With TV sets getting bigger and superwide-screen movies staging a comeback in theaters, at long last letterboxing points toward the shape of video to come.

By Chris Willman
October 17, 1997 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Director Alan Parker would like you to know that if you buy or rent the ”standard” VHS edition of Evita, you’re seeing only about half the movie. Which might sound like cause to march on Disney en masse, except that most home viewers have sanctioned this particular kind of abridgment since well before the dawn of VHS. It’s called panning and scanning, wherein wide-screen movies get every frame cropped or electronically squished to fit the confines of a TV tube, a process that sometimes means making choices about which actor to cut out of the picture. ”It is mutilation, and it breaks your heart,” laments Parker, sounding as if he’s ready to start a chapter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Video.

But for the makers — and viewers — who care how movies look on TV, there is hope. Letterboxing, which simply brackets the full theatrical image with black mattes at top and bottom, is finally starting to get its due. A decade after laserdiscs established letterboxing as the connoisseur’s choice, now even backward old VHS is getting matte savvy. Last month, Universal launched a wide-screen collection of tapes with such titles as Psycho, Out of Africa, Jaws, and Apollo 13. ”It’s still not quite a mass-merchant item,” cautions Steve Feldstein of FoxVideo, which has its own wide-screen line — but, he adds, the letterboxed version of the Star Wars boxed set released seven weeks ago ”is outdistancing the pan-and-scan in some outlets,” especially stores catering to collectors.

Disney doesn’t offer a letterboxed video line, so Parker says he had to ”make a nuisance of myself” to get a wide-screen Evita released concurrently with the cropped edition. He then wrote to major chains, ”begging them to take” his preferred version. ”You hear stories of people returning a video in wide-screen because it’s got a black top and bottom,” Parker concedes. ”But I can’t believe anybody’s that dumb nowadays … ”

If the mass audience still needs educating, it may help that the screen size formerly known as CinemaScope has been enjoying a renaissance. Today directors almost uniformly choose to make sci-fi and action hits like Face/Off, Air Force One, and The Game push the edges of the screen; increasingly, even intimate dramas like The Sweet Hereafter and comedies like My Best Friend’s Wedding unravel on the epic-size canvas too. So when it comes time for the video release, remember: Letterboxing means never having to be sorry you can’t see who Julia Roberts is talking to.


Wide-Screen: What it Means

CONSIDER THE IRONY: TV screens were originally patterned on the shape of movie screens. But with the 1953 introduction of CinemaScope, Hollywood’s bid to lure Americans away from their new sets, the movies got wider — ensuring most films made since would never fit comfortably on a TV screen. Ben-Hur and other late-’50s and early-’60s epics had the most expansive single-projector aspect ratio, 2.76:1 (an image 2.76 times as wide as it is high), but the wide-screen format later settled down to the 2.35:1 format used for Terminator 2 and thousands of other films. In the 1970s, 1.85:1 became standard, but a wave of ’90s wide-screeners like Evita has revived CinemaScopic proportions — even if they have to be halved for TV’s 1.33:1 (right). Digital TV, which promises a wider screen, may finally bring the movies and the tube closer together again.

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