Kevin Costner and Sissy Spacek in a scene from the film 'JFK', 1991.

The most successful long movies of all time

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April 26, 2024
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The most successful long movies of all time

A recent debate has made its way around the internet about whether or not audiences should be forced to sit through movies over three hours long. At the end of the day, defenders of such lengthy cinematic experiences might suggest that perhaps some people should simply avoid films they know they don't have the patience to endure.

Despite the arduous run time of many blockbusters and meditative indie films, long movies aren't a recent phenomenon—epics, especially of the historical and biblical variety, used to be far more recurrent until the "Cleopatra" disaster of 1963 (which will be detailed, in part, on this list).

Sometimes the movie calls for a long run time because that is the nature of the story being told, whether that's wrapping up numerous character arcs of a multisaga franchise like the conclusion to Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in "Avengers: Endgame"; attempting to impart the legacy of a near-mythic historical figure as with "Oppenheimer"; or simply because the director can, and wants to, stretch out a story as much as possible and show off awe-inspiring tech in the process, like in Peter Jackson's "King Kong" remake.

While some directors—like Jackson, Martin Scorsese, and James Cameron—have repeatedly been given carte blanche to make their lofty films, other directors aren't so lucky. While under three hours, the box office and critical flop of the meandering "Under the Silver Lake" forced director David Robert Mitchell out of the director's chair for years. On the other hand, a three-hour Christopher Nolan film that mostly depicts people talking in rooms about the atomic bomb was one of the biggest smash hits of 2023 worldwide.

Maybe the issue has less to do with the length of the movie and is more about the story and how it's told; and sometimes, the way it's told produces a theatrical hit that defies generalizations of audience patience.

Whatever the case may be, Stacker looked at the box office performance of all feature films over three hours long on The Numbers and ranked the top 20 by U.S. domestic box office earnings. IMDb user ratings and Metacritic scores were provided for context on popular and critical reception.

Think you have the patience for these 20 films? Keep reading to discover more about the most successful long movies in cinematic history.

#20. Gandhi (1982)

- Director: Richard Attenborough
- Domestic box office: $52.77 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 11 minutes
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Metascore: 79

For some biographical dramas, the subject in question is larger than life and difficult to depict within the more concise confines of a 90-minute run time. Such is the case of the life and legacy of Indian civil rights leader Mahatma Gandhi, in Richard Attenborough's sprawling, Academy Award-winning film. The feature was Attenborough's passion project, but it had been shelved and resurrected a number of times with different directors between the '50s and '70s, before finally beginning shooting in 1981. Despite lasting over three hours in run time, the film received overwhelmingly positive critical and audience response.

#19. The Godfather Part II (1974)

- Director: Francis Ford Coppola
- Domestic box office: $57.3 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 22 minutes
- IMDb user rating: 9.0
- Metascore: 90

Part of the reason for the long run time of the sequel to "The Godfather" has to do with the fact that the film is both a sequel and a prequel, detailing the rise of young Vito Corleone and the fall of his son, Michael. Director Francis Ford Coppola also received complete creative control over this film as opposed to "The Godfather," so he was able to be a bit more self-indulgent. Despite some initial critical reticence to his lengthy, cross-cutting narrative approach, the film fared well at the box office on a budget of only $13 million.

#18. Cleopatra (1963)

- Directors: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Rouben Mamoulian
- Domestic box office: $57.78 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 12 minutes
- IMDb user rating: 7.0
- Metascore: 60

The gratuitous run time of "Cleopatra" is fitting when considering the extreme infamy of its catastrophic production. A massively inflated budget, major on-set hazards, script changes, the near-fatal illness of star Elizabeth Taylor, and the affair between Taylor and co-star Richard Burton, all coalesced into a disaster of epic proportions, one which matches the bloated epic of its screenplay.

Some believe that the film—a biographical drama chronicling the life and rule of the famous Egyptian queen—essentially killed off big-budget epics, despite the fact that it ended up as the biggest hit of 1963. Nevertheless, with how much the budget was exceeded—$5 million set, but at least $35 million in reality—the film was still a loss for the studio.

