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Is Netflix ruining movies? The service that once performed the magical task of mailing DVDs directly to your house has expanded to the even more magical task of streaming movies directly to your screen, and in many, many ways they have completely transformed moviegoing for the good, allowing you to discover films you never would have seen before, giving you instant access to entire addictive seasons of Breaking Bad, and inventing categories so insane they even made fun of them themselves. They're even revolutionizing television! But there's a darker side to Netflix, and it's on the margins that you can't even see.
The tumblr What Netflix Does has exposed what looks like a genuinely disturbing trend among Netflix's streaming options. Compare what Planet of the Apes is supposed to look like, based on the Blu-ray, to what you'll see on Netflix:
If it looks familiar, it's basically because it's a return to the bad old days of Pan-and-Scan, when VHS releases of films would be cropped or zoomed-in to make the picture fit the square ratio of a standard television set (that's the "this film has been formatted to fit this screen" warning you used to get). These days most TVs are widescreen and avoid the issue, but when films are shot in Cinemascope-- a.k.a. an aspect ratio that's more like 2.39:1 than the 1.85:1 that's more common in films-- you're going to see black bars at the top and bottom, so that the screen can accommodate the entire image. Or, in the case of some Netflix streaming titles, you're going to see the film cropped or otherwise altered to make it fill the whole screen. Look at this particularly egregious example from the Jim Carrey vehicle Man on the Moon (the Netflix version is second):
Before you start thinking that Netflix is just a dirty scheme to ruin movies forever, the company has spoken up for themselves over at The Verge and said that they're not the ones doing the cropping, but the people who provide them with the movies-- namely the studios who made them-- will deliver the wrong version. When they notice this happening, Netflix says, "we work to replace that title as soon as possible." So far, Man on the Moon doesn't seem to have been replaced-- the aspect ratio when I checked this afternoon was the same 1.85:1. But that doesn't mean Netflix is the bad guys here. Just as Blockbuster would carry some pan-and-scan titles back in the day, Netflix is going to get stuck with cropped versions as well. It's just that, in these "all the media in the world, right now!" times, we're not likely to hunt around to find the widescreen version if the cropped one is right there on Netflix. Proof that, while it's a wonderful thing for a single company to be able to provide you so much, it can severely limit your options too.
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