by Shane “Nice Aspect Ratio” Hnetka
The giant robots vs. giant monsters movie Pacific Rim hasn’t done well in the U.S. despite good reviews and copious hype from the nerdosphere. At the time I’m writing this, it’s only made $96 million in North America — bad news for a film with a $190 million budget. But wait! The international market has grown over the last decade and it’s now the deciding factor in a movie’s profitability. And Pacific Rim has made close to a quarter billion dollars worldwide, with an astounding $45.2 million opening weekend in China. That’s infinitely better than its disappointing $37 million first weekend in the U.S. Pacific Rim’s strong Chinese performance might just justify a sequel (hooray!).
And yet, all has not been well for Sino-Hollywood relations.
MOVIES ARE TAXING
It seems that Hollywood studios hadn’t received any money from China since late last year. Actually, they refused to accept payments — there was a dispute over a 2% value-added tax. Hollywood didn’t want to pay it and neither did China. That squabble came after a renegotiation of what Hollywood studios take from Chinese box office sales — it used to be 13 to 17 per cent. Now it’s up to 25 per cent of box office totals (in the U.S. it’s 50%-plus).
But don’t panic, box-office watchers — a deal has now been reached and the United States got its way. Hollywood studios will not have to pay Chinese tax. China is the second largest movie market behind the U.S., so there were a lot of dollars at stake. And possibly that Pacific Rim sequel.
WHAT NETFLIX DOES
As a collector, I want physical copies of movies. A big part of the appeal is that movies on DVD or Blu-Ray generally have correct aspect ratios, so I can watch them as the filmmakers intended with no parts of the picture missing. What’s an aspect ratio? Basically, it refers to an image’s proportions. Movies have different proportions from widescreen television sets, which have different proportions from old TVs. This can make transferring a film to TV a little tricky. Back in the early days of VHS and DVD, TVs were standard aspect (1.33:1), not widescreen. Letterboxing fixed the problem but ignorant morons didn’t like seeing bars on the top and bottom the screen, and often believed (incorrectly) they were missing part of the scene. As a result, studios and TV networks would “pan and scan” the movies to fit the wide rectangular peg into a square hole. The Philistines were happy but it looked like crap to the rest of us.
Now that TVs are mostly widescreen, it’s not as bad. Still, because they come in 1.85:1 to 1.77:1 aspect ratios, they don’t match films shot in 2.35:1 or wider — which includes classics like Apocalypse Now and Star Wars. That means despite having a widescreen TV, black bars on the top and bottom of screens must be used for some films to make the entire picture frame fit. Unfortunately there are a couple of cable channels that have been cropping movies to make the film appear 1.85:1. HBO and AMC are the worst offenders, though there are also complaints that some movies streamed on Netflix have been cropped. You can see examples at whatnetflixdoes.tumblr.com — the screen shots are shocking and terrible. How can anyone enjoy a film when they’re only getting part of the picture?
Shane Hnetka was named after the title character in the 1953 1.66:1 aspect ratio movie Shane, which coincidentally was the first movie to depart from the 1.37:1 Academy ratio. He writes the Sunday Matinee column every weekend on Dog Blog at www.prairiedogmag.com.