#17. JFK (1991)

- Director: Oliver Stone
- Domestic box office: $70.41 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 9 minutes
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Metascore: 72

A film centered on a conspiracy as compelling as the JFK assassination is bound to be both overlong and also gripping, as is the case with Oliver Stone's "JFK." It also makes sense as to why the film, despite being in excess of three hours, still managed to be such a hit with audiences: It unleashed further fixation on one of the biggest American conspiracy theories of all time. Stylistically and narratively ambitious, the screenplay is ultimately broken into four chapters. Stone initially hoped "JFK" would be more than 4 ½ hours and double the original budget, but he was able to trim it down to a slightly more digestible length.

#16. Ben-Hur (1959)

- Director: William Wyler
- Domestic box office: $74.7 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 32 minutes
- IMDb user rating: 8.1
- Metascore: 90

Religious and historical epics were all the rage during the early and middle parts of the 20th century (before the disaster of "Cleopatra")—so much so that not only was the 3 ½-hour "Ben-Hur" the highest-grossing film at the 1959 box office, but it is still one of the highest-grossing films of all time (after adjusting for inflation). The film's $15 million budget at the time was the largest ever for a film and boasted the largest sets ever produced. The chariot race sequence remains to this day an impressive and meticulous piece of filmmaking.

#15. Fiddler on the Roof (1971)

- Director: Norman Jewison
- Domestic box office: $80.5 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 1 minute
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Metascore: 67

Musical films based on stage plays can often be as long as the source material they're adapted from—and the film adaptation of "Fiddler on the Roof" was no different. Musical numbers take up a lot of extra time (just part of why many Bollywood films tend to be so long). And while audiences today, allegedly, don't have patience for any musical films—let alone ones over three hours—a laborious run time did not dissuade audiences from showing up for "Fiddler." The film grossed over $80 million worldwide on a budget of only $9 million to become the second-highest-grossing film of 1971.

#14. The Ten Commandments (1956)

- Director: Cecil B. DeMille
- Domestic box office: $93.74 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 40 minutes
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Metascore: data not available

When a film is designated as an "epic," that usually means most, if not all, aspects of production are going to be grand in proportion—and that absolutely includes run time. Cecil B. DeMille's mid-century classic clocked in at nearly four hours in length, which ultimately feels apt for the monumental story of this biblical tale. The film even features one of the largest exterior sets ever used in a motion picture, on top of including a groundbreaking piece of early special effects trickery.

#13. Schindler's List (1993)

- Director: Steven Spielberg
- Domestic box office: $96.9 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 15 minutes
- IMDb user rating: 9.0
- Metascore: 95

Steven Spielberg undertook quite a creative burden by attempting to do justice to the story of Oskar Schindler, whose real-life acts of salvation for Jewish people during the Holocaust were dramatized in the 1982 novel titled "Schindler's Ark." Adapted and renamed as "Schindler's List," the epic historical drama gripped audiences and critics, and was a critical and commercial smash—going on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. However, some objected to the content of the film; Claude Lanzmann, the director of the nine-hour Holocaust documentary "Shoah," felt it was a transgression to fictionalize such atrocities.

#12. Doctor Zhivago (1965)

- Director: David Lean
- Domestic box office: $111.72 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 17 minutes
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Metascore: 69

David Lean's sweeping historical romance adapts Boris Pasternak's 1957 novel of the same name—the story of a physician and poet during the Russian Civil War who bears an everlasting love to a woman with whom he reunites years later after he's already married. The film was actually criticized at the time of its release for its nearly 3 ½-hour run time, but that didn't prevent audiences from seeing the film. To this day, "Doctor Zhivago" continues to be one of the highest-grossing movies of all time (after being adjusted for inflation). So, it all worked out for this film that endured a particularly painstaking production process, lasting nearly a year.

