Stop with the Utah County jokes already.
It seems the taste for sanitized versions of Hollywood films extends well beyond Happy Valley. Stores that rent edited PG-13- and R-rated videos are blooming in Davis County, St. George, Idaho, Arizona and -- perhaps the unlikeliest of places -- Las Vegas.
Editing scenes that include sex, violence and profanity from popular films has become such a promising venture that competition is cropping up. That doesn't surprise Ray Lines, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who began CleanFlicks Video Co-Op Club late last year.
"There's 120,000 Mormons that live in that community," Lines said of the Las Vegas success. "Not to mention the Christian community. This is not just a Mormon issue."
Since opening in Pleasant Grove, Lines has expanded to Orem and Provo. He also edits videos for franchise-type stores in Tooele, St. George, West Valley City, Las Vegas, Mesa, Ariz.; and Rexburg, Idaho.
And now a competitor has entered the field.
Earlier this month, Braxton Schenk, also a Mormon, opened Layton's Clean Cut Videos, which similarly rents edited videos to its members.
Like Lines, Schenk expects to expand mightily; he's looking into opening stores in Brigham City, North Ogden, Roy, Kaysville, Farmington and Bountiful.
"The neat thing about it is that we've rented to several families that aren't LDS at all. They have very similar beliefs in the way they don't want to watch some of that garbage that's out there," said Schenk, a Washington native. "I've been really impressed by the moral values of this area. Especially from the teenagers. We've had teenagers come in and talk their parents into buying a membership."
Amidst all the success, a backlash, or copyright lawsuit, from Hollywood studios has been absent.
Lines has been featured in a New York Times article and has appeared on NBC's Today Show. Still, despite the widespread publicity, no one has asked him to stop.
University of Utah film historian William Siska says that just because the editing is legal doesn't mean it's ethical.
"If the video stores were really guardians of morality, they would really toe the line as far as what fair business practices are," Siska said.
The stores are profiting off someone else's work, and, if not illegal, it's wrong, Siska said.
Lines and Schenk maintain they are legit since they pay retail price for every video, which, after editing, will be devoid of graphic violence, sex and profanity -- including taking the Lord's name in vain.
The pair maintain Hollywood studios benefit from their businesses since they sell R- and PG-13-rated videos that wouldn't otherwise be purchased.
Still, editing raises concerns about maintaining a filmmaker's artistic vision.
"I guess it depends on what film you're talking about," said Sharon Swenson, who teaches film history and theory at Brigham Young University.
Some films exist only to make money or entertain. Such pictures, Swenson says, would suffer little from editing.
"Now if it's art, then that's another story," she said.
But for now, without lawsuit or much complaint, the clean video stores flourish.
Schenk expects to have edited DVDs in two months, and Lines plans for 10 more Utah stores by the end of next year.
Perhaps this film expert lives in a fantasy world where films spring fully conceived from the minds of directors touched by magical muses. But on this planet, Hollywood films are heavily market-tested, tweaked by studios, and even injected with product placements. (The Merrill Lynch ad in Robert De Niro's "Analyze This" -- was that "art," even though it was a paid advertisement?)
The historian should take a break from all that great Hollywood fare and read an anthropology book some time. He would realize that in a diverse society, different communities have different modes of communication. For some communities, frequent profanity and use of the "F-word" serve merely as punctuation, without meaning, thought, or moral consequence. For other communities, such language is indeed objectionable and marks its users as coarse and grossly intolerant of diversity. Likewise, the "N-word" might be considered a fun term of endearment within some cultural groups, but it is considered highly offensive when said or heard by other groups. Today most respectable news organizations won't, such as CNN and ABC, won't even allow the word to be said on the air, even in the context of a quote. Should only one group of people be able to enforce their sensibilities about language?
Removing a few words and a gratuitous few seconds of nudity from films, when done for a specific audience, actually preserves the director's original intent. This is because such editing allows the audience to continue to appreciate and focus on the film's story and atmosphere, without being pulled out of the story by jarring elements of no consequence to plot.
On my "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" DVD I can watch the film in Chinese, with English subtitles. Or I can watch the film with English dubbing. I prefer the original Chinese language track with the subtitles. But I'm glad to have a choice. Either way, the story and themes are the same.
