A widescreen movie should be projected onto a wide screen. That only makes sense. But in recent years, most new theaters project big, widescreen movies at the same width as not-so-wide movies. To show you the full image, they shrink the picture vertically – sort of like letterboxing on your TV. This may be a generational thing, but it bothers me.
Since the mid-1950s, almost every theatrical motion picture has been made in one of two aspect ratios. And every commercial movie theater can project both of these screen shapes. An aspect ratio numerically describes the shape of a rectangular image. An aspect ratio of 1.85×1 means that the width is equal to the height times 1.85. If the screen is ten feet tall, it should also be 18½ feet wide.
The narrower of the two formats has an aspect ratio of 1.85×1, and is nicknamed flat. The wider one has a ratio of 2.39×1 and is nicknamed scope.
I’m simplifying things. For many years, flat films were framed to be shown in either 1.85 or 1.66. And scope aspect ratios have gone from 2.55 to 2.35 to 2.39, with exceptions at 2.20 and 2.75. But these are minor differences.
As a general rule, big movies – action, science fiction, fantasy, and historical epics – are shot in scope. Intimate films like dramas, comedies, and documentaries are usually flat. But there are a lot of exceptions: The Graduate
is an intimate comedy shot in scope; Ran is a historical epic filmed flat.
With two different aspect ratios to contend with, no movie theater can always fill the entire screen (unless they severely crop the image, which is unacceptable). Most theaters use black masking to hide the parts of the screen on to which nothing is being projected.
For decades, most theaters had fixed-height screens, shaped at 2.39×1. Scope movies filled the screen. The theater would use the full height of the screen for flat films, with horizontal masking.
There were exceptions. Small, narrow theaters would often have 1.85×1 fixed-width screens. All pictures would be shown at the same width, and height would be sacrificed for showing scope films.
But around the turn of this century, fixed-width screens became the norm for new theaters – even ones with very big screens. Flat films fill the entire screen, and scope films come out vertically challenged.
Actually, scope films usually look great on large, fixed-width screens. It’s the flat movies that suffer. They’re too big and overwhelming. And if the theater is projecting 35mm, they often can’t get enough light onto the screen.
I don’t know why fixed-width became the norm. Perhaps the acceptance of letterboxing on television created the idea that scope meant vertically short instead of horizontally large. Or perhaps theater owners wanted to provide something like an IMAX experience, with its huge size and narrow shape.
A few theaters, including the Castro, aren’t fixed in any direction. Flat films are projected taller than scope films, which are shone wider than flat ones. Such theaters need both vertical and horizontal masking.
I have found a way around the problem. If I know the theater is fixed width, and the movie is flat, I sit two or three rows farther back than I would usually choose.
The movie stills used for this article are from two westerns made in 1960: One-Eyed Jacks (flat) and The Magnificent Seven (scope).