AngelDVD market veers from wide to full
By George M. Thomas
Saturday 20 September 2003, by Webmaster
There’s a war that’s being fought in home video, and the battleground is those black bars at the top and bottom of your television screen.
Depending on your perspective, those black bars are either a major annoyance or a minor inconvenience necessary to view movies in all the wide-screen glory that their directors meant for them. But one thing is clear: When it comes to America’s retailers, those who prefer that their entire television screen be filled may be winning the wide-screen vs. full-screen DVD debate.
Walk around any Wal-Mart or Kmart and you will see that full-screen is the choice of retailers in this area. Full-screen versions of titles such as "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days’ are easy to find on disc. Want a wide-screen or letter-box edition, and you have to look a little closer.
Karen Burk, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart, said that the retailer lets the community dictate what a store will carry on its shelves.
"If there’s an item you see more of in your area, it’s based on the customers in that community,’ she said, "and you may walk in a store in another geographical area and you’re going to see exactly the opposite.’
But why should any of this matter?
It’s quite simple. Filmmakers acquiesced to the reality of home video when that industry was in its infancy. Full-screen was simply the best way to show movies on the TV screen, and no one thought much of it — except filmmakers.
"You’re not really seeing the movie,’ director Martin Scorsese said in a published interview. And he’s correct.
!sub1!Outside the box
A wide-screen movie can be shot in a number of ratios; 2.35 is one of the more popular ones. That means the movie is 2.35 times wider than it is tall to produce a panoramic view.
Televisions use a 1.33 aspect ratio, which means the film should be 1.33 times wider than it is tall.
A process called pan and scan, which concentrates on a particular scene by cropping out some portions and blowing up what’s left, is used to make many movies fill the TV screen. The result may look good on the screen, but up to 46 percent of the movie is lost.
The issue creates a quandary for DVD rental stores and movie studios.
"The simple rule of thumb for us is that when a new theatrical release is available on DVD for the first time, we release two separate versions so retailers and consumers can choose what they want,’ said Martin Blythe, vice president of publicity for Paramount Home Video.
In an industry where thousands of titles compete for shelf space, that creates a problem, said Blockbuster Video spokesman Randy Hargrove.
"We would prefer it if the studios put both versions on one disc,’ Hargrove said. "It would help to eliminate the confusion, but when presented with the opportunity and the option, we’ll only carry wide-screen.’
When DVD debuted in the late `90s, it was touted for its ability to hold both wide-screen and full-screen versions of movies. But the format, with its pristine video and audio, took off in a way that no one predicted.
!sub1!All about extras
But what has really helped sales are the discs’ extra features — the directors’ commentaries, trivia games and short documentaries.
"If you want bonus features, it’s less and less likely that you will have both (wide-screen and full-screen) versions of a film on one disc,’ Blythe said.
Although filmmakers and many movie fans prefer wide-screen versions of movies, the home video industry had to face facts, he said. "As more of the public migrated from VHS, they brought their preference for full-screen with them.’
But there is another fact confronting American consumers — the face and shape of America’s TVs will be changing, thanks to a Federal Communication Commission mandate that all TV sets must have digital tuners by 2007.
What does that mean? Those oblong TV sets, with the flawless picture that most guys drool over, will become the new standard.
That reality has already hit many TV producers and the networks. All of NBC’s 10 p.m. dramas — with the exception of the two "Law & Orders’ — are broadcast in wide-screen. Viewers will also find the WB’s "Angel’ and UPN’s "Enterprise’ broadcast in that format, and some broadcasts of "The Sopranos’ appear in a more rectangular version.
!sub1!Avoiding the bars
But even some TV producers remain hesitant. Dick Wolf, creator of the "Law & Order’ franchise, has chosen not to film his shows that way. And Joss Whedon, creator of "Angel,’ did not use wide-screen on his other series, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer.’
HBO, which does original movies and drama series in wide-screen, still isn’t quite ready to commit to an all-wide-screen channel for regular television viewers, chairman Chris Albrecht said recently.
HBO does use wide-screen versions of theatrical movies for its high-definition feed, Albrecht said. And the wide-screen versions of its own dramas and movies "differentiate it a little bit (from other programs), and it keeps the producers happy and makes the creative possibilities much more exciting.’
But with most viewers still watching on standard television, the network wants to keep theatrical movies — "still the mainstay of our service,’ Albrecht said — in the standard format