This time last week, Flavorwire ran a piece about the cropping of films from their original aspect ratio on the movie streaming service Netflix — in short, they frequently run films shot in the ultra-widescreen “Scope” ratio with the sides chopped off, reducing them to a more standard, widescreen TV-friendly frame. That post, titled “Why is Netflix Secretly Cropping Movies?,” made the possibly premature assumption of nefarious activity at Netflix HQ, and in the flurry of Internet activity that followed, Netflix issued this denial: “We do not crop. We want to offer the best picture and provide the original aspect ratio of any title on Netflix. However, unfortunately our quality controls sometimes fail and we end up offering the wrong version of a title. When we discover this error, we replace that title as soon as possible.” But that explanation may not be the whole story, as we’ve discovered in talking to some of the content providers in question.
Reading between the lines of Netflix’s statement, the subtext is clear: Hey, don’t blame us, we’re only using what’s given to us. This line of reasoning was floated fairly early in the conversation that followed our post, and it does make sense; after all, television networks like AMC and HBO make the same kind of aspect ratio adjustments when they run Scope movies on their networks, to the dismay of viewers and filmmakers alike. So how is Netflix to blame if that’s what they’re given?
Here’s where it gets interesting. The Raw Story discovered a pair of fascinating posts on the Facebook page of Wayne Kramer, director of The Cooler and Running Scared. In April, he posted a lengthy criticism of Netflix’s tendency to “butcher aspect ratios.” Infuriated by the cropped 1.77:1 aspect ratio of his 2.35:1 film Crossing Over, Kramer fumed, “If you’re watching a film on Netflix streaming, it’s a fifty-fifty chance at best that you’re actually seeing the correct aspect ratio.” His story has a happy ending: two months later, he reported that he’d written directly to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and within days, the cropped stream of Crossing Over had been replaced by one in its proper aspect ratio.
But here’s what caught my eye in Kramer’s rant: “I see this happening more and more with 2.35:1 aspect ratio films and it makes me sick. HBO does the same thing. You won’t see any 2.35:1 aspect ratios on HBO – they pan and scan them to 1.77:1 and it’s a disgrace. Props to Showtime, though, for honoring filmmakers’ aspect ratios.” In other words, Showtime is an anomaly for choosing to air films in the original aspect ratio, while others outlets — HBO and Netflix, namely — prefer, and presumably request, that studios provide films to them cropped.
And we’ve heard as much elsewhere. Though we reached out to several of the studios involved in the distribution of the titles in question, we were unable to get any official answers. NBC Universal, which produced Man on the Moon and released Inglourious Basterds, declined to comment. Miramax, which produced There Will Be Blood, also had no comment, and referred us to Netflix’s statement. The Weinstein Company, which produced Inglourious Basterds, did not comment; neither did Paramount, which distributed There Will Be Blood.
That’s understandable; these are delicate relationships, and no one wants to rock the boat (even Netflix’s statement doesn’t explicitly throw the studios under the bus). But one studio source, speaking to Flavorwire under the condition of anonymity, told us that they deliver content according to the specifications requested by their partners. So it’s not just that Netflix is saddled with whatever the studios give them; they’re often getting exactly what they’re asking for.
But wait. Another studio source, also wishing to remain anonymous, said that while Netflix had not expressed an aspect ratio preference to them, they deliver films to clients in original aspect ratio, and that errors of this sort do not, as a rule, originate on their side of the content delivery equation. When asked about Netflix’s assertion that titles are replaced when these aspect ratio errors are reported, I was told that this studio hadn’t been contacted for replacements — because “they have it in the original form that we distribute it, so I wouldn’t see them contacting us to give it to them again in its original form.”
We contacted Netflix for a response to these claims. In response, we were sent, not kidding, the exact same statement (word for word) they sent out last week. When I called Joris Evers, the company’s director of global corporate communications, he referred me back to that original statement and would not officially confirm or refute specific claims made by the studios, nor would he go on the record to address steps being taken to fix or notify customers of the incorrect aspect ratios.
And that’s important, as it’s been a week since our site and at least a dozen other outlets reported that, for example, Man on the Moon was running in the incorrect aspect ratio, yet that film is still streaming in 1.85:1 on Netflix. On that issue, Netflix’s Evers would only say it’s “on the list to be replaced.” But it’s streaming in its original 2.35:1 on Amazon Instant Video, as shown in the screenshot above.
Perhaps Netflix is right: perhaps it’s all a big misunderstanding, a simple matter of the wrong file being uploaded and fumbles in quality control. But they should pay closer attention to these issues, implementing checks and double-checks into their process, and when errors are brought to their attention, they should be fixed quickly (and, while those fixes are pending, films that have been re-formatted to 1.85:1 should be noted as such with a disclaimer, just like they used to do on those 4:3 “Starz Play” titles).
Or maybe they’ve just got bigger fish to fry. After all, they’re not all that concerned with movies these days — they’re continuing to work towards the HBO model, planning more original programming in the form of series and documentaries and specials. Meanwhile, the What Netflix Does Tumblr, which got this whole thing going, has gone into overdrive, with nine new posts in the past week. The films it’s reporting are currently streaming incorrectly here in the US include Planet of the Apes, Super 8, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Pulp Fiction. Happy viewing.