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The Crop Thickens: Netflix Responds to Aspect-Ratio Controversy

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by Sam Adams
July 25, 2013 11:33 AM
9 Comments
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Screencap from "What Netflix Does"

After Flavorwire's Jason Bailey published a piece called "Why Is Netflix Secretly Cropping Movies?" last week, he met with some deserved criticism for basing his entire report on compare-and-contrast screenshots from an unsourced Tumblr and not contacting any primary sources. To Bailey's credit, he's now followed up with a more detailed post detailing the differing rationales Netflix and the various movie studios have for why movies end up streaming in the wrong aspect ratios. Netflix's excuse is essentially, "Dude, I got a lot of tables." "We do not crop," their statement says. "Unfortunately our quality controls sometimes fail." 

As Bailey progresses, he finds fingers pointing in every direction: Netflix blames the studios, who mostly declined to answer Bailey's queries, while an anonymous studio source says they deliver content according to the specifications furnished by their partners. ("Hey, they asked for it.") But at least one more needs to be pointed at the only people whose voices Netflix is likely to heed: their customers.

In his first post, Bailey recalls the "video-store dullards" who complained about letterboxing in the cathode-ray era, but I think it's important to remember that the desire to have a picture fill the screen is not an entirely misguided one. Obviously, lopping the sides off a widescreen picture to fit a boxy frame is a desecration, as, to a less violent extent, is fitting an elongated rectangle into a less elongated one. But there's no getting around the fact that letterboxed images are smaller, and that size effects their impact. (Not for nothing does the Museum of the Moving Image run a periodic screening series called "See It Big!" ) My and wife and I have recently started letting our 4-year-old daughter watch movies on an iPad, and try as I might to sell her on letterboxing, she invariably goes back to the zoomed-in version, apparently unconcerned with perverting the artistic intent behind Kiki's Delivery Service.

Grown-ups, of course, should know better, but many don't, and many simply don't care. When I first joined Netflix, it was because I'd heard from friends that they had everything -- Peter Brook's Mahabarata? Sure! -- but the company's Quickster fiasco revealed a profound shift in emphasis. The DVD-by-mail business on which Netflix built its reputation was now an unwanted appendage, just so much dead weight. Maybe the idea that they were a long-tail company was always an illusion, but it was clear that in the future their eyes were on one thing: volume. Netflix used to be the place that had everything, even if you had to wait for it. Now they're that place that always has something -- maybe not what you wanted, but right now.

That being the case, it's not surprising that Netflix's "quality controls sometimes fail": When you buy content by the truckload, some of it's bound to get damaged in shipping. The question is whether its customers notice, or care -- because if they don't, then Netflix doesn't. 

Read more: Netflix and Studios Have Very Different Explanations for Widescreen Cropping

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9 Comments

  • JoelR | July 29, 2013 7:08 PMReply

    Even more reprehensible is that Verizon FIOS is doing the same thing to new, current OnDemand films. The difference is that they actually CHARGE anywhere from $6 - $12 to rent a cropped film. In addition, they also try to get unwitting subscribers to PURCHASE (at even higher prices) the movies...and not even a word to buyers that the movies were altered.

    As noted in the article, for those who want a widescreen movie to "fill" their tiny iPad screens, they can use the zoom. But there is NO option to restore a film to its correct format if it is only presented cropped. So presenting a movie as intended to be seen is a win-win for everyone, whether they like the black bars or not. But cropping a movie serves no benefit whatsoever. It should never be tolerated.

  • notafan | July 29, 2013 12:10 AMReply

    wow. not only does this shitty site throw up incessant ads and tool tip bs on its mobile and Flipboard " stories" but they can't be bothered till progress either. guess I'll be skipping ahh content I come across from them until they get their site together ( unlikely)

  • Paul | July 26, 2013 3:19 PMReply

    In my experience Netflix (like iTunes, Amazon and most TV stations) has pretty specific requirements for delivery. I don't recall aspect ratio being a part of it but I think the way they request files be delivered lends itself to either cropping or delivering files that can be cropped. The sheer volume of cropped films on their streaming service makes me skeptical of their insinuation that it's the content providers decision.

  • Omar | July 26, 2013 5:38 AMReply

    I'm sure Netflix doesn't have the right to mess with the product on their own as it's not their property.

  • MM | July 25, 2013 3:15 PMReply

    I recently watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid via Netflix. The opening titles were 2.35 out of necessity - otherwise either the cropping would be especially weird. It then switched to 1.85 for the rest of the film.

    This is how the file of the film was delivered to them. That creative decision was not made by Netflix, and I would assume that other streaming services who host that movie probably also have that same aspect ratio situation.

    Seems to me like all of this is a bit of a "killing the messenger" situation.

  • Sam Adams | July 25, 2013 3:28 PM

    How do you know that's how the file was delivered to Netflix?

  • Martin | July 25, 2013 12:25 PMReply

    I care. And if Netflix doesn't resolve the issue, I am cancelling and taking a lot of people with me.

  • Carter | July 25, 2013 12:07 PMReply

    Netflix PR/HR people if you're reading this - please incorporate a function that allows users to turn off the Picture in Picture suggestions that happens at the end of a film. It's so so obnoxious.
    Thanks!

  • Jack | July 27, 2013 1:33 PM

    All you have to do is click back onto the box you're watching.

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