I don't think there is a clear answer as to why, in the early days of DVD, some studios didn't cotton to anamorphically enhancing discs. To quote 2001 "it's origin...and purpose...still, a total mystery".
There were those that said that viewing anamorphic DVDs on a 4:3 TV would have poorer video quality than a non anamorphic DVD and since in the old days 16:9 TVs were a rarity, that could be why some studios were reluctant to release anamorphic titles.
That's an entirely different issue. In the early days of DVD, it was possible to be devoted to widescreen (as, for example, the Criterion Collection has always been) while still questioning the impact of anamorphic enhancement in a world where the overwhelming majority of viewers would have to downconvert such images for display on 4:3 TVs.
It helps to remember that the first generation of DVD players wasn't as good at performing the downconversion as players are today.
Titanic is also a special case. Today it would probably be split over two discs. At the time, that was almost unheard-of. It was considered a minor miracle that a movie of that length and visual complexity could fit on a single dual-layer DVD. An anamorphic version would have required even more space.
Actually, the real reason a lot of earlier DVD were not anamorphic was simple economics. Studios were trying to get product out on this new format, but they didn't want to make a huge investment since it was still so new.
To do a anamorphic version of the film they would have to, more than likely, make a new transfer. But, they already had letterboxed masters for many of their titles. Thus, if they used those, they could provide widescreen without the additional investment on an unproven format.
Remember, Titanic was Cameron's baby. If he was behind the times with his "full-screen (4:3) presentation is better for the home market because of the reduced resolution of the video format" thinking for The Abyss, he probably was behind the times with the "non-anamorphic gives a better picture on 4:3 TV's" theory for Titanic. Let's just be thankful he did not state this in an insert or interview or we'd have to hear/see it quoted as positive proof of non-anamorphic superiority until the year 2020!
The guys at THX labs were actually largely responsible for the lack of 16x9 on Titanic. I spoke with a coupld of THX reps on this complaining about the rediculous lack of 16x9 on such a high-profile title, and they said that they had actually recommended to FOX that they do a 4x3 lbxed transfer because it resulted in more static "dead" space with the wider letterboxing which made the (long and challenging) movie easier to compress.
No kidding folks.
I was getting beat-up regularly here at HTF for being an "anamorphiac" pushing some silly 16x9 crusade when everyone was perfectly happy with their big 4x3 480-interlaced rear-projection TV in their home-theater...
We were called "snobs" for suggesting that a 4x3 480-interlaced image was not "reference" quality in comparison to what the DVD format was capable of delivering...
My how times have changed. I'm glad to see you all changed your minds and agree with me now
I can state the reality that anamorphic DVDs looked worse than normal letterboxed DVDs on my 1999 television.
I was literally shocked at how bad Gigi and Rear Window looked -- since I had come to expect a great picture from DVD.
Of course, when I learned about "enhancement," I bought a new monitor (Sony 36" XBR) and player (Panasonic RP-82), and then I switched my viewpoint 180¡. Now "anamorphic" DVDs looked better than non-enhanced.
And now I have a widescreen high-def plasma monitor, and I desperately need DVDs which are enhanced.
I suspect that there are many people with the same experience.
Yes, there was a sizable contingent, including Criterion and former admins at this very site, who for years were militantly against 16:9 enhanced DVDs because they believed that on a 4:3 set they looked inferior. I thought then and still think they were deluding themselves, but so it goes. David speaks the truth. I remember him telling them "You'll think otherwise when you get a widescreen television." Hard to be an unappreciated prophet, but at least you got to see the Promised Land, David.
It's very true that DVD players in those days (1997 - 1999) utilized, for the most part, exceedingly inexpensive 16:9 to 4:3 downconversion circuitry.
At one point in the early days of DVD I had the horrible misfortune of pairing an early Toshiba DVD player with one of those 16:10.7 "semi-widescreen" 55" Pioneer RPTVs. The Pioneer could not handle anamorphic enhancement. In its default stretch mode it would do a pretty good job of making regular 4:3 material look like 1.66:1 widescreen presentations, with virtually no evident distortion; and it did a great job with widescreen LD transfers, even presenting more information on the sides of the transfers than what was normally available from a conventional 4:3 display. But then came DVD. The 4:3 LBX widescreen DVD's absolutely blew LD out of the water on this set; but 16:9 enhanced DVDs were virtually unwatchable! The combination of the horrible downconversion circuitry on the early Tosh player, with the 4:3 to 1.66:1 stretch mode on the Pioneer monitor, resulted in horrible "stair-stepping" on almost all camera pans. Actors would even appear to have lines in their faces as they moved their heads. It was truly horrendous. I ended up "living" with the Pioneer for a couple of years like this by replacing the Tosh with an early Sony player, but it was still no fun playing 16:9 transfers on that set.
But, you know what? I still wanted my DVDs 16:9 enhanced even then. Because I knew that one day I would eventually own a 16:9 display of some kind, and those 16:9 transfers would really shine then!
And, now that I own a 16:9 capable FPTV system, I can state overwhelmingly that "Boy, was I right!"
That's a product of poor DVD-player design. Cheap downconversion looks cheap. Well-implimented downconversion looks as good as a native 4x3 lbxed transfer.
BTW, anamorphic WS transfers only might need "more space" in terms of the data needed to maintain good picture quality during compression. That's because more of those pixels are storing active picture information therefore there are more "changes" for the MPEG encoder to deal with. Remember, the "space" that a DVD picture signal requires isn't a linear fuction based on 720 x 480 pixels...it's a variable rate that's necessitated by motion and image complexity.
That description is correct, but you need to take it one step further: Black bars compress to almost nothing. To the extent that more pixels are devoted to picture elements than to black bars, the film will require either more space or additional compression -- and the latter may well compromise the overall image.
This is essentially what David Boulet is describing from his conversations with THX.