If you've spent enough time watching cable television, it's a notification you've read a hundred times: "This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen." But what if you weren't warned you were you watching an altered version of a movie?
A Tumblr blog titled "What Netflix Does" claims to aggregate instances of Netflix cropping films offered through its streaming service. It posts pictures comparing a film's original aspect ratio to its aspect ratio on Netfix, finding that many films have in fact been changed from how they were shown initially in theaters. Started four months ago, "What Netflix Does" caught the attention of Gizmodo and other news sites on Wednesday.
In a statement to The Huffington Post, Netflix categorically denied that it intentionally cuts off portions of the picture for movies it streams, claiming that any altered aspect ratio is a mistake.
"We want to offer the best picture and provide the original aspect ratio of any title on Netflix," Netflix spokesman Joris Evers said in an email. "However, unfortunately our quality controls sometimes fail and we end up offering the wrong version of a title. When we discover this error, we replace that title as soon as possible."
The visual differences recall the days of the dreaded "pan and scan," a method of formatting films for television broadcasts that alters the 16:9 HD widescreen aspect ratio that the majority of films are shot in to the 4:3 ratio of older TVs. This results in the loss of 50 to 60 percent of picture and artificial camera movements that filmmakers never intended.
Check out a few examples from "What Netflix Does" below.
"Man On The Moon" (1999)
"There Will Be Blood" (2007)
"Last Action Hero" (1993)
While some may look at these images and wonder what the big deal is, cinema lovers cringe in horror. For directors and cinematographers, every shot in a film is meticulously crafted to convey meaning as part of the film's language.
When the entirety of a film is cropped, it's impossible to immediately know what we've lost. But we can assume a great many things are missing: Visual cues within an image to foreshadow an event, a character's subtle reaction or minor flourishes to provide context.
"You don’t go around chopping off the tops of paintings so they fit in the frames you’ve got lying around," Flavorwire film critic Jason Bailey wrote. "And you don’t go around slicing off the edges of movies so you don’t have to deal with letterboxing."
It's worth noting that the creator of the Tumblr bounces from region to region for his screencaps, noting that Netflix customers in different countries could have different aspect ratios, depending on licensing deals. That may indicate the true culprit in the Netflix cropping controversy: film studios. Due to contractual obligations or restrictions, there's a chance that the films were given to Netflix in the modified form, at which point the company is essentially powerless to change them.
Earlier on HuffPost:
Don't Watch A Movie Without Rating It
When you finish a show or movie on Netflix, the site requests that you give it between one and five stars, based on how much you enjoyed it. You're not being asked to rate that content for kicks, or so that you can later reminisce about how much you liked a certain film: Rather, Netflix has spent many years improving its recommendation engine, even offering a $1 million prize for anyone who could up the accuracy of Netflix recommendations by 10 percent. At this point, the Netflix recommendation engine is pretty darn accurate -- it takes into account your own ratings as well as the viewing habits of those similar to you. Basically, the more films you rate, the more you're likely to enjoy a Netflix recommendation. If you constantly find yourself frustrated that there's nothing on Netflix, take a half hour or so and knock out a few hundred ratings on the "Taste Profile" section of the site, and make sure you've filled in your genre preferences, too. Finally, if Netflix persists in recommending a title that you're just never going to watch -- for me, that would be "The Lincoln Lawyer" -- remember that you can click on the "Not Interested" button on any film's homepage and it will disappear from your recommendations page while simultaneously smartening up your future recs. (For an in-depth look at the Netflix recommendation engine, and how it works, I recommend this post on Netflix's official blog.)
Don't Fly Blind
Leaning on Netflix's recommendations alone ensures that you'll discover some good flicks; if you're really committed to shaking all the leaves from the tree, however, you're going to need some backup artillery. There are several excellent extensions that you can add to your favorite browser to augment your Netflix experience and increase your chances of sniffing out a great new film. An extension like "Rotten Netflix," for example, inserts little Rotten Tomatoes scores beneath every movie poster on the website, so that you can instantly know how a movie fared with critics. Similarly, the "IMFlixDB" extension displays a movie's IMDB ranking on a white bar above the Netflix homepage and gives you quick access to that film's information page. The ever-prodigious members at Reddit use the wisdom of crowds, meanwhile, to constantly vote up streaming movies that you might otherwise miss. It's a super-active community with consistently high-quality recommendations: Check it out here.
Don't Let A Film Disappear
Another Netflix specialty website is InstantWatcher, a clean website that allows for easier movie search than you'll find on the Netflix homepage. And while many outlets toast InstantWatcher for its quick and robust search functionality, we like it because it also lists the notable films that will disappear from Netflix Instant soon. There's even a Twitter feed that does nothing but tweet out the names of soon-to-be-expired Netflix movies. There is no worse feeling, in the whole entire world, than sitting down to watch a movie you've had in your Netflix queue only to discover that the movie has disappeared. Don't let it happen to you again.
Don't Be Afraid To Quit
One of the really nice things about a Netflix subscription is that you pay month-by-month; it's not like a cell phone contract where you're locked in for two years and you have to pay an exorbitant fee if you want to get out early or cancel service. With Netflix, you can quit for one month and come back the next: Netflix will save your queue and ratings for up to two years so that if you do come back, you don't really have to start over. So, if you're taking a vacation, or studying for the LSATs, or going to prison, just cancel your account and save yourself the $8 for as long as you need. Or, if you are one of our Olympian Netflix bashers from above, go ahead and try life without the 'Flix for a month or two and see how you do. Your account information will be waiting for you when (or if) you return; and, hey, if you do, now you have plenty of new ways to find the excellent movies and TV shows you might have missed while in exile.