Is it Worth Watching a Cropped Movie?

This A.V. Club story on a Patrick (H) Willems YouTube video about aspect ratios scratches at an itch I’ve been having lately: why on earth does HBO in particular crop most films to 16:9?

I think Willems goes a bit too far in his video, starting with the title, “HBO is Ruining Movies.” Cinema tends to be more than the sum of its parts, so if someone watches a film in a different aspect ratio than it was shot for, they still watched the movie. Stories are able to break through whatever impediments get thrown in their way. So HBO isn’t ruining, say, the Harry Potter franchise by cropping the sides of the film off, but it certainly isn’t offering up the ideal viewing experience either.

A great, concise explanation of how cropping can change a film comes by way of a 1990 “At the Movies” discussion between Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (uploaded and brought to light again by Todd Vaziri). They use the example of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, projected originally at 2.39:1, being re-edited to fit on 4:3 home video screens. It’s a damning breakdown of how a director’s vision being muddied by studios out to move some VHS tapes.

In the era of 4:3 screens I can see why studios made the call to release films cropped. Most homes didn’t have a very large set, and the resolution was so low to begin with, most viewers would be upset to see their film scaled down at all.

But those days are gone. Not only are almost all TV sets now 16:9, but they’re pretty darn big too. Even cropping all the way down to 2.39:1 would still leave a pretty huge image side-to-side.

So why does HBO persist in cropping? Maybe people want every pixel of their widescreen TVs filled up or they feel they’re not getting their money’s worth? Does HBO have research/polling on this? Or maybe studios deliberately offer up the cropped versions to cable streamers so they can milk extra bucks off rentals and purchases. You want the full picture? Pay up.

Why not solve this by offering both options on streaming services? Why not build a setting in that says you always prefer a full, widescreen picture at the original aspect ratio? On a phone you can easily zoom an image to fill the screen if you prefer not to see any letter-/pillar-boxing. Shouldn’t this be available on TV sets as well?

Willems mentions in his video that anytime he goes to watch a film, he first visits the “Technical Specs” heading on IMDb to check if the version he’s watching is in the correct aspect. If it’s not, he’ll stop watching. I used to do this, but I’ve loosened up. I recommend others do, too.

I grew up in the VHS era. The only time I ever saw letterboxing on films was if my father stopped at TLA Video (sadly, now defunct) in center city Philadelphia for a hard to find film. Almost every film I watched at home was cropped. And yet, my love of movies persists. I can still remember wearing out 4:3 cropped tapes of widescreen films, memorizing lines and falling in love with the story all over again. At this point, it’s silly that HBO and others are putting up cropped versions of films, but I’d rather watch something than nothing at all.