Yesterday I was reading David Bordwell’s book The Way Hollywood Tells It which as the subtitle says is a look at Story and Style in Modern Movies. Bordwell taught film studies for several decades at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (I think he recently retired.) Roger Ebert has said, “David Bordwell is our best writer on the cinema. I find this book simply astonishing.”
There is much I’d like to write about Bordwell’s book but the one thing I want to mention today is his research on the average length of a movie scene. Over the years of watching movies and reading scripts I had come up with a rough estimate of most movie scenes in American movies lasting between 1 and 3 minutes in length. (I covered this some in “Screenwriting by Numbers.”)
Well, Bordwell has come up with a more definitive answer and points to when this shift began.
“From 1930 to 1960, most films averaged 2 to 4 minutes per scene, and many scenes ran 4 minutes or more… In films made after 1961 most scenes run between 1.5 and 3 minutes. The practice reflects the contemporary screenwriter’s rule of thumb that a scene should consume no more than two or three pages (with a page counting as a minute of screen time). The average two-hour script, many manuals suggest, should contain forty to sixty scenes. In more recent years, the tempo has become even faster. All the Pretty Horses (2000) averages 76 seconds per scene, while Singles (1992) averages a mere 66 seconds. One reason for this acceleration would seem to be the new habit of getting into and out of the scenes quickly.”
My guess is the average length of the scenes in Crank: High Voltage that opened this weekend is probably pretty quick.
For more information about Bordwell check out his website on cinema.
Update 2/11/2011: Can’t you have a 5-6 minute scene that just has two people talking? Of course, The Social Network started with a 5-6 minute scene and was nominated for an Oscar. To pull off a 5-6 minute scene of two people talking it helps if your name is Aaron Sorkin.