This week, one day before Netflix made TV history by becoming the first digitally distributed outlet to score an Emmy nomination for best series (House of Cards), Flavorwire ran a post headlined, "Why is Netflix Secretly Cropping Movies?" The piece arose out of a Tumblr, What Netflix Does, that had been in existence for several months but had just started making the rounds, as often happens on the Internet — a YouTube video or meme will just sit around for weeks until someone shares it on Twitter or Facebook, and it just all of a sudden takes off.
What Netflix Does featured about a dozen examples in which movies streaming on Netflix had been cropped somehow, thereby destroying their original framing. In one example, a scene from Man on the Moon in which Jim Carrey is on the left of the frame and Jerry Lawler is on the right, the shot has been cropped as a medium close up on Lawler, eradicating Carrey from the shot completely. It looks ridiculous.
And to many, it was also offensive. Since the early days of VHS cassettes, one way to separate those who really loved movies from those who just watched movies was to get into a conversation about widescreen/letterbox versus pan and scan. For much of its existence, the television has been been a square device. But movies are filmed rectangularly. So, in order to fill the entire TV frame, they were often cropped — the sides sliced off in order to provide an image that took up the entire screen, left to right, top to bottom. A movie's widescreen version, on the other hand, inserted black frames at the top and the bottom, which allowed the movie to play as originally filmed, even though it seemed as if you were getting less of the actual picture. It's counterintuitive, and the average person watching something at home on cable or on a video or DVD naturally had trouble believing they weren't getting cheated somehow by letterbox editions. Watch this short video in which famous directors explain why cropping is such a bad thing. As Martin Scorsese says, "That is in a sense, technically, redirecting the movie."
Looking for an actual answer, VentureBeat contacted Netflix and got the following response back:
"We do not crop. We want to offer the best picture and provide the original aspect ratio of any title on Netflix," Netflix director of corporate communications told VentureBeat. "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."
So, it appears to have been a simple result of Netflix not having certain checks in place (as opposed to "secretly cropping movies") and, more importantly, having to deal with many different studios and distributors, each of whom send over copies of their titles in various formats. Cable channels that show movies have also long suffered this problem. (Not to mention the fact that only five of the thirteen examples provided on What Netflix Does were movies even available to stream in the U.S.)
You can see why it's such a contentious issue, especially within the context of Netflix's documented cases of poor customer service — the time where they almost broke into two separate companies, one for streaming and one for physical DVDs; or the fact that they make it nigh on impossible to find out when movies are expiring from their service.
As Netflix continues to put energy into original programming like House of Cards, Arrested Development, and Orange is the New Black, those who care about movies want Netflix to continue to care about movies as well. Streaming is rapidly overtaking DVDs as the primary means of access to film. By nature of the fact that streaming video, dependent on the speed of one's wireless connection, often results in a sub-par viewing experience (pixelation, picture dropping out, bad sound), it's an added insult to have to watch bastardized versions as well. So is Netflix cropping movies? No. But is it providing movies that are cropped? Yes. And the company needs to pay more attention to that sort of thing. Movie lovers are an important chunk of its customer base, and those people know that sound quality, picture quality, and picture fidelity are as important as the number of titles available.