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Should Hollywood adopt the Indian intermission model?

With more American movies crossing the 3-hour mark, critic Siddhant Adlakha weighs the arguments for and against the bathroom break

At the Oscars this Sunday, the Best Picture category will feature two gargantuan three-hour period dramas: Christopher Nolan’s World War II biopic Oppenheimer and Martin Scorsese’s towering Native American western Killers of the Flower Moon. Popular Hollywood movies have been getting longer, from the three-hour superhero finale Avengers: Endgame to James Cameron’s three-hour-12-minute Avatar sequel. For audiences accustomed to the convenience of streaming, that can be a tall ask for bladders and attention spans, leading to demands to bring back the mid-movie intermission. However, for all its good intentions, this conversation tends to miss the bigger picture of how such a change would actually be implemented, and how it might clash with the increasingly fraught nature of artistic freedom in the grand scheme of Hollywood filmmaking. For a perfect counter-example, one needn’t look further than India—the country with the largest film output in the world—where intermissions are par for the course, whether or not movies were made with them in mind.

The intermission has its roots in theater the world over, from Japanese Kabuki and Noh traditions, to the 18th Century French entr'acte, meant to accommodate major set changes. In cinema, the convention began out of a similar practical necessity (the changing of film reels), and was a common facet of mid-20th Century Hollywood roadshows. Even today, when epics from the 1960s are programmed for special events—like Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey—theaters that can accommodate intermissions generally present these films with all the pomp, circumstance, and musical overture of yesteryear. You might even see a curtain closing and opening to build anticipation. While these breaks were eventually phased out in the United States (the last wide release to be presented with an intermission was the British biopic Gandhi in 1982), the convention continues to this day for Hollywood’s Indian cousins, both mainstream and otherwise.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in “Avatar: The Way of Water.”

20th Century Studios

For many viewers, the most important factor in demanding such an addition is the ability to take a bathroom break—director Alfred Hitchcock was once quoted as saying, “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder”—but the reality of implementing such a measure is far more complex than making the decision overnight. Last year, a theater in Colorado decided to insert its own intermission into the three-hour-26-minute Killers of the Flower Moon, leading to legal intervention by distributors Paramount over the terms of exhibition (films generally can’t be presented with any kind of editing or interference from exhibitors). The movie’s editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, raised objections to this alteration as well; it’s a matter of artistic intent, after all, and Killers wasn’t designed to be watched with a sudden interruption inserted midway through. Whenever I’ve made this particular point, with friends or on social media, the retort has generally been along the lines of “the filmmakers didn’t intend for me to get up and miss part of the movie either.” However, the difference this argument seems to miss is that one of these entails an individual making this choice for themselves, while the other sees the decision being made for all audiences and filmmakers alike, which is where complications might arise—as they often have in India, where I grew up.

Back home, most local productions are divided into two acts, and the convention of the “interval” serves not only as a bathroom break, but a chance for refreshment refills, and an opportunity to discuss the movie’s developments thus far. However, these otherwise sound logistical and social functions end up being forced upon Hollywood and other non-Indian movies too, which are rarely designed with intermissions in mind, but are cleaved down the middle regardless. Were such a status quo to be pushed on American filmmakers, the logistics therein would be thorny at best (at worst, they’d represent studio bigwigs robbing writers and directors of the choice to tell an uninterrupted story).

In an ideal world, Hollywood filmmakers would have the option to design their films with intermission breaks if they so desire, while the converse freedom would also be granted to Indian filmmakers who might want to avoid it. Few mainstream Indian movies have ever been shown without intermissions in India (Vikramaditya Motwane’s 2016 thriller Trapped comes to mind), and ironically, the opposite problem of movies like Killers of the Flower Moon applies to Indian productions showcased in American multiplexes, where the presentation doesn’t actually stop despite an intermission card appearing on screen. In India, every movie has an intermission no matter what, whether they run three hours, or 90 minutes. In the United States, movies that should be shown with intermissions generally aren’t.

From left, Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone as Ernest and Mollie Burkhart in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival

At the root of this two-fold issue is distributors and movie theaters adhering to the conventions that best suit their business models. American distributors and chains prefer to have more showings in a day, while the Indian multiplex generally makes its money through mid-movie popcorn sales (it’s an expected part of the Indian moviegoing experience). But even in a world where American theaters and studios managed to adopt the Indian interval model, the question remains: who decides when and where to place the intermission?

Filmmakers being granted leeway is one thing, but the reality of this decision can be seen in action when any Hollywood blockbuster plays in Indian cinemas. Local distributors generally present exhibitors with a 20-minute window within which they can choose where to place the intermission. The break, therefore, will vary between locations, depending on either screening schedules (to maximize concession sales by avoiding lobby crowding), or simply the whims of the technician charged with making this decision, after running through the movie exactly once to quality-check the digital print. To charge studios and multiplexes with these logistics is to take the decision entirely out of artists’ hands, and to keep it dependent on financial concerns first and foremost. The result is often disruptive too, like someone else pressing pause on a movie in which you’re invested. Personally, I’ve seen these breaks inserted mid-dialogue, mid-action, and even mid-plot twist. When a movie is intentionally paced and edited, there’s rarely a good time to hit the brakes on behalf of everyone watching.

Whether in movies or on Broadway, intermissions can be fun and meaningful interjections, offering audiences and creators alike the chance to avail of mid-story crescendos and the ensuing reflections before returning to a fictional world. But when these breaks are forced upon artists (and just as importantly, on audiences), the effect can be jarring enough to detract from the intended experience. We’re all adults here; we’re capable of making the decision to visit the bathroom on our own time (a friend quietly catching you up to speed on what you missed is part of the social experience too!) Besides, an intermission won’t stop you from wanting to visit the loo well before or after a midway break should the need arise, so we all have to figure out the art of discreetly escaping through the aisles as it is. Besides, Cameron said it best when asked the best point for audiences to run to the restroom during Avatar: The Way of Water: “Any time they want. They can see the scene they missed when they come see it again.”

Published on March 8, 2024

Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter