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Why Is Netflix Secretly Cropping Movies?

Like a lot of film writers, I spent a good deal of my life working in video stores. Some of that occurred in the time frame (2000-2002, roughly) when DVDs began to replace VHS, and as a result, I was on the receiving end of much anger and confusion over widescreen formatting — “letterboxing,” as we called it, which began on LaserDisc, appeared on a few VHS tapes, and became the standard on DVD (luckily, since widescreen televisions were also becoming ubiquitous). “I’m not seein’ the whole picture!” customers would complain. “It’s got these lines on the top and bottom!” And I would patiently explain that getting a widescreen movie frame into a television was a case of putting a rectangular peg into a square hole, and the black bars actually showed you more of the picture, and preserved the original image. And customers would nod and smile and understand completely… just kidding. They stared at me blankly before saying the exact same nonsense about what a rip-off it is to have only part of the TV being used and it was a terrible job, the end. But we won, ultimately! In the pan-and-scan vs. widescreen battle, widescreen came out on top. So why, in 2013, is Netflix cropping their movies?

Cinephiles have been murmuring about this since the service began streaming, noting that, too often, films’ original aspect ratios were jettisoned for reasons unclear. The worst offenders were the now-absent “Starz Play” titles (that contract ran out early last year — it was the original “Streamageddon”), which were the digital equivalent of VHS tapes or pan-and-scan DVDs: widescreen images chopped off into a square, 4:3 picture, which often results in losing up to half of the original image.

Say what you will about those “Starz Play” movies, they at least had the courtesy to being with the customary pan-and-scan warning, something along the lines of, “This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen.” There’s no such warning attached to the titles Netflix has been altering lately, because it’s a subtler difference, less noticeable to the casual viewer. But it appeals to the same desire as my video-store dullards harbored: I want movie on my whole screen!

The Tumblr What Netflix Does is drawing attention to the company’s practice of showing wider-screen movies — films shot in the “Scope” formats, in the neighborhood of 2.39:1 instead of the standard widescreen ratio of 1.85:1. To put it simply, at risk of being boring: most movies and TV shows fill your 16:9 widescreen TV, while others, usually epics and big action movies and the like, shoot in the wider “Scope” format, which thus requires the black bars on even a widescreen TV, so you can see the entire frame (just as the bars were required to see standard widescreen movies on a square TV). But Netflix has quietly, without any notation or indication of alteration, been doing stuff like this:

"Man on the Moon" (1999), original image.

“Man on the Moon” (1999), original image.

"Man on the Moon" (1999), Netflix presentation.

“Man on the Moon” (1999), Netflix presentation.

And this:

Inglourious Basterds (2009), original image.

“Inglourious Basterds” (2009), original image.

Inglourious Basterds (2009), Netflix presentation.

“Inglourious Basterds” (2009), Netflix presentation.

And this:

"There Will Be Blood" (2007), original image.

“There Will Be Blood” (2007), original image.

"There Will Be Blood" (2009), Netflix presentation.

“There Will Be Blood” (2009), Netflix presentation.

Basically, as those comparisons from What Netflix Does illustrate, they’ve been cropping off the sides of 2.39:1 images to fit them into a standard 16:9 widescreen image. It is, at its essence, the same thing as “pan and scanning,” but they’re not telling you that they’re doing it — and most viewers, without the obvious visual cue of black bars on the side of their TV, have no idea.

This may sound like nitpicking, but these are issues that matter for those who care about movies. The framing choices made by a director and cinematographer are important, and Milos Forman made a decision when he chose to show both Jim Carrey and Jerry Lawler. Quentin Tarantino wanted all of those people in that shot. Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t want Daniel Day-Lewis and Kevin J. O’Connor falling off the side of the goddamn frame.

You don’t go around chopping off the tops of paintings so they fit in the frames you’ve got lying around, and you don’t go around slicing off the edges of movies so you don’t have to deal with letterboxing. And if Netflix is going to insist on doing so, they should at least have the courtesy to tell us they’re monkeying with their merchandise.

UPDATE (7/18/13, 9:45 AM): The fine folks over at The Verge have been looking into this matter, and have been told by Netflix “we do not crop,” though they “may sometimes deliver the wrong version of a title. ‘When we discover this error, we work to replace that title as soon as possible,’ the company notes.” We’ve reached out to Netflix for comment  and will report back.

UPDATE (7/25/13, 12:00 PM): We’ve spent the past week talking to studios and Netflix about this issue. Here’s what we found out.

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