I'm wrapping up principle photography for a documentary shot in SD 4:3. It's too late to shoot in 16:9, and everything has been framed for 4:3. The goal is to distribute this film to the educational market and possibly a television broadcast.
I'm worried that the 4:3 format will be obsolete, limiting the distribution/screening potential. Does anyone have a sense of the longevity of 4:3?
The smart-aleck answer would be: if the subject is worth seeing, the aspect ratio doesn't matter.
The very "commercial" answer would be that the great mass audience (whatever THAT means these days)expects everything in 16 by 9 now. But then again, large numbers of the Great Unwashed still buy or rent pan-and-scan "full-screen" 4:3 DVDs of Hollywood films because letterboxing freaks them out. And again, you have people watching stuff on various platforms from phones to game units to giant screens to computers... they seem to make do, regardless of aspect ratio and screen size/resolution.
Docs, except for some few breakout mega-hits, I believe have a generally smaller and self-selecting audience than theatrical releases. My take is that a doc audience is MUCH more interested in the content than the aspect ratio. If you release it in 16 by 9 then aren't you saying you want this to compete with Hollywood theatricals for the same audience? I don't know your film so I couldn't say if that would be fair to assume. But I don't know any doc that can stand up to Summer blockbuster releases head to head. And why should they? That's not the audience, generally.
I suppose you could spend the money to artificially uprez it and re-frame it in 16 by 9, but my sense of it is that this would not gain enough extra viewers or distribution to justify it. Nor would it be as "artistic" generally because the frames were composed for the smaller aspect ratio, and re-framing may do it no favors in that regard, the opposite but equally bad version of the damage pan-and-scan does to wide-angle formats like Cinemascope.
So, what to do? If I were you, I'd spend the extra money instead on a kick-ass sound track, the finest sound design, effects, Foley, and original score I could afford. I know it's not a doc, but look at what happened with "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou" in terms of the sound track taking off on its own and then you have the additional audiences come full-circle in that they may first find the doc thru it's sound track music and THEN watch it. Great sound only makes everything better, how can you lose?