#11. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

- Director: Martin Scorsese
- Domestic box office: $116.9 million
- Run time: 3 hours
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Metascore: 75

Though he's not a stranger to a standard two-hour movie, Martin Scorsese has become known for his excessive run times, with many of his most famous works clocking in at well over 2 ½ hours. But his most successful long movie—and his highest-grossing ever—is "The Wolf of Wall Street," an opulent film to match the life of its subject: New York City con artist Jordan Belfort, a corrupt stockbroker whose heyday during the late 1980s and early '90s led to his ultimate downfall and stint in prison. The length of the film works in tandem with Belfort's life, which was self-indulgent, hedonistic, and deeply tasteless; in the end, audiences, critics, and awards bodies simply couldn't get enough of it.

#10. The Green Mile (1999)

- Director: Frank Darabont
- Domestic box office: $136.8 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 9 minutes
- IMDb user rating: 8.6
- Metascore: 61

Based on Stephen King's novel of the same name, "The Green Mile" tells the story of a death row prison guard who meets a physically foreboding man with a gentle demeanor who's been accused of double homicide—and who also seems to possess otherworldly gifts. Despite the fantasy drama's run time of over three hours, the screenplay only took director Frank Darabont eight weeks to write. "The Green Mile" was a crowd-pleaser and was nominated for multiple awards, including four Oscars; though it did receive some criticism for its length from critics at the time.

#9. Dances with Wolves (1990)

- Director: Kevin Costner
- Domestic box office: $184.21 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 1 minute
- IMDb user rating: 8.0
- Metascore: 72

The story of a Union Army lieutenant finding acceptance, family, and love with members of the Lakota nation won moviegoers over back in 1990. "Dances with Wolves" was a box office hit, becoming the third-highest-grossing film of the year and garnering a whopping 12 Academy Award nominations, winning seven. However, the film did face an uphill battle getting greenlit, as the Western genre was long dead and the screenplay was, obviously, lengthy. Director and star Kevin Costner and co-producer Jim Wilson managed to strike a deal with Orion Pictures and get their film made, run time notwithstanding.

#8. Pearl Harbor (2001)

- Director: Michael Bay
- Domestic box office: $198.54 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 3 minutes
- IMDb user rating: 6.2
- Metascore: 44

This highly fictionalized account of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 is stretched out by a romance narrative set before, during, and after the tragic attack. While the film won out at the box office, it was scrutinized by critics for everything from the story to the historical inaccuracies, to the dialogue, pacing, and, yes, the unwieldy three-hour run time. But "Pearl Harbor," which was directed by Michael Bay, also had an unwieldy production process; former Disney chairman Dick Cook considered it "one of the most difficult shoots of modern history."

#7. Gone with the Wind (1939)

- Directors: Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood
- Domestic box office: $198.68 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 58 minutes
- IMDb user rating: 8.2
- Metascore: 97

The longest run time on this list goes to none other than "Gone with the Wind," the epic historical romance picture that remains, to this day, the highest-grossing film of all time after adjusting for inflation. It's clear that the nearly four-hour run time did not deter audiences in 1939 from seeing "Gone with the Wind" in droves, although critics at the time did take issue with that laborious aspect. As if to parallel its length, the film's production was an equally massive undertaking, taking three years, multiple directors, and a daunting casting process to finally translate Margaret Mitchell's novel to the silver screen.

#6. King Kong (2005)

- Director: Peter Jackson
- Domestic box office: $218.08 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 7 minutes
- IMDb user rating: 7.2
- Metascore: 81

It should come as no surprise that a director like Peter Jackson took a classic film under two hours in length and stretched it to over three hours; the filmmaker behind "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy knows a thing or two about world-building. For one, Jackson fleshed out the fictional setting of Skull Island, and with that came extensive use of CGI, special effects, elaborate set pieces, and more of the motion-capture technology seen in "Lord of the Rings" (Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in the Tolkien trilogy, provided the movements for Kong).

While many critics praised the film for its spectacle, some did take issue with its length: Charlie Brooker of The Guardian called it "three hours long and rubbish."

