quick chance to get the blood flowing back to your muscles would certainly be a good starting point, and if they sell more popcorn in the process, even better.
Obviously, adding an intermission wouldn’t be a necessity for most films, but for those features over two-and-a-half hours long, our behinds would be grateful. Or at least, mine would.