Yet Another Reason To Hate Wal-Mart

Time to rail against dishonest advertising again — though thankfully no politics this time around. The behemoth that is Wal-Mart is trying to promote its consumer electronics department, and is running an ad featuring two Wal-Mart Youth register jockeys proclaiming Wal-Mart as the best place to go for DVDs.

Please. Wal-Mart is the worst thing ever to happen to DVDs (not to mention books, music, and a whole lot else).

With most new technologies, there are the early adopters, and those who choose to wait until it becomes more widely accepted (nothing wrong with either position, mind you). In the case of DVDs, as with Laserdiscs before them, it was the film aficionados who jumped on early.

DVDs were a boon for movie lovers — here was a medium which not only presented films in the highest quality possible (in the pre-HD era), but also pulled back the curtain and gave us a glimpse behind the scenes, with extras like director commentaries, production illustrations, and making-of documentaries. Not every disc had all of these features (particularly the early ones), but most important, they all had one thing in common: They presented the movie in the original theatrical aspect ratio. Most of them, anticipating the advent of widescreen televisions, even encoded the picture anamorphically, allowing even greater image resolution on those newer sets (while sacrificing nothing on the older models).

Everything was hunky-dory for us early adopters. But then DVD started to catch on more widely. Great, right? Well, that’s what I thought. And then the mass retailers — Wal-Mart most prominent among them — started carrying more and more titles on DVD as opposed to VHS. Unfortunately, Wal-Mart’s clientele tends toward the less... sophisticated. The “S.P.,” as I like to call them (after the appellation in Al Franken’s fantastic book Why Not Me?). And, of course, these folks couldn’t understand why their movies had black bars at the top and bottom. No matter how many times it was explained to them that they were necessary to preserve the original rectangular movie image on their squarish televisions (as opposed to chopping off up to half of the image, the usual alternative on VHS transfers), they couldn’t figure it out. Something had to be wrong with the disc.

My initial reaction is, “Well, you’re just too stupid for DVD,” but hey, to each his own. On a few titles (especially the ones the S.P. were most likely to want), the studios also offered a “pan and scan” version, now often called “full frame” (I suppose “pan and scan,” while more accurate, was considered both too negative and too technical). That does require remastering the disc, but it apparently keeps the S.P. happy (until they buy new televisions three years down the road, and we have to explain why now they’ve got bars on the sides of the screen all the time).

Normally, I’d figure it wasn’t my problem; Cletus can sit at home and watch his “full frame” movie and I’ll just sit back and mock him quietly. But then Wal-Mart decided to throw its weight around, saying they won’t carry any discs that aren’t in “full frame” format. This puts the studios — who can’t afford to lose Wal-Mart’s retail space — in the position of having to decide whether it’s worth the time (i.e., money) to do two separate versions. On some big sellers (say, Spider-Man, or The Lord of the Rings), they'll go ahead and do it. Even Lucasfilm decided to release Episode II in both formats (although they at least had the balls to point out on their website — too subtly for the S.P., of course — how only an idiot would want the full frame version). But for most discs, it’s coming down to one or the other.

And in more and more cases, the S.P. are succeeding in bringing things down to the lowest common denominator. So-called “family” movies are already becoming more prevalent in “full frame.” Basically, that means they’ll be obsolete in just a few years — as soon as widescreen televisions become the standard (which is a lot sooner than the decade-off HD switchover). I don’t know about you, but even if I weren’t obsessive about preserving the director’s (and cinematographer’s) artistic composition, I’d still be pretty damn pissed about this planned obsolescence.

Wal-Mart’s gonna do what they’re gonna do. Their whole business model is built on the S.P. But man, I’d pay real money if they’d shut the hell up.


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