#5. Oppenheimer (2023)

- Director: Christopher Nolan
- Domestic box office: $326.11 million
- Run time: 3 hours
- IMDb user rating: 8.3
- Metascore: 90

The initial prospect of a three-hour biographical drama about the father of the atomic bomb seemed dicey in the months leading up to the release of Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer." But to doubt the power of Nolan, who isn't exactly known for making brief pictures, is a foolish endeavor. Not only is he one of the most consistently successful mainstream auteurs, but his behemoth of a film got an added boost with the "Barbenheimer" double-feature frenzy in the summer of 2023, all leading to an Academy Award sweep including Best Picture.

The run time has partly to do with the kind of meticulous filmmaker Nolan is; he shot the film using multiple formats and implemented impressive practical effects for the Trinity test. The result manages to move at a brisk clip, thanks in part to Oscar-winning editor Jennifer Lame.

#4. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

- Director: Peter Jackson
- Domestic box office: $377.85 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 21 minutes
- IMDb user rating: 9.0
- Metascore: 94

Nine-plus hours in total length is possibly not enough time to tell the epic saga of Frodo and the One Ring from J.R.R. Tolkien's classic series, but Peter Jackson did a more-than-solid job nevertheless. Out of the three films, each adapted from one book of the trilogy, "The Return of the King" had the longest run time at nearly 3 ½ hours—but that did not deter audiences.

The movie not only did gangbusters at the box office, but it also secured numerous Oscars, including a win for Jackson in the Best Director category and the coveted Best Picture award. On top of Tolkien's novels being such rich material to work with, the "Lord of the Rings" films have become well known for their lavish and lengthy productions, replete with practical effects, groundbreaking CGI, and complex set pieces.

#3. Titanic (1997)

- Director: James Cameron
- Domestic box office: $659.33 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 14 minutes
- IMDb user rating: 7.9
- Metascore: 75

To say that James Cameron goes all in on his productions is maybe an understatement. Though he's known for his epic scales, "Titanic" is Cameron's longest film (beating out "Avatar: The Way of Water" by only two minutes) due to the sheer size of the ever-increasing budget and Cameron's unwillingness to cut anything. That $200 million budget ultimately went to the grand proportions of Cameron's filmmaking, the visual effects, lavish sets, the number of extras, and the ballooned shooting schedule, which shot up to 160 days. In the end, the risk of such gargantuan proportions paid off, leading to Oscar glory and a special place in the annals of Hollywood and pop culture history.

#2. Avatar: The Way of Water (2022)

- Director: James Cameron
- Domestic box office: $659.68 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 12 minutes
- IMDb user rating: 7.6
- Metascore: 67

More than a decade after the smash success of "Avatar," James Cameron returned with a bigger, even longer sequel because a world as immersive as that of Pandora can only be told over three-plus hours. In this case, Cameron's lengthy, lovingly crafted story is further facilitated by breathtaking CGI, enormous set pieces, and painstaking performance capture technology; all told, the film took five years to make. Speaking about the long run time to Empire magazine, Cameron had no patience for impatience: "I don't want anybody whining about length when they sit and binge-watch [television] for eight hours."

#1. Avengers: Endgame (2019)

- Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
- Domestic box office: $858.37 million
- Run time: 3 hours and 1 minute
- IMDb user rating: 8.4
- Metascore: 78

The epic conclusion to the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn't deserving of just one three-hour movie: it took more than five hours combined, via the two-parter "Infinity War" and "Endgame," to conclude the saga of "Iron Man" and "The Avengers." "Endgame" is the longer of the two films by about half an hour, but that run time didn't deter fans from making the film one of the biggest blockbusters of all time.

The fact that "Endgame" had to wrap up the arcs of several crucial MCU characters definitely played a part in how long the film needed to be. Coupled with large-scale CGI, IMAX digital cameras, and special effects (including over 200 de-aging or aging shots), the film is actually one of the most expensive ever produced.

Data reporting by Luke Hicks. Story editing by Cynthia Rebolledo. Copy editing by Tim Bruns. 

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