Hit & Run

The market really does produce rational results!

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"Movies are America's most populist art form, and the battle over widescreen pitted film geeks against the masses," writes Bryan Curtis in a Slate article about the triumph of the widescreen DVD format. "How did the geeks win—how did widescreen become the dominant way to watch a movie at home?"

It's true: Widescreen, letterboxed DVDs now routinely outsell "fullscreen" pan-and-scan. Even Blockbuster, once the nation's champion of fullscreen dumbdownification, has relented, and now favors widescreen. Curtis' explanation:

One reason, perhaps, is that big-screen TVs have eliminated the aesthetic problem with widescreen viewing. Televisions have plunged in price in recent years, allowing buyers to take home larger and larger sets. Since the major complaint about widescreen DVDs is the smaller picture, super-sized TVs point the way toward nirvana: On a 55-incher, widescreen's black bars are a minor irritation. Plus, there's the emerging line of widescreen TVs, which for most widescreen DVDs will eliminate the black bars altogether.

There's a bigger factor behind widescreen's triumph: what you might call the continuing education of the filmgoer. If casual movie fans prefer pan-and-scan and film buffs prefer widescreen, then one way to tip the balance is to turn the casual fans into buffs. The DVD format seems to have had precisely that effect. When you sift through Amazon.com's sales data, it's no surprise to find that for so-called "geek" movies—say, The Lord of the Rings—the widescreen disc outsells the pan-and-scan. But what is surprising is that when you call up films that aren't the province of geeks—say, Miracle—the widescreen version still comes out on top. Why? Well, the extras offered on DVDs give customers access to intellectual resources they never would have dreamed of with VHS. If this has not produced more discerning cin?astes—Scary Movie 3 outsells The 400 Blows, and it always will—then perhaps it has at least produced more discerning customers.

Of course, if you want to be a real cin?aste, you can always claim that widescreen itself is an excrescence, that movies never should have abandoned the "golden ratio" of 1.33 to 1. Fritz Lang, one of the few dissenters when Fox introduced CinemaScope (2.35 to 1) in 1953, claimed the format was only suitable for funerals and snakes. While you might not get much mileage out of that argument, I think there's a good case to be made that the modern "normal" ratio of 1.85 (which replaced 1.33) is inferior to the old format, since it's produced by merely masking the top and bottom of the movie screen.

Though I was an early convert to widescreen snobbery, I think there's always been a paradox in that position. Fox introduced CinemaScope specifically to compete with television, by producing a picture the small screen couldn't reproduce. I always thought the TV guys' "tough titty" response to this controversy was understandable: If you want to outdo TV, you have to suck it up in the home entertainment market. In any event, the forward march of technology has once again obviated a bitter controversy. And the once-celebrated "Letterboxing Is Censorship" guy can ride off into the inexpertly cropped sunset.