My friend Nick Wray has a theory about the unfeasibly long Pirates of the Caribbean 3 (At The World’s End) which runs for 2 hours and 48 minutes. He thinks the increasing length of big budget films is down to an anti-theft strategy by the studios, to prevent DVD cloning.

Nick’s explanation runs like this:

One can get about two hours of good quality video (with compression) onto a single sided (4.7Gb ‘120 min’) dvd which cost around 50p each. Longer films won’t squeeze down on one disk without loss of quality, or spanning onto two disks, which is a hassle when watching. One can buy 9.4Gb DVDs (which is what distributors release movies on) but these are much more expensive in the region of £5-£8, making copying uneconomic, compared with the cost of buying an original DVD.

I wonder, too, if studios deliberately add CGI effects which are hard for compression algorithms to handle and reduce? If so not just the length of modern movies, but the very aesthetics of them are being shaped by the desire to avoid piracy.

I think that some industry economics may also be playing out. In particular, the DVD market generates more than half of the studio revenues, but as the different windows get compressed (theatrical, direct, TV on demand, TV pay, free TV), and have to work harder with the end of the the rentals market – which I blogged about earlier. The increasing presence in homes of high definition TVs creates value for the studios in investing in rich visual effects to encourage people to buy the DVD rather than waiting for the film to appear on TV.

There’s also the notion of the film as ‘event’ which needs to cut through marketing noise and launch big on its first weekend, to gain the momentum which boosts theatrical revenues and then, generally, DVD revenues as well.

It’s also worth noting that a couple of constraints have disappeared. The first is that multiplexes have removed the need to keep films far enough below two hours to let cinemas run three shows between 5pm and 11pm, and maybe also the increasing power and influence of both stars and directors generates creative inflation: the James Cameron ‘Titanic’ effect.