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Consumers Want Full-Screen, Studio Says

25 Apr, 2002 By: Joan Villa

Consumer demand from families new to the DVD format is behind Buena Vista Home Entertainment's recent decision to forego widescreen and release the upcoming titles Snow Dogs and Max Keeble's Big Move in full-screen versions only, executives said.

The studio has had to defend the move against a slew of criticism on DVD Web sites, where format enthusiasts fear studios will release more and more titles in pan-and-scan versions that fill the TV screen, but do not contain the full width of a movie theater picture. When the film is shown in its original aspect ratio -- or in widescreen -- there are black bars at the top and bottom of the television that draw hundreds of phone calls from unhappy consumers, the studio reported.

“The big retailers we do business with now tell us that the vast majority of televisions they're still selling in 2002 are 19 inches or smaller,” rather than home theater-type rectangular screens, explained Chris Carey, SVP, worldwide technical services and DVD productions for BVHE.

As a result, Carey said, “it's a bit of a balancing act” between including extra features, commentary and both widescreen and full-frame versions on a single DVD-9 disc, which DVD enthusiasts would prefer. In many instances, the studio must choose one version to maintain high picture quality in the available space. According to VP of brand marketing Lori MacPherson, BVHE will release only full-frame versions if it determines that widescreen would sell fewer than 10 percent of the total units -- as it did with Snow Dogs (May 14 street date) and Max Keeble (June 18 street date, May 7 prebook), which appeal largely to children and families, she added.

But DVD advocates such as Ron Epstein, co-owner of Home Theater Forum, contend that if studios had never given consumers a choice, they would have grown to accept the black bars. By “caving in” to demand from a mainstream family audience just discovering DVD, they are losing the original vision of DVD as a medium that could hold several versions of a movie along with supplemental tracks for the film enthusiast, he argues.

“They've taken DVD back to the VHS mindset,” Epstein said. “Directors are very much bothered by having their vision butchered by the normal television ratio. [Widescreen] is where we're headed, and the studios should be doing everything they can to prepare the public for this new age of television, but they're not.”

But MacPherson said consumers and retailers prefer full-frame DVDs when two versions are offered, particularly for family films. The Princess Diaries, released in both formats, sold only 20 percent in widescreen, she said.

“The negative of retail confusion and consumer confusion by having two different options can outweigh the benefit,” MacPherson explained. “Originally we didn't give consumers a choice; everything released was in the original aspect ratio, and consumers started actively asking for full-frame. So consumers want what they want, and as [those interested in full-frame] become more vocal and more a percentage of the marketplace, it's not in anybody's interest to ignore them.”

The full-frame versions are carefully edited, often under the guidance of the director, both MacPherson and Carey said.

BVHE still releases the vast majority of its DVDs in widescreen, such as the May 7 Vault Disney Collection of Old Yeller, Pollyanna, The Parent Trap and Swiss Family Robinson -- all two-disc sets containing the original aspect ratio and bonus features, MacPherson noted.

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