Interestingly enough, the American version of this "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", as it was shown in American theaters and released on American DVDs, is edited: It excludes some of the sex and partial nudity shown in the Asian version. Which version is artistically "pure?" The version shown in Asia, or the version shown in America, edited in order to maintain a PG-13 and reach a broader audience? (By the way, it was the American version which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, and was nominated for Best Picture.) Mr. Siska seems happy to criticize a Utah video store owner whose edited tapes are seen by a few hundred people. Is he willing to make the same statements, for the same "unethical behavior", against director Ang Lee?
Ethically, editing out a few swear words, nudity, and the most graphic violence is analogous to dubbing a film into a different language. Does it change the film? Yes. And many audiences prefer the unchanged or un-dubbed versions. But to say that providing edited versions is "unethical" is judgemental, and highly myopic. "Myopic" means that the film historian sees everything through a narrow lens defined by his job as a film historian, but he is unaware of or chooses to ignore the viewpoints of anthropologists, linguists, market researchers, parents, community leaders, ethicists, legal experts, and religious leaders.
No editor is going to have the ship not sink in James Cameron's Titanic. But by removing a silly and anachronistic Hollywood-fantasy nude scene, editors essentially translate the film for families and audiences with different values. Cameron knows Latter-day Saints aren't against movies -- they just prefer entertaining films focused on stories and character more than salaciousness. After all, Cameron's first film was funded entirely by a Latter-day Saint investors group in California. But the "film historian" probably knew that already.
One day, Hollywood is going to be struck by a bolt of common sense and provide clean rental video versions of its R- and PG-13-rated films.
Until that happens -- and based on Hollywood's track record, this page isn't expecting anything soon -- stores that rent edited PG-13- and R-rated videos provide a valuable service.
Three years ago, Sunrise Family Video in American Fork deleted two steamy scenes from the video version of the highly popular "Titanic" for hundreds of customers, thereby making their versions suitable for family viewing.
Despite early legal threats, the desire for sanitized versions of Hollywood blockbusters and other movie fare is so widespread that numerous stores now rent edited videos. In St. George, West Valley City, Tooele, Davis County, Idaho, Arizona and Las Vegas, stores have joined the ranks of those in Utah County that provide the editing service. After editing, the films are devoid of graphic violence, sex and profanity -- including taking the Lord's name in vain.
That the establishments offering these edited films are popular should not be surprising. A Gallup Poll a few years ago found that 83 percent of Americans would prefer less sex and violence in entertainment.
Hollywood, unfortunately, is more interested in making what it believes to be artistic points than it is in providing wholesome entertainment to the public.
Filmmakers continue to ignore the public by tossing in scenes that degrade and desensitize young and old while lowering public standards of taste and decency. The Hollywood crowd talks about "artistic freedom" in justifying what it produces. What about the freedom of those buying a product to have it altered so that it doesn't offend them?
Edited versions of films are available on airplanes and on television. Why can't Hollywood do not only the right thing but the wise thing by providing and even encouraging those versions for all who want them?
Why fight the inevitable? Why fight progress?
Hollywood does not need to inject its products with sex, violence and profanity to do well in the marketplace. Since it chooses to do so, stores like those already mentioned will continue to prosper and expand.
They provide a valuable service to families and are to be commended for doing so.
Source: Washington Post
Date: 31 May 2001
LOS ANGELES, May 30 -- A new study has found that R-rated films are taking a significant hit at the box office because of tightened enforcement of the age restrictions on the rating, and Hollywood executives say that this is deterring them from making such movies.
The study by MarketCast, a company that polls prospective audiences and projects box-office earnings for the studios, confirmed what movie executives have been feeling instinctively for months -- that they are paying a price for bowing to pressure from Congress and accepting more effective enforcement of restrictions on movies that are not supposed to be seen by children under 17 unless they are accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Basically, the study, whose results were released today, found that significant numbers of children under 17 who wanted to see particular R-rated films were not going to them, deterred by increased scrutiny of younger customers in ticket lines.
Movies appealing to girls were especially affected by underperformance at the box office, the study found. For example, "The Mexican," starring Julia Roberts, and "Angel Eyes," starring Jennifer Lopez, both lost major chunks of their opening weekend revenues, it said.
"Angel Eyes" took in only $9 million its opening weekend instead of a projected $14 million, according to the study, and "The Mexican" could have opened with $28 million in business, instead of the $20 million it did, if the younger teenagers who wanted to see the film could have gotten in.
