How Widescreen Won
The way we watch movies at home has changed. What happened?
Last year, something remarkable happened in the world of cinema. Blockbuster Video, the country's dominant rental chain, announced that from that point on it officially preferred widescreen DVDs to pan-and-scan (also known as "full screen"). For those movie buffs who had been eagerly watching this battle, the news came as a shock. In the fight for the hearts and minds of viewers, widescreen and its film-geek adherents had won an unexpected and glorious victory. Just a few years earlier, Blockbuster had discouraged widescreen DVDs, on the grounds that customers confused by the letterbox format thought they were defective. Now, the chain was conceding what cinephiles had argued for years: that widescreen was the superior way to watch a movie at home, even if it left black bars at the top and bottom of your television screen.
Anyone who scrounged for widescreen tapes during the VHS era will understand the historic nature of the announcement. Back then, widescreen tapes were tucked in obscure corners of the video store. When film buffs advanced the moral argument against pan-and-scan—that it butchered the filmmaker's vision and cut out as much as half of the picture—they were met by a blank stare from store clerk and casual fan alike.
But these days most "serious" DVDs—everything from The Godfather toMcCabe & Mrs. Miller to 8½—are issued only in widescreen. And more and more, studios release popcorn fare like Pirates of the Caribbean exclusively in widescreen format, too. Sure, you can still find pan-and-scan DVDs of the mega-titles, but even then they're always accompanied by a widescreen version. Last week, Amazon.com's list of the top 50 best-selling DVDs contained only two films in full-screen format—The Return of the King and Miracle—and each was selling far fewer copies than its widescreen counterpart. "It's very rare for a full-screen disc to outsell a widescreen disc," says Jessica Wolf, who tracks sales for the industry bible Video Store. "Very rare. Maybe for a children's title, and even then, it almost never happens anymore." Movies are America's most populist art form, and the battle over widescreen pitted film geeks against the masses. How did the geeks win—how did widescreen become the dominant way to watch a movie at home?
The battle began in earnest with the rise of laserdisc in the early 1980s. Laserdisc makers catered to cinephiles and, thus, were early adopters of widescreen. The Criterion Collection, for example, committed to preserving every film's original aspect ratio, starting with its debut widescreen laserdisc, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (Letters poured in from customers who thought there was something wrong with their discs.) But for the better part of two decades, the most popular mode for watching movies at home was the pan-and-scan VHS tape. It wasn't until DVDs appeared in the late-1990s that film nerds tipped the balance toward widescreen. A 2001 survey conducted by DreamWorksfound that DVD customers preferred widescreen by a margin of two to one. The next year, on the occasion of the release of its Fellowship of the Ring disc, New Line Cinema tabulated that 54 percent of customers bought the widescreen version. (A few studios have tried the one-disk solution—putting both widescreen and pan-and-scan on different sides of the same DVD. But it costs more and often crowds out some of the extras buyers demand.) Analysts thought the widescreen preference was a blip—a sign that DVD was still primarily the toy of the geek. As casual fans drifted into the market, they predicted, the balance would tip back toward the pan-and-scan mode.
But it hasn't happened. 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 cinéastes—Scary Movie 3 outsells The400 Blows, and it always will—then perhaps it has at least produced more discerning customers.
In fact, some of the studios have evangelized directly to the masses. John L. Berger, proprietor of the Letterbox and Widescreen Advocacy Page, points out that Disney's Beauty and the Beast disc arrived on shelves only in the widescreen format. The disc's liner notes defend the decision on artistic terms; anyone desiring the full-screen experience is encouraged to use their DVD player's zoom function. Target and Wal-Mart, which handle much of the DVD sell-through business, have begun to follow suit. "Most retailers now skew toward the widescreen version," says Video Store magazine's Wolf. "If there isn't a widescreen disc on the shelves, it's probably because it's sold out." Cable outlets like Turner Classic Movies have adopted the widescreen format, too.
Widescreen partisans point to another victory to illustrate the point. After Cats & Dogs, a talking-animal flick, limped out of theaters in 2001, Warner Bros. issued only one version of the DVD, in pan-and-scan. But fans howled in complaint, and the studio had to slap together a widescreen version. Cats & Dogs isn't exactly the stuff of the Film Comment crowd; it appeals to families with very young children (or those otherwise inclined to enjoy talking animals). One must assume, then, that the widescreen jones has spread far beyond the realm of cinephiles. There's no better time to declare victory for widescreen than when your 9-year-old says, "Daddy, why is one half of the picture missing?"
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.