‘Oppenheimer,’ ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ are 3-hour films. Should movie theaters bring back intermissions?

From Martin Scorsese‘s three-hour and 26-minute epic Killers of the Flower Moon to Christopher Nolan‘s Oppenheimer, which also clocks in at three hours, many films that received Academy Award nominations on Tuesday have lengthy run times.

Anatomy of a Fall, a French courtroom drama, is two and a half hours long. Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, one of 2023’s hottest blockbusters, clocks in at under two hours, but viewers are so enthralled by the film that they don’t want to miss a thing.

When it comes to watching some of the year’s hottest films, some theatergoers are wondering when the best time is for a bathroom break.

Killers of the Flower Moon intermission controversy

In October, Variety reported distributors behind Killers of the Flower Moon issued a warning to a handful of European and U.K. theaters that inserted an unauthorized intermission into the western crime drama. In response, those behind the Scorsese-directed film, including editor Thelma Schoonmaker, were none too pleased, telling the the Standard that the decision was “not right.”

Not everyone was in line with Schoonmaker’s vision. Tim Richards, chief executive of the U.K.-based theater chain Vue, shared that including a break halfway through the film proved to be particularly successful with customers.

“Our recent market analysis showed customers would like to see the return of intermissions,” Richards told the Guardian. “So far, we’ve seen 74% positive feedback from those who have tried our interval.”

The Wall Street Journal also advocated for a break, requesting “a single, civilized, eight-to-10 minute stop, somewhere near the middle [of the film]. Enough time to hit the loo, or ask a friendly bartender to top off a beverage.”

So when should I go to the bathroom?

The desire for a bathroom break isn’t limited to Killers. When Oppenheimer hit theaters in July, the 3-hour length of the film prompted many TikTokers to ask about the best time to sneak away.

“When do I go to the restroom in Oppenheimer” has more than 37M views on the social media platform, and a quick browse of Google shows people were asking the same question on Reddit and witter.

Mary Arndt, who hosts the I Just Wanna Chat Podcast, posted a TikTok offering her perspective on when she thought was the right time for a break.

“If you’re going to see Oppenheimer and you need to know when to pee, you’re good to go when Oppenheimer’s brother arrives at Los Alamos for the first time,” Arndt said.

The question of when to take a bathroom break during longer movies is so common that there’s even an app called RunPee, which tells viewers a good spot during a movie to run out and use the restroom without missing anything crucial. Creator Dan Gardner said the idea for the app came while watching Peter Jackson’s 2005 film King Kong, which has a run time of three hours and 21 minutes.

“The RunPee app really solves this problem because it allows people to choose if they need to use the restroom or not. If you do, then we’ll give you a good spot in the movie where you won’t miss anything crucial and supply you with a synopsis of what happens while you’re away,” Gardner told Yahoo Entertainment.

History of the intermission

Movies once had intermissions so that projectionists could change the film reels and maintain the quality of the film equipment.

“Traditionally, films came on multiple reels, due to the fact that film reels could each hold about 22 minutes of movie time,” Neil Chase, an independent filmmaker and story consultant, told Yahoo Entertainment. “Therefore, most films came in approximately four reels. In addition, movie houses typically ran two projectors in one film theater. Two of the reels were preloaded and synced so that there was no gap when one ran out and the other took over. However, when it came time to load up reels three and four, they needed additional time to remove reels one and two and sync up reels three and four for a seamless viewing experience.”

Movie theaters introduced an intermission to capitalize on this break. They could head to the restroom or the concessions stand for more popcorn, candy or beverages. Consider the popular “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” cartoon, which featured animated snacks strutting through the theater and encouraging guests to replenish their treats.

Some of the most famous films of the 20th century featured intermissions, ranging from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Sound of Music. In the latter, the intermission hit right after Maria (Julie Andrews) comes to the realization that she’s in love with Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer). Maria packs up her guitar and plain clothes and returns to the abbey as an orchestral version of “Edelweiss” booms overhead, signifying the conclusion of the film’s first act.

As technology improved, intermissions have become less common, particularly as the desire to pack more people into theaters began to play a more important role.

In 1982, Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi, which ran three hours and 11 minutes, had a built-in intermission. According to SF Gate, it was the last intermission in a mainstream movie.

More recently, Peter Jackson‘s 2005 film King Kong had one, as did some theaters that played the 70mm “Roadshow” version of Quentin Tarantino‘s American western thriller The Hateful Eight in 2015.

Should intermissions come back?

With run times exceeding three hours, could intermissions have a place in modern-day cinema? Film enthusiasts who cite the constant use of social media as a root of audiences’ shortened attention spans say it would be a business opportunity for theaters.

“Movie theaters would benefit from an increase in concession sales and could capitalize further with sponsored promotions or contests during the intermission,” said Chase. “Having a captive audience who are waiting for the second half would go a long way toward increased visibility and engagement for the companies sponsoring those events.”

Gardner said it seems “sensible” to bring intermissions back to theaters. Still, he understands the hesitation.

“I can see the argument against it being that you interrupt the flow of the movie for everyone, taking them out of the magic of the story for 10 to 15 minutes,” he explained. “It’s great for those who need to use the restroom, but it’s really invasive for those who don’t. I could see movie fans being upset with the interruption and thinking they may as well wait and watch it at home.”

Filmmakers might not be so keen on the idea either. John Gianvito, a professor and filmmaker at Emerson College who has made several documentaries that are over four hours in length, said filmmakers believe “narrative flow and concentration could be lessened by a midfilm intermission unless structurally planned from inception.”

He “initially wrestled” with the decision to build an intermission into his own work.

“That said, I also knew that, provided a brief break, those who remained would likely have better concentration and engagement with the material and overall just felt more humane,” he said.

As theaters compete with streamers for the first run of films, they have to take accessibility into consideration since they can’t provide the comfort of both a Pause button and a personal bathroom around the corner. While there are plenty of people who can successfully wait from three to four hours to empty their bladder, those who cannot would likely embrace the opportunity.

“All those involved could benefit from a bit more consideration of audience comfort if there remains hope of continuing to lure folks back into the movie theater,” Gianvito said.

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