Summer 2009

Format Wars

In case you were wondering how bad a 2.40 film looks on standard-size HD channels, our national vice president explains it all. And, he's taken a photo of himself to prove his point.


While there's always an abundance of ugly things going on in the Actual World, there's also something ugly going on in the Hi-Def World, and it isn't just post-traumatic stress from the (pointless) Bluray/HD-DVD smackdown. It is another in a series of situations in which the default mode is an unnecessary compromise, and it won't get fixed unless everyone gets on the same page. And it is precisely because this is not an Actual World problem that I believe there is hope—and a solution.

For half a century filmmakers have watched, helplessly, as their films were recomposed for the 4:3 format of television. A fortunate few were able to prevent their works from being altered, and the birth of channels like TCM, IFC, and Sundance provided a small, safe haven for old and new films alike, but the general rule was everything got its limbs severed to fit into the box.

Like many format fiends, I saw the advent of hi-def broadcast TV as the Holy Grail. Finally, the larger screens, greater detail, and more film-friendly 16:9 ratio would mean all films could live on forever with their extremities intact. Meet Steven Soderbergh, the DGA's reigning Pollyanna.

Since the 16:9 image is now the shape of television, only one format remains to distinguish television from the movies: the 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Because of that, I now believe shape matters more than size, and I say that knowing full well the number of jokes I just unleashed.

Television operators, the people who buy and produce things for people to watch on TV, are taking the position that films photographed in the 2.40:1 ratio should be blown up or chopped up to fit a 16:9 (1.78:1) ratio. They are taking the position that the viewers of television do not like watching 2.40 films letterboxed to fit their 16:9 screens, and that a film insisting on this is worth significantly less—or even nothing—to them. They are taking the position that no one will dare challenge them and risk losing revenue. The logic used to make you, the filmmaker, conform to this belief makes a pretzel look like a ruler: you are told you shouldn't care whether your 2.40 film is turned into a 1.78 film because there really isn't that much of a difference, while in the same breath you are told viewers notice the difference enough to complain about it.

The end result is we have a better chance of seeing a 2.40 film from 1959 in its proper format than a movie from 2009.

That's weird, and sad.

Now, I don't want to spend a lot of time on this, because I have never believed that even a small portion of what happens in the entertainment industry matters that much, but it's fucking lame to watch Jaws—a film that uses the 2.40 ratio as well as any ever produced—in the wrong format on HBO. Does Universal so badly need a few extra pennies that it's willing to ruin a classic? And does HBO really think its viewers are so stupid as to forget movies currently come in two sizes?

Apparently so. (No, I'm not forgetting the original, "golden" ratio of 1.33:1, it's just that no one uses it anymore except the pretentious assholes who made The Good German.)

The easy solution is if everyone in the U.S. who sells television rights for movies insists on format retention, then the economic playing field remains flat. The hard way is to make filmmakers continue to negotiate this right individually, which is time-consuming and makes everyone on both sides feel like the worst version of themselves. (By the way, as a filmmaker, the best time to press for this is during the point in negotiations when they want you the most. Waiting until post or beyond is hopeless.)

As directors, we can decide to fix this, quickly, or let it continue down its gangrenous path until there is no longer any distinction on TV between movies and television. To change the industry mindset will demand a fusion of action and belief that seems impossible lately, but making the attempt is more laudable than widespread apathy, especially when it comes to reminding viewers that not every movie is identical.

As a test, flip around and find a movie in 2.40 on one of the HD movie channels that actually airs movies in their correct format. You'll see that it feels very different than a full-frame 16:9 image. In fact, you might agree with my assessment that, ironically, the letterboxed 2.40 ratio actually makes the world of the movie look bigger.

Shape matters. Spread the word.

In My Opinion

Members share their strong opinions on industry issues in this occasional column.

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