I believe there exists an ideal length for a given book, song or movie. That does not mean that the same theme cannot be recreated in a more minimalist or expansive way but then it is a different work. Take Annie Hall as an example of a film which feels just right at an hour and a half.
Successful authors often produce more complex and expansive works as their skills grow. But the success can also inflate the egos, and then the length grows as any output seems suddenly worthy of preservation. The results are Metallica’s St. Anger full of endless yet uninspired songs, the Harry Potter series which even some fans admit does not need to be 40% longer (When I saw the Order of the Phoenix in a bookstore I thought it was a ‘cumulative’ edition. When I realized the mistake, I decided to wait until Rowling edits the heptalogy to be shorter than War and Peace.) than the Bible, and extended versions of movies. The popular culture, and especially Hollywood, is influenced by the dogma that bigger is better.
Movies are often released in alternate versions. The reasons for this can be good, bad or ugly: To restore the vision of the director if this was compromised (e.g. removing studio-imposed voice-over and happy ending from Blade Runner); to ‘improve’ on a significant work in the spirit of “more is better” (as in Apocalypse Now or Dances with Wolves); or to simply push the sales of home releases by including something extra without any artistic ambition (“Extended” and “Special” editions and “Director’s Cuts” are often a mere gimmick to give a consumer a reason to buy).
If the studio or the director include additional material for their special editions, it is certainly appreciated by the fans but the key words here are ‘alternate’ and ‘optional’. Prime offenders are critically acclaimed movies that are hard to find or do not exist in good quality in the very versions that put them where they are. An example of how special releases should be done are the Terminator 2 dvd and Blu-ray discs offering seamless branching between several cuts of the movie.
If anything, the original theatrical versions (George Lucas is infamous for suppressing the original versions of Star Wars from the market but there the issue is more in digital alterations than extending the length.) should always be available. Not only for historical reasons but because the quality of the revisited films might be debatable — as in Miloš Forman’s Amadeus (This Best Picture won 8 Academy Awards, 4 baftas and 4 Golden Globes, but the version you are likely to see nowadays is ⅛ longer.) or Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (The ‘Redux’ version is longer by 32% which makes a very different movie.) — or clearly inferior (Dances with Wolves (Costner returned 55 minutes of cut footage into the film, often undermining the dramatic tension of the original.)).
The distributors can also hope for fans to buy the standard version and pay again later for the beefed-up version. Warner Bros. is now releasing the Lord of the Rings trilogy on Blu-ray in theatrical versions only. Since here the situation with preferred versions is reversed (The theatrical version of The Fellowship of the Ring is crippled by comparison and the second and third parts (longer by 40 and 50 minutes respectively) are also superior.), the customers reacted with an outrage, blasting the product with 1,700 negative reviews on Amazon as a blatant double dipping (When Peter Jackson was making the trilogy, it was impossible to release the extended versions right away because of the additional post-production work. Now, five years later, this is not an excuse.) attempt.
The best feedback to the distributors is through our buying decisions. If releases that do not have the decency to provide original versions received the same barrage of negative reviews and poor sales, things would change. In this game (we want the movies, they want the money) we need not give in first because we can live without the improper home releases but the corporations cannot survive without the sales.