"I think the implications are that studios will take a hard look at movies that could be cut to be PG-13," said Michael Schwartz, research director at MarketCast. "They'll ask whether the R-rated scenes will gain them enough appeal to offset the losses, especially where there is strong teen interest."
Hollywood executives say they have already drawn this conclusion. The study found that the sex comedy "Tomcats," an R-rated movie from the new Revolution studio, lost 30 percent of its potential opening-weekend revenues, taking in only $6.5 million.
Joe Roth, a veteran Hollywood executive who heads Revolution, said he won't make movies like that anymore. "I would never do that again. It's like beating your head against a wall. This is material that's mostly innately appealing to 12- to 16-year-olds, so you're really stuck," he said.
Of the 10 movies Roth now has in production, only one is rated R: an action war movie, "Black Hawk Down," with heavy adult appeal.
"I'm consciously steering away from the R," he said. "My one-line philosophy on the R rating is if you're making an R-rated movie, you'd better want to. You can't just slip into it."
Similarly Amir Malin, the president of Artisan Entertainment, said he realized that "Blair Witch II" had been a box-office dud at least partly because of the rating restrictions. The study said that the sequel lost about a third of its potential revenue its opening weekend, taking in only $13 million instead of $20 million.
"When we opened to $13.5 million all of us were very surprised. There had to be some underlying reason," he said.
Now the studio is shying away from the R rating, he said. "When we're dealing with genre-oriented material, we're trying to achieve a PG-13 rating without destroying the artistic merits of the film," he said. Indeed, many in Hollywood fear that if the R rating becomes a kind of scarlet letter, it will inevitably impede artistic freedom.
Artisan has just recut a new film, "Soul Survivor," which was slated for release this fall with an R rating, to a PG-13.
After the Federal Trade Commission issued a scathing report last fall accusing Hollywood of marketing violent entertainment to kids, followed by Senate hearings in which studio executives were taken to task, Hollywood studios promised to change their approach.
Under new guidelines announced by the Motion Picture Association of America, the major studios agreed to a series of measures aimed at keeping R-rated movies away from underage teens. Studios are generally choosing not to advertise R-rated films on television shows where more than 35 percent of the audience is under 17, and have stopped playing trailers for R-rated films ahead of G- and PG-rated features. Theater owners, meanwhile, began to more strictly monitor the age of ticket buyers.
This has created a marketing struggle for some upcoming films. One is "American Pie 2," the sequel to 1999's R-rated blockbuster, which was one of the films criticized last summer for offering inappropriately explicit sexual material to teens.
Of course if fewer R-rated movies are made, many parents might consider it a victory and conclude that the crackdown accomplished exactly what it was meant to do. But some critics have remarked on a phenomenon that might be called "ratings creep": Some movies that were intended to be R-rated are being edited very slightly and given a PG-13.
The study found that in this new climate of stricter enforcement the average R-rated movie made 12 percent less than it could have in its opening weekend -- but that average figure included R-rated films with little appeal to teens, such as "Enemy at the Gates."
The MarketCast analysts undertook their study when they noticed a significant dropoff in the revenues for R-rated movies starting last summer. Compared with measurements of audience awareness of and desire to see films just a day before their release, the actual ticket sales were falling appreciably short. That great a disparity had not occurred before, nor did it show up with PG or PG-13 films.
The study offers a glimpse into a little-seen aspect of the Hollywood machine. The movie industry relies heavily on research to plan its movie releases and marketing. But the statistical data are rarely revealed to the public. In gathering data, MarketCast randomly polls people about their level of desire to see particular movies, and the studios depend on these polls to get an idea of what box-office turnout will be.
In this study, MarketCast focused on the opening-weekend figures because most movies make the bulk of their revenue in the early days of release, when the most dedicated moviegoers turn out and fuel all-important word-of-mouth support.
Noting that the movies that lost the greatest percentage of their prospective audience were those with heavy appeal to teenage girls, the analysts concluded that boys are more likely than girls to try to evade the restrictions and see R-rated films.
But even among horror and slasher films -- which appeal mainly to teen boys -- there were lower ticket sales than could have been expected. The study said the blockbuster "Hannibal" would have made another $18 million its opening weekend had teens under 17 been allowed to attend on their own. Instead "Hannibal" made a still-huge $58 million that weekend.
An R-rated science-fiction psycho-killer film, "The Hollow Man," lost 30 percent of its potential opening-weekend revenues because of the enforced restrictions, making $26 million instead of $34 million, the study said.
