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.