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Whyever Did We Get Rid of Intermissions?

Killers of a Flower Moon is an excellent film; it is also three and a half hours long. Shamed as I am to admit it, Mr Scorsese, my bladder just isn’t cut out for this.

Some critics like Mark Kermode have questioned if this long runtime is suited to theatrical release, others see it as a symptom of streaming services’ over-indulgence (Killers was produced by Apple). Indeed, my dad forever complains that films like The Hobbit would be better suited to adaptation as big budget mini-series. Yet sometimes, the long runtime is justified.

I don’t blame Killers for its length, it takes its time unfolding the story, and that’s a treat in modern cinema. If it had been a mini-series I’d have been bored an hour in and never watched episode two, or else got distracted by my phone, my cat, or the promise of dinner. Sometimes, the darkened cinema’s ability to hold our attention is a great asset.

All this is balanced, however, against the weakness of my own flesh — particularly on the bony NPH seats, worn down by generations of student arses. The need to eat, drink, and go to the bathroom makes a four-hour cinema trip becomes an unappealing prospect. When so many cinemas are struggling for survival (and being bought out by annoying American golfers) long runtimes dampen an already declining experience.

100 years ago, they already had the solution: intermissions. Originally to allow for the changing of film reels, feature length films regularly featured an intermission, giving desperate viewers the chance to nip out to the loo or stretch their legs. They also offered another opportunity for theatres to entice parched viewers with their overpriced drinks and popcorn ­— or ‘albatross’ in Monty Python’s case.

The death of the intermission was the product of multiplex cinemas’ packed schedules, and an economic logic that saw packed higher frequency showings as preferable to the marginal benefits of snacks. Once technology allowed, intermissions were quietly dropped from Hollywood movies. With no logical gaps for a toilet break, the last few hold-out cinemas caved; except for one surprising exception…

In India, the intermission persists. In part this is because the majority of ticket revenue goes to film distributors, but all snack sales go to the cinema directly. The same business model applies today in Britain and America. More importantly, however, the intermission has become an expected structural element of Bollywood, dividing the two halves of the narrative like a traditional two-act play.

The example of India, where intermissions are almost always haphazardly inserted into Western movies, proves that an alternative model is possible. Vue cinemas in the UK have put intermissions into select screenings of Killers for less steel-bladdered patrons. The film’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker called this a ‘violation’ and distortion of Scorsese’s artistic vision. To me it seems like common sense.

My local cinema now offers autism-friendly screenings, where the lights stay on, loud noises are softened, and visitors are allowed to move freely around the cinema without fear of censure. This accessibility makes cinema available to a whole raft of people who otherwise might not feel welcome at the movies.

Personally, I think everyone deserves to experience the joy of cinema in person, and if that means cinemas make extra revenue on popcorn, so be it. As it stands cinemas and distributors are against people with incontinence, Diet Coke addictions, smokers, and the natural instinct not to sit still staring at a screen for four straight hours. So I say we stand up proud… and head to the popcorn stand!

Illustration by Shalina Prakash

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