The recent Academy Awards ceremony showed a film industry that seemed to be pushing back against the rising tide of Netflix and streaming originals. That’s the conclusion reached in the wake of Roma being denied a Best Picture Oscar and it seems entrenched players are going to work even harder to keep defining a “movie” as something you only – or at least primarily – watch in a theater and not on your computer or, God forbid, your phone.
Sony, though, seems to be understanding that there’s a future that can’t be ignored or denied and so is beginning to manufacture phones featuring an aspect ratio commonly used for the biggest Hollywood blockbuster films.
Displaying films in the way they were intended has long been a point of contention between those making the movies and the hardware manufacturers that bring devices into people’s homes and lives. It was decades before the widescreen aspect ratios of theater screens were matched by the television sets people bought, so for years watching movies at home meant A) losing half to two-thirds of the picture when it was presented “full frame” or B) having the “letterboxed” picture shrunk down so the 16:9 or 21:9 picture was shown in full, with black bars at the top and bottom. The latter was better, though neither was optimal.
What’s most striking, though, is that the pervasiveness of widescreen television sets and computer monitors have educated the general public about what watching a movie should look and feel like.
When I worked at a movie theater there was one screen that would, for movies like Terminator 2, drop masking from the top to accommodate the 22:9 aspect ratio used. When it did so, it was guaranteed that at least one patron would come out during or after the movie to complain about how part of the picture was being lost. “No,” I would say, it’s that most movies are 16:9 but this one is different so the screen shape changes in order to not leave blank space. I would then pull out a piece of paper and draw something like the following.
The blue square represents the average 4:3 TV screen, while the beige a 16:9 and the green a 21:9 picture. The red-shaded areas are those parts of the picture the viewer, in the early 1990s, was missing when they watched a “full frame” movie on their TV at home. So they weren’t losing out on picture at the theater, they were seeing less of the movie in their living rooms.
Now everyone seems to understand this. Device manufacturers in the late 90s, hoping to prop up the expanding DVD market, started to make widescreen TVs more common and affordable to the point that they’re now the standard.
Sony, by allowing its customers to view and shoot movies and videos in the widest of widescreen formats understands this is where consumption is heading. Theaters are important, I’m the first one to admit, but the democratized access and ease of viewing offered by streaming and download services means the potential audience for a movie is exponentially increased.
According to the MPAA (PDF), 263 million people in the U.S. and Canada went to the movies in theaters in 2017, or about 72 percent of the combined population of those countries. Meanwhile 95 percent of the U.S. population and 70 percent of the Canadian population owns smartphones or other mobile devices, most which have video-watching functionality. That’s 337 million people, over 60 million more than go to theaters.
It’s interesting that while filmmakers rail against what they consider a sub-standard mobile/home/computer viewing experience, those devices have morphed to better present movies as they were intended to be seen, without loss of picture or framing. That fight is happening at the same time the platforms themselves – Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and even YouTube – have increasingly embraced vertical video that is the polar opposite of how films are shot. Even studios are using vertical, or at least 4:3, video in their marketing efforts. Look no further than recent promotional spots for Captain Marvel, which are obviously formatted for best viewing on Instagram or some other squareish platform.
Filmmakers would be well-advised to stop worrying so much about the death of the theatrical experience and work harder to make sure the outlets that are bringing more movies to more people are showing them in the format they were created to be viewed in. That’s the real battle, one we’ve been winning for several years but which now is being challenged again.