Editing Entertainment: Length Constraints, Product Quality, and the Case of the Motion Picture Industry

A. Peter McGraw, Anika Stuppy, and Justin Pomerance, 2017, 17-114

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Producers of media entertainment spend billions of dollars and countless hours creating books, albums, video games, television shows, and of course, motion pictures. Creating highly entertaining products is more important than ever because consumers are able to differentiate good products from bad products prior to consumption. For instance, bad reviews dampened enthusiasm for Suicide Squad, Batman versus Superman, and many other blockbusters.

Editing in post-production is essential to creating enjoyable media entertainment. Filmmakers, musicians, and writers cut dozens—even hundreds—of scenes, songs, or sentences from early versions of their products in order to shorten the product’s length and improve the audience’s experience. However, sometimes entertainment producers make errors – but not all errors are equally harmful.

Failing to cut low-quality elements (e.g., bad jokes, boring scenes) harms a product more than failing to keep high-quality elements (e.g., funny jokes, engaging scenes). The reason is straightforward: consumers experience the bad jokes or scenes that were left in, but do not experience the potential good jokes or scenes that were left out.

This research investigates how constraints on the length of entertainment products that cause editors to leave in or leave out material affects product quality. Network television requires sitcoms to be 22-minutes long, for example, and Hollywood studios require movies to be 90 minutes or longer. When the amount of good content available during editing exceeds a maximum length constraint, producers leave out some good content to avoid exceeding that length. Conversely, when the amount of good content available during editing falls short of a minimum length constraint, producers leave in some bad content to reach that length.


In experiment 1, the authors tested whether leaving in bad content diminishes entertainment experiences more than leaving out good content. They subjected comedy sets to either a maximum length constraint (which caused good jokes to be cut) or a minimum length constraint (which caused bad jokes to be kept). They found that a minimum constraint diminished consumers’ enjoyment of the comedy sets whereas a maximum constraint had little effect on enjoyment.

The next three studies examined how a 90-minute minimum constraint could contribute to the prevalence of short bad movies in Hollywood (as determined by ratings). Studios typically require filmmakers to make their movies 90 minutes or longer. The authors suspected that this minimum constraint hurts the quality of some movies. Filmmakers who lack enough good material to provide 90-minutes of entertainment need to keep some bad scenes, which causes an overrepresentation of short bad movies.

Consistent with the authors’ conjecture, data in study 2 revealed an overrepresentation of short bad movies in 1,000 widely-released Hollywood movies. When they plotted running times by ratings from IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, and Metacritic, they found a significant drop in ratings for movies close to the minimum constraint. Supplementary analyses ensured that the reason for the short bad movies was not explained by other factors such as genre or budget.

Their account suggests that long bad movies are rare because filmmakers can keep cutting irrelevant subplots, tedious dialogue, or bad special effects—thus transforming a long bad movie into a shorter better movie. Study 3 ruled out an alternative account that long bad movies are absent from theatrical releases because they were released direct to video. A dataset of 429 direct-to-video releases revealed that these movies have lower ratings than Hollywood releases but are much shorter. Finally, study 4 examined whether these effects are due to some other aspect of filmmaking. The authors identified a filmmaking industry with no length constraints: Bollywood. In a sample of 987 Indian movies, they detected no drop in ratings for short movies.

Managerial implications

Practitioners and academics alike point to distribution challenges facing the entertainment industry: digital outlets create formidable competition. These findings suggest another threat: that constraint-free digital outlets could provide better entertainment. While a network TV sitcom must meet an artificial 22-minute constraint for each episode, digitally distributed shows can vary their episodes’ length to keep just the right amount of high-quality content. For instance, Netflix’s hit show Stranger Things varied length between 41 to 55 minutes per episode. Future research can determine if showrunners are filling that extra time with good content.

The authors conclude with three takeaways for entertainment producers:

Value of testing. Not having enough good scenes, songs, or sentences is a bigger problem than having too many. The mechanics of the entertainment product development process, however, suggests that producers won’t know about the quality of their products until exhibition. By editing and testing early and often, entertainment producers can get a better idea of whether they have enough good content to reach a length constraint.

Change the model. Not having enough good content to meet a constraint could motivate entertainment producers to plan for additional production during the editing phase (e.g., reshoots). Entertainment producers could also use lean methods that encourage the early release of imperfect products subject to subsequent improvement. Kanye West, for example, revised most songs on The Life of Pablo by updating tracks on streaming services.

Create (even) more content. One limitation of the entertainment product development process is that producers often cannot return to the production stage to create more content. While novelists can always write more material, filmmakers can’t shoot more scenes after cast and crew move on to other jobs. This suggests that producers should create as much content as possible and sort it out in post-production. After shooting a scripted scene, for example, some comedy directors (e.g., Judd Apatow) asks actors to improvise lines in order to find a funnier joke.

A. Peter McGraw is Associate Professor of Marketing and Psychology, University of Colorado Boulder, Leeds School of Business. Anika Stuppy is a Ph.D. candidate at Erasmus University, Rotterdam School of Management. Justin Pomerance is a doctoral student at the University of Colorado Boulder, Leeds School of Business.


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