In 1953, 20th Century Fox changed the way we saw movies at the theater by introducing widescreen at an aspect ratio (width divided by height) of 2.35:1. It was called CinemaScope. Up until that point, movies were shot at the Academy ratio of 1.375:1. Several other widescreen aspect ratios were ultimately created by the various movie studios, including the most common one used nowadays, 1.85:1.

The way these movies at several different aspect ratios were projected was at a constant height. That way, all movies would be seen with different widths. Some early widescreen movies were at 2.66:1, and one, Ben Hur (1959), was at 2.76:1. An example from the Chariot Race is shown below (© Copyright MGM Studios). These days, the widest aspect ratio is generally 2.35:1.

A comparison of what you would see, depending on the aspect ratio, is shown at the top of this page.

When studios informed movie theaters a couple of years ago that they had to convert their projectors to handle only digital versions of movies, everything changed. I have noticed that we now see movies projected at a constant width, just like we have on our HDTVs at home. Movies at 1.85:1 are shown full screen, while 2.35:1 movies are shown with black bars at the top and bottom.

So, the term “Widescreen” is no longer relevant, because high aspect ratio movies are not seen any wider than the 1.85:1 movies.

The biggest problem with this is that the 2.35:1 movies are using only 0.7872% of the pixels that 1.85:1 movies are using. So, on a 1080p HDTV, instead of using 2,073,600 pixels (1920 x 1080), they use 1,632,408 pixels. At a theater, where movies are shown in 4K, instead of using 8,847,360 pixels (4096 x 2160), they use 6,964,642 pixels.

However, there are additional problems at the theater.

I have noticed that movies are now shown with digital projectors at such high brightness, the black levels are very poor, with the darkest parts of a scene being gray rather than black. The black bars at the top and bottom of the screen are not black. They are gray. This is a deterioration from what we saw when film was projected.

Secondly, the sound volume is turned up far too loud. I literally have to watch the movie using dark glasses in order to improve the black levels and keep from being blinded by the brightness. I also put torn pieces of napkins in my ears to reduce the loudness to a reasonable level.

So, it would appear that “Widescreen” is no longer a relevant term, at least at the Cineplex where I go to see movies.

I suggest that movie theaters use a zoom lens on the front of the projector to increase the width of 2.35:1 movies on the screen compared to movies shown at 1.85:1. I would assume that the original projection screens with additional width are still there, so this should not be a problem. I would also suggest that movies which are going to be projected at 2.35:1 aspect ratio be shot with a 1.27 squeeze using an anamorphic camera lens, then unsqueezed at the theater by a reverse anamorphic lens. This way, all of the 4K pixels would be used.

And, please turn down the brightness and volume level.