The Netflix Cropping Mystery, Solved (Maybe)

Over the past month, after the “What Netflix Does” Tumblr came to our attention with startling screenshots of cropped version of dozens of films, we’ve posed a few theories as to why, exactly, Netflix is streaming altered versions of movies. Were they cropping them themselves? Were they requesting reformatted versions from studios? Or was it, as Netflix insisted, merely a case of isolated, accidental errors? Based on the specifications and requirements document Netflix sends to content providers, confidentially obtained by Flavorwire from a studio source who wished to remain anonymous, the answer seems to be all of the above.

The document, which we were asked not to quote from directly in order to protect our source, lays out Netflix’s requirements for the content they receive, whether via a tape or digital source. For both, the explicit requirement is that materials are provided in 16×9 — and that’s where it gets tricky. At risk of getting too deep in the weeds here, 16×9 is not a shooting format, but a compression, formatting, and exhibition one. You won’t hear a director or cinematographer say that they shot their film in 16×9; they’ll say they shot it in 1.85:1 or 2.39:1. Some tech types understand 16×9 as a catch-all for widescreen, and will “letterbox” their 2.39:1 or 2.35:1 films accordingly.

But if you read that request as written, that they require films in 16×9, you see how some studios — including one of the ones that we talked to — would interpret that as a request for cropped product, since 16:9 is actually 1.77:1. (Math!)

So what about our second studio source, who told us that they always supply films in their original aspect ratio? Well, that’s equally possible within this fuzzy document, since a section laying out naming conventions indicates that wider-screen films letterboxed within a 16×9 frame are totally kosher. So if you read one section, you might think they want films cropped; if you read another, you might think they want them in their original aspect ratio. (And while our second source said that they always supply their films in OAR, they carefully did not say they only supply them that way — though this would suggest that someone at Neflix is choosing to stream the wrong versions.) Neither of our previous studio sources disputed this reading of the document.

netflix-instant

The numbers and legalese get a little exhausting, frankly — and that’s part of the problem. Documents like these are clearly written by lawyers and executives, and while they certainly ask the tech folks to explain these issues to them, something’s getting lost in translation. (The misunderstandings of simple video terminology within the document are real howlers.)

And within the pages and pages of this document, there is one key phrase that’s missing: the one that our site and others have pounded away at for weeks, “original aspect ratio.” The explicit request for the nebulous “16×9” not only risks studios sending in cropped films; it also means that full-frame, 1.33:1 programs like the original BBC House of Cards are streaming with the tops and bottoms chopped off to create a 16×9 image.

The mere addition of the phrase “original aspect ratio” to Netflix’s list of preferred file types, or a 30-second find+replace within the document to eliminate the confusing 16×9 requirement, could clear up confusion for the company, its content providers, and, ultimately, the consumer. But contacted for comment on the document and our reading of it, Netflix Director of Global Corporate Communications Joris Evers emailed, “We don’t have any further on the record comment on this topic.”

As it is, their system is broken — and their “report it and we’ll fix it” solutions aren’t working. (Example: four weeks after Tumblr, this site, and countless others first reported that Man on the Moon is streaming in a cropped version, it still hasn’t been replaced.) It’s sort of sad how easy it would be to fix all of this. But I’m not holding my breath.