Why Is Netflix Secretly Cropping Films?

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While most the news surrounding Netflix Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX) these days is great — its original series House of Cards was just nominated for nine Emmys while traditional cable companies continue to fear Netflix’s rise — nobody’s perfect. Some movie fans are voicing their frustrations regarding Netflix’s “hidden” cropping of films, reigniting an age-old debate dating back to the VHS era when distributors would crop films to fit onto TV screens.

In an article making the rounds on the Internet, Gizmodo displays just how much Netflix is cropping some movies on its streaming service and you might be surprised by just how much is going on that you may not know about. A Tumblr page entitled What Netflix Does is dedicated to pointing out the extent of Netflix’s cropping of films.

The problem revolves around the complicated issue of aspect ratios. These days, modern TV’s use a rectangular aspect ratio of 16:9 — back in the old days, it was 4:3. While 16:9 is much closer to common film aspect ratios, and indeed some films actually do shoot with this ratio natively, many films still use an aspect ratio far wider than 16:9 allows. The most widely used ratio for films is 2.39:1, far wider than what is allowed by a ratio of 16:9.

Still, the problem is not as terrible as it was during the VHS era when you might remember this common statement before many films you watched at home: “This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen.” Back then, movies with aspect ratios of 2.39:1 would be cropped to fit a 4:3 TV effectively eliminating half of the image — the crop from a 2.39:1 to a 16:9 TV is not as bad, but for movies fans any crop of the original image is too much.

An example from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds in Gizmodo’s article illuminates just how much damage cropping can do to a film. In the original example frame, five actors are seated around a table playing drinking games — in the cropped image, two of the five actors are almost completely eliminated from the scene, while a third actor is cut in half. The scene is simply not the same.

Effectively, you’re not seeing what the director of the film intended which is why there was such a huge outcry for so long from movie fans and filmmakers during the days of VHS. Now the issue appears to be coming back — albeit, in a slightly less problematic version of cropping compared to the VHS days.

As the story caught fire over the Internet, Netflix released a statement deflecting some of the blame for the issue.

“We want to offer the best picture and provide the original aspect ratio of any title on Netflix. However, unfortunately our quality controls sometimes fail and we end up offering the wrong version of a title. When we discover this error, we work to replace that title as soon as possible,” the statement said.

So it appears that Netflix is less to blame for the cropping issue than the studios which provide it with their media. Additionally, the author of What Netflix Does admitted that he views films from different regions which might result in different aspect ratios. Regardless, it is up to Netflix to provide quality control so that the fidelity of the original film will remain intact.

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