A Variety of Films Getting Widescreen Treatment for TV

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William Wallace led a Scottish rebellion and inspired the Oscar-winning epic "Braveheart." Since then, in keeping with Wallace's revolutionary spirit, Mel Gibson's sprawling, macho bio-pic has helped lead a quiet revolution in the home video world.

The success of the film's letterbox, or widescreen, version has helped assure industry executives that the format isn't just for film buffs anymore. So get ready: We're about to be hit with a widescreen deluge as distributors seek new ways to wring profit out of familiar titles.

The format employs blacked-out strips across the top and bottom of the TV image to approximate the more sharply rectangular proportions of movie theater screens. It accounted for a lofty 5% of the 2.5 million "Braveheart" copies sold.

"Braveheart" "was the biggest of all," said Archie Benike, vice president of marketing for the Suncoast Motion Picture Co. retail chain. "People wanted to experience at home the whole scope of the film. They wanted to see the complete battles."

Another big widescreen success has been Fox's "The Abyss," which since its release in January has sold units "in the healthy six figures," said Steve Feldstein, Fox Home Entertainment vice president of communications and media relations.

In the coming weeks, several major studios will release collections comprising a cross-section of Hollywood classics, Academy Award winners, box-office hits and cult favorites that executives hope will help spread the word on widescreen, which is now viewed as the more consumer-friendly term.

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Imminent releases, all selling for less than $25 per tape, include the "Godfather" trilogy, "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Rain Man," "Twister," "Dune" and the "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon" series.

"I don't make movies for television," said Ang Lee, whose Oscar-nominated "Sense and Sensibility" will arrive in stores in widescreen on Tuesday. "So whatever they do to crop it [for the small screen], I don't anticipate it. I'm glad the letterbox version is coming out. I hope people have more than a 13-inch set. I know how painful that is."

Executives acknowledge that the majority of video renters still prefer a full-frame image that fills their television screens, an effect achieved through a process called pan-and-scan.

But increasingly, widescreen editions of select films are being offered as a "value-added" inducement to buy when a video is repriced for the consumer market. (Many videos are sold for around $100 in their initial release, selling primarily to rental outlets rather than to consumers.)

And it is becoming common for titles to be released simultaneously in widescreen and full-frame pan-and-scan versions, as Paramount did with "Mission: Impossible" and PolyGram and Hallmark Home Entertainment will do with the rental releases "The Portrait of a Lady" and "Breaking the Waves."

One reason for the increasingly receptive audience for widescreen videos, said David Kosse, vice president of marketing for PolyGram, is the disclaimer featured on full-frame videos: "This film has been modified from its original vision. It has been formatted to fit your TV." This, he said, may encourage viewers to find out what they're missing.

"What's happening is that video is no longer brand-new," said film critic Roger Ebert. "People have been more exposed to letterbox, and they understand what it represents and what they are losing with pan-and-scan, so their original naive rejection of it 10 to 15 years ago has worn off."

And it's about time, added director John Carpenter, who recalled with horror seeing his "Assault on Precinct 13" (due in widescreen April 29 from New Line) in a full-frame video edition.

"After two minutes, I turned it off," he said. "It's not the same film. It's like looking at a painting wearing glasses that give you tunnel vision so you can't see the edges. It's a terribly depressing experience. When we make movies, we have a vision, and that's what we want you to see."

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Demand for widescreen is a natural evolution of the market, Suncoast's Benike added. Home video first allowed viewers to watch what they wanted, when they wanted, uncut and commercial-free. The next step was to start a home library of favorite films. Studios are now encouraging VCR owners to experience at home a movie in the screen proportion that the director intended.

"It relates more and more to home theater rearrangements," said Michael Karaffa, executive vice president of New Line Home Video. "Consumers have become more savvy about films and filmmaking. They are buying more specific hardware that serves a theatrical environment."

The fledgling widescreen video market serves commerce and art. It affords studios the opportunity to expand their business beyond the videophile. "What we're doing," Feldstein said, "is offering people outside the techie and laser realm the opportunity to see these films as the filmmakers intended. If you're not going to see a film theatrically, you can at least see what was shown theatrically."

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