Independent Films by the Numbers

The marketing of Independent Films

Archive for the 'Run Times' Category

The Best YouTube Video Length? — 8 Min.

I am programming a more intense study as I write, but I wanted to close out my initial study on the best length for a YouTube video. Common knowledge has it that since most videos on YouTube are less than 3 minutes that it is best to follow the pack and make many short videos. My study of the differences between randomly selected videos and those deemed popular/most viewed has questioned this pack logic.

What I have found is that videos under two minutes are less like to be widely watched that expected by their frequency in the population, while videos 5 minutes are over are much more likely to become popular that expected by chance and their population frequency. The strongest performance beyond chance comes from 8 minute videos, which have a stunning chi-squared value of 188 on 1 degree of freedom. Scores higher than 10.8 are able to reject a null hypothesis of the observed being the same as the expected with a confidence level of 99.9%!

I have charted this patterning by plotting the runtimes of YouTube videos against the chi-squared values looking at the expected number of popular videos based upon the population frequencies for those same runtimes. To make the chart easier to understand, I made the chi-squared values negative for cases where the observed was less than expected. Enjoy.


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Pattern of Run Times for YouTube Videos

Given that there are better movie lengths for festival films, I have begun to wonder if the same is true for YouTube videos.  I am not the biggest fan of YouTube, but given its importance as a grassroots distribution channel I thought I should get over my personal biases and take a deeper dive into what makes it tick.

My initial study has involved capturing data on 2,600 video submitted yesterday.  I drew the sample from YouTube’s top 13 channels (minus Movies and Music, which seem to play by different rules) for a collection of 200 videos for each channel.  Those 200 hundred videos were split evenly into two segments: popular videos for that day and a control group of randomly selected videos.

I am still early in my analysis, but it is clear that these two samples are distinctly different.   Randomly selected videos tend to skew shorter with the largest mode occurring with videos less than one minute long and all others being 10 minutes or less in length.  If you look at the distribution of this random control segment it is a classic inverse power drop off with the count of videos dropping as the lengths go up.  The Popular/Most Viewed segment has a very different form.  There is a mode at less than one minute, but it is much less pronounced than the control segment.  There is a second mode for the popular segment at 10 minutes with a tail of lengths extending out past 10 minutes.

It seems that popular videos tend to be longer than the average video, which is a pattern not unlike what I observed for short films in festivals.  Despite not be normal in distribution, the averages run times are interesting with the control group having an average run time at 2 minutes 37 seconds, while the popular segment has an average run time at 4 minutes 52 seconds (almost twice the length) .

Runtimes for a sample of 2,600 YouTube Videos

Runtimes for a sample of 2,600 YouTube Videos

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Best Run Time for Festival Short Films

Deciding upon a run-time for your independent short film is a classic optimization problem. On one hand, you want to make the film very short (~5 min) so it can most easily be slotted into a festival calendar, but it is best to make a film longer (>8 min) to maximize your chances of winning an award. Obviously, these two goals are at odds with one another.

The key is to find a time that is the best blending of timing to be screened and ability for that runtime to win an award.

This is not an easy task. There are a number of ways to do this process given the incomplete data we have, which will give you varying insights. A true understanding of the exact tipping point is impossible with the dataset I have since there are not enough data to provide a statistically valid sample at a very granular level. That being said, some general trends can be discerned.

The 8 minute mark is the tipping point for films having a long enough run time to allow them to win an award. Films shorter than this probably have trouble competing, since one can only do so much story development in 5 minutes. Despite their craft, these films naturally feel less substantial than longer films where more story development can occur.

The 21 minute mark is another tipping point at which the film becomes harder to slot into a festival given the constraints of their schedules.

Within the 8-21 minute span of time, there appears to be a maximum point at around 15 minutes where placement is maximized and wins are solid. My gut tells me that if you have a strong product this optimal run time can be pushed up to around the 18 minute mark without much risk. Indeed, the strength of the 15 minute maximum probably results from being a “round” number for filmmakers and the resulting proliferation of films of this length.

If you have a short film at the far end of the time spectrum (approaching 40 min), the strategy for success is more risky, but given the strength of these films to win awards it can be more rewarding. The key for these films is placement at a top tier festival (Sundance, Tribeca, Toronto, etc…) and have an award win there. If this happens, the buzz around the film will allow you to do well on the festival circuit and not be constrained by the normal restrictions of festival schedules. How can you do that? I leave that up to you and lady luck for the moment.

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What is the best running time for winning awards?

I have begun an exploration of what makes for a winning awards film at festivals and once again the run time of the movie seems to be a prime mover. The analysis is not fully complete, but I do know the following:

  • Short movies tend to win more awards the longer they are… if they both play in the same festival, a 35 minute short is more likely to win an award than 5 minute film.
  • There are two run time inflection points for short films in my studies so far — 8 minutes and ~16 minutes. A CHAID study shows that shorts running longer than 8 minutes are twice as likely to win awards than ones less than 8 minutes. This pattern exists at an adjusted P-value of 0.04, which means we have 96% confidence that this pattern is not the result of chance. The inflection point of 16 minutes is based upon an analysis of the chance of winning an award for a given running time mixed with the chance of getting into a festival based on the running time. It seems that the mid-teens to twenty minute mark is the optimal point. I am working on refining this.
  • For features, it seems like the optimal length for winning awards is somewhere around 80 minutes
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Why do Runtimes vary between Film Festivals?

