Movie intermissions are necessary in the age of long movies like Interstellar.

It’s Time to Bring Intermissions Back to the Movies

It’s Time to Bring Intermissions Back to the Movies

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Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 8 2014 9:13 AM

Want to Make a Cinematic Epic? Give Me a Break.

exodus
Moses (Christian Bale) is going to wear himself out. He’ll probably need a break.

Photo by Twentieth Century Fox.

Right around the third act of the 170-minute Interstellar, just when Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) appeared to be on the verge of a climactic epiphany, I found myself struggling to pay attention. It’s not that the movie was bad. But after 2½ hours sitting still in one seat, I couldn’t bring myself to ponder the deep, existential layers present in this high-stakes moment. I was just ready for it to be over.

Christopher and Jonathan Nolan’s storytelling may have been partly to blame here. But I would have been more invested in this final act had there been one little change, and it has nothing to do with the screenplay: If only there had been an intermission.

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In the early days of cinema, intermissions were required simply because movies were printed on multiple reels of film, and a break was needed once the first reel was complete, so the second could be loaded. Intermissions stuck around, though, well after moviehouses solved that problem with multiple projectors. That’s because they served another need: giving the audience a break. And some movies—Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Ben-Hur, Gandhi—even made the intermission part of their narrative structure.

Today, the biggest blockbusters are, on average, longer than they were just 20 years ago. Vulture has taken to offering guides for would-be audiences on the best moments to take much needed bathroom breaks during particularly long movies. But we need to take a more drastic step. If the film reaches or exceeds 2½ in length, give us a break! Bring back the intermission.

I know, I know: Releasing and scheduling a two-plus hour movie is already potentially cutting into profits for distributors and theater owners, since they can’t screen, say, Exodus: Gods and Kings (150 minutes), Inherent Vice (148 minutes), or the final Hobbit installment (at 144 minutes, the shortest entry in the trilogy) as many times as they can show Big Hero 6 (a brisk-by-comparison 102 minutes). But theater owners, at least, can probably make some of that back by selling even more of their ridiculously overpriced concessions. (That’s where the bulk of their revenue comes from anyway—and has for some time.) Patrons will surely be inclined to grab another drink or box of Junior Mints at intermission. And having watched that final act with new snacks and empty bladders, they’ll probably walk out of the theater more satisfied with the whole experience, perhaps more likely to return to the movies again soon—thus, potentially, making up for any losses distributors might face.

Granted, some moviegoers may not like the idea. You’re busy, you’ve got a life to live, you don’t want to carve more time out of your day to catch a flick than is absolutely necessary. But intermissions would have benefits for busy people, too—people with kids, say, and workaholics who are always on their phones: During the break, you can check in with the babysitter or read all your work emails. You can tweet your joke about how some people in the movie are getting older while Matthew McConaughey stays the same age. (And then you can turn off your phone when you go back in, thank you very much.)

The reinstating of movie intermissions could even do wonders for filmmaking itself. Alfred Hitchcock is often quoted as saying, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder.” Most of his features hover safely around the two-hour mark; none reach 150 minutes. I stand with the Master on this one: If there’s one thing that gives me pause when deciding whether or not to watch a movie, it’s a more-than-two-hour running time.

But there are films that earn their many minutes. And some of us would be more inclined to give these movies a shot if we got the chance to stretch our legs about halfway through. And so, theater owners, I beg of you, stop forcing us to choose between running to the bathroom and watching Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway “walk around an empty space station.” As boring as the latter may sound, I’d rather have the chance to do both. And I bet the Master of Suspense would agree.

Aisha Harris is a Slate culture writer and host of the Slate podcast Represent.