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'Letterbox' Brings Wide Screen Home | HOME ENTERTAINMENT


Video collectors have more opportunities these days to see the big picture.

Until recently, most films available on video were presented in the traditional "pan-and-scan" format, which squeezes the picture to fit a square TV screen.

But video companies are now offering more and more sell-through titles in the "letterbox" format, which preserves the original wide-screen aspect ratio of a film but leaves black space at the top and bottom of the screen.

Paramount, for example, is presenting the 1995 Oscar-winning best film "Braveheart" in the letterbox format on Aug. 27. That same date, "The Sound of Music" (FoxVideo) makes its letterbox debut. "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" (MCA/Universal) will go the letterbox route for the first time on Oct. 1. And earlier this week, Warner Home Video announced that "Twister" will be available in wide screen when the summer blockbuster blows into video stores on Oct. 1.

"I don't know if the market is really that huge for the collection of wide-screen editions," says Paramount's Jack Kanne, executive vice president of sales and marketing. "I guess we all take a look at taking advantage of every market that's out there. It isn't every movie [that should be in letterbox]. It's the mass appeal kind of bigger event movie."

They include Paramount's Widescreen Editions of "Romeo and Juliet," "Top Gun," "Patriot Games," "Forrest Gump," "Congo," "Clear and Present Danger" and "The Hunt for Red October," which will hit the street on Sept. 10.

"Eighty percent of our volume is still done in pan and scan," says Blake Thomas, senior vice president of marketing for MGM/UA Home Video. "But I think consumers have become more sophisticated viewers of film."

Television screens have gotten bigger, too, making the images bigger and the surrounding black space less bothersome. "I really think that has something to do with it," Thomas acknowledges. "There is a greater hardware compatibility."

MGM/UA releases most of its popular sell-through titles in letterbox and has scored great success with wide-screen versions of such epics as "Ben-Hur" and "How the West Was Won." On Sept. 10, MGM adds "Heaven's Gate," "The Great Escape" and "Fiddler on the Roof" to its wide-screen roster.

"The reason we are a little bit out on front [of the letterbox trend] is that we have had such a commitment to laser discs," Thomas says. "Most all of our laser product is letterbox."

"If you are going to collect a film, letterbox is the ultimate format," says Steve Feldstein, vice president of communications and media relations for 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

FoxVideo will unveil its wide-screen Series Tuesday with "The Last of the Mohicans," "The Abyss," "Speed" and "True Lies."

"I think this is an opportunity to educate the public at large in terms of what exactly [letterbox] means," Feldstein says. "If they see [a movie] in letterbox, some may realize what they are missing. You are seeing the entire film through the vision of the filmmaker."


Oldie but Goodie: Laurence Olivier received an Oscar nomination for his riveting performance as the Moor of Venice in "Othello" (Warner, $20), a splendid 1965 version of Shakespeare's classic. Frank Finlay and Maggie Smith offer fine support.


Foreign Affairs: New for Tuesday is the legendary Indian director Satyajit Ray's classic "The Apu Trilogy" (Columbia TriStar, $60, $20 each), consisting of "Pather Panchali," "Aparajito" and "The World of Apu."

Kino's latest offerings are 1958's "Narayama Bushi-Ko," based on Shichiro Fukaza's novel, and the 1994 Chinese thriller "The Day the Sun Turned Cold."

Killers Bs: Arriving Tuesday is Eric Idle and Robert Wuhl in "Missing Pieces" (HBO), a woefully lame comedy missing humor, funny lines and decent performances.

Talented Richard E. Grant is wasted in "Cold Light of Day" (Polygram), a nasty, disturbing thriller about a detective trying to discover the murderer of several young girls.


Kids' Stuff: PBS' plucky pooch Wishbone stars in two more literary adventures (Polygram, $13 each): "Frankenbone," based on Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," and "Bone of Arc," a reenactment of "Joan of Arc" by Mark Twain.

Cabin Fever's new children's label, Razzmatazz Entertainment, kicks off with 12 episodes of Shelley Duvall's hip, award-winning series "Faerie Tale Theatre" ($10 each). Among the episodes are "Tale of the Frog Prince," with Robin Williams and Teri Garr.


Coming Next Week: "Darkman III: Die Darkman Die" (MCA/Universal) is a pretty good made-for-video sequel to the 1990 hit. This time around, the tormented Dr. Peyton Westlake (Arnold Vosloo) tackles a ruthless underworld kingpin (Jeff Fahey).

Andy Garcia and Treat Williams star in the film noir "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead" (Miramax).

Tom Berenger stars in the action-thriller "The Substitute" (Live).

Ellen DeGeneres finds "Mr. Wrong" (Hollywood) in a comedy also starring Bill Pullman.

Pamela Anderson Lee is "Barb Wire" (Polygram). . . . Also new: "The Surgeon" (A-Pix); "Jeff Gordon: Triumph of a Dream" (Sony Music Video); "Rockin' Down the Highway: The Wildlife Concert" (Sony Music Video); "The Grave" (Republic); and "Black Day Blue Night" (Republic).

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