I have spent the last few days pushing forward on getting a bunch of new festivals into my database. What I have discovered is widespread variation in reported runtime for the same film playing in different festivals. Why?

It is unclear in the data I have, but here are my thoughts on possible causes…

  • When a film premieres at a festival it is not uncommon for the film’s editing not to be complete when information for the festival program is requested. The delivered film may vary by a number of minutes from what was estimated earlier by the filmmaker.
  • Different festivals round partial minutes differently from one another. For instance, if I have a 5.5 minute film, one festival might consider this a 5 minute film while another will see this as a 6 minute film
  • A festival run will often times expose a problem with the original edit which will need to be corrected by removing or adding minutes of content for the next screening. There is nothing like a live audience to vett out your filmmaker choices.

This raises a bunch of issues for databasing festival films. First, you cannot trust runtimes as a means to normalize films between festivals… just because two films do not have the same runtimes does not mean they are not the same film. Second, in a database of films showing at festivals what time should used or should you track all versions? No good answers… IMDB seems to have gotten around this by explicitly stating where the runtime was measures (x minutes @ the Toronto Film Festival).

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More on Festival Film Run times

My previous work on run-times at film festivals has been well-received. The insights have surprised many, especially those film students who have been instructed to make 30 minute pieces, which do not seem to fit programming schedules all that well.

It has been requested that I break my chart apart by Fictional and Non-Fictional films. So here it is…

Festival Film Run Times by Genre

As you can see, the two charts are very similar. Non-Fiction films tend to run shorter for features and have a wider dispersal for short films than Fiction films. Some of this is dispersal differentiation for short films is probably due to sampling effects.

Please note, not all films in my database were included, since I have not classed all records into fiction or non-fiction.

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More Thoughts on Festival Film Lengths

My work on run times for festival films has focused up until now upon what is the best length for films to get into a single festival. This isn’t the only measure of success on the festival circuit potentially related to run times.

I am pretty convinced based on antidotal evidence that it might be easier to get into a festival with a short 4-5 minute film than a longer short film, but longer short films win more awards. My question is — Is the length of shorts and features that win awards at festivals statistically different from ones that just get into the festival?

I also am interested in the question — Is there an optimal length to be scheduled in multiple festivals? Is this different than the optimal length of just getting into just one festival? I don’t know how this will play out.

I will work on these questions over the next week. This will provide a more refined understanding of the best length for festival films. I hope that we can find a series of rule of thumb for film run times that will position a filmmaker’s work to get the most and best exposure via festivals.

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What is the best length for a festival feature?

In my last post, I discussed what is the best length for a short film to be accepted at a film festival. Features have optimal lengths too.

It is hard to place a feature film at a festival if it is less than 75 minutes or more than 130 minutes long. The best run times seems to be between 90-100 minutes for a feature with an average feature being 99 minutes.

Yes, there are exceptions to this rule like Jennifer Fox’s 350+ minute epic “Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman” playing at Sundance, or the nine hour long premiere of Lav Diaz’s “Death in the Land of Encantos” at Toronto this year. However, these are very singular events. They are not the norm.

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How Long Should a Short Movie Be?

The success of a film on the film festival circuit depends in large part on its running time.

All festivals have a fixed set of slots to program films and not all lengths fit these slots. If you have a film that is too long or too short, it will tend to be rejected despite all of its artistic or social merits. Make a film too long or short and it will die a slow death on the festival circuit under the weight of countless rejections.

The question you should be asking now is what is the optimal length for festival film? That answer depend upon whether your film is a short or a feature.

How a short is defined varies from festival to festival. For me, I like the Academy of Motion Pictures definition, which says that a short is 40 or less minutes long.

Not all shorts are created equal in the minds of festival programmers. The best shorts can to be slotted in front of feature or combined with a bunch of other shorts to fill a 60-120 minute programming slot. This reality of programming results almost all festival shorts being less than 25 minutes long. The average running time of a festival short is 11.4 minutes with the greatest concentration being 4-5 minutes in length.

This harsh fact of life for shorts is the reason that television hour (~50 minutes to allow for commercials) and Oscar shorts (which tend to be 28-40 minutes long) tend not to play at festivals. They just cannot be easily slotted in to a festival’s schedule.

I know there will be readers of this post who will doubt its accuracy, so I will put to rest any doubts with a graphic. This graphic shows a histogram of run times for all movies playing at the Sundance, Tribeca, Toronto, and Los Angles film festivals in 2007 (n = 1017 films). It is easy to see that the graph has two distinct modes one for shorts and on for features with little if anything happening is the space between them.

Festival runtimes chart

BTW, the latest short film I produced (Freeheld) sits at 38 minutes in this graph. We were shocked that we got into Sundance given the film’s length. Sometimes exceptions to the rules will happen, but never count on them.

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