Why movies went from 15 minutes to 2 hours

Why are movies about two hours long? In this episode of Vox Almanac, Vox’s Phil Edwards researches the history of movies — and discovers the Italian silent film classic that changed all movies forever.

In the 1900s, movies were typically around 15 minutes long — that was the length of one reel (depending on playback speed and a few other variables). But in 1913, that changed significantly thanks to the blockbuster Quo Vadis — a two-hour epic that wasn’t just long, but had blockbuster ambitions.

Quo Vadis involved huge stunts, thousands of extras, and real Roman locations, taking movies to a scale little before seen. When it premiered, instead of playing as one of many short films in nickelodeons, it debuted in big concert halls and other prestigious venues. That led to a record box office and an industry-changing trend that started with D.W. Griffith and spread elsewhere.

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Further reading

A History of Narrative Film by David A. Cook: This book provides a good overview of film history.

Film Before Griffith by John Fell: This book chronicles all the films that influenced movies before D.W. Griffith came on the stage.

The Silent Cinema by Liam O’Leary: O’Leary provides another good overview, this one of the international silent film scene.

The Griffith Project: Many silent films are lost, so anthologies like these, which describe each film and include data on length, are useful.