Source: Deseret News
Date: 9 August 2001
While reading and discussing the Aug. 2 Deseret News article regarding the growth and development of stores selling edited PG-13- and R-rated videos, we developed some concerns that we believe ought to be taken into account by those who would patronize these establishments.
As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we (along with many members of other congregations) are counseled not to shop on Sundays. One of the reasons for this is so that we do not cause others to have to work on the Sabbath.
Likewise, when we supply a market for edited videos, we are causing other individuals to view material we have been counseled not to view ourselves. Furthermore, in order to produce a "quality" product, those doing the editing are not only viewing a particular movie one time, but are viewing the most offensive parts over and over again until they have achieved their desired "cut."
Perhaps most disturbing is the message being sent to Hollywood, business ethics and artistic merit aside. The Deseret News article states that these companies "pay retail price for every video" and "Hollywood studios benefit from their businesses."
This tells those in the film business that they do not need to bother making clean movies at all -- they can put all the filth they want into their films and someone else will edit them, creating an even larger audience.
Instead of supporting the R-rated movie industry, even indirectly, let us watch films that are already family-friendly and encourage Hollywood to produce cinema that does not need editing.
Toby and Carina Dillon
West Valley City, Utah
PLEASANT GROVE -- Snipped flicks are not just for Utah County anymore. Indeed, edited videos are fast becoming a splice of life across the nation -- from Salt Lake City to Sin City, from the Right Coast to the Left Coast.
Sanitized versions of "Saving Private Ryan," sans the gory violence and profanity, are on the march in the Bible Belt. "A League of Their Own," free of foulmouthed filth, is a hit in Ames, Iowa. "Dr. Doolittle II," without the flatulence or body humor, is a gas in Chattanooga, Tenn. And "Titanic," minus the steamy sex scene, is going down well in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.
Cleaned-up videos are cleaning up.
Rewind to four years ago, when a small American Fork shop -- Sunrise Video -- made the initial splash by clipping the then-newly released blockbuster "Titanic" for $5 a pop, tapping a consumer thirst for family-friendly films.
Now fast forward to the present. The original Sunrise owners have abandoned ship. But the video-editing business is booming, expanding beyond Utah County mom-and-pop operations into mainstream America.
"We seem to be growing like a weed," says Ray Lines, CEO of Pleasant Grove-based CleanFlicks, whose two stores 18 months ago have swelled to a dozen and who has sold 40 independent dealerships in 16 states.
Oh, and the rudimentary dice-and-splice jobs of yesteryear have been replaced by digital computers that make seamless cuts for about $12. And the editors are taking more out of more movies than ever. Heck, even "hell" is not safe.
"We take that [word] out," Lines says. "We take out the damns, the f-words, the a-words and references to deity."
But critics say Lines and others riding the editing wave are taking their movie magic too far -- especially since many now are tampering with DVDs.
CleanFlicks has 18 edited DVDs, and is adding two or three titles every week. The chain already has a catalog of more than 350 excised video titles that co-op members or independent dealers can rent or buy at stores and on the Internet.
Jeff Aldous, Lines' Provo attorney, acknowledges there are legal gray areas, but insists his client's practice harms no one since he purchases an original of every video or DVD he edits.
"Everybody wins," Aldous argues. "Moviemakers sell another video or DVD, the customer gets an edited movie and my guy makes a small profit."
Some copycat enterprises, however, are reluctant to follow Lines' lead -- at least where DVDs are concerned. Braxton Schenk, owner of Clean Cut Videos in Kaysville and Layton, says editing a DVD is illegal. So does Bryce Jolley, owner of several Salt Lake Valley stores that carry edited videos.
"With edited videos, we purchase the original tapes through regular sources so Hollywood gets the revenue," Jolley says. "Then we record the edited version over the original copy. You can't do that with a DVD. You must create or copy a DVD movie onto a blank DVD, which puts you into the [unauthorized] duplication business and raises copyright concerns."
Doris Long, professor of copyright and Internet law at Chicago's John Marshall Law School, doubts either practice -- video or DVD editing -- could withstand court scrutiny.
"What they are doing is a violation of copyright law because they are editing movies without the permission of copyright owners and making money off of the transactions," Long says.
Even if copying a DVD was legal, Long and other legal experts say that tampering with the original to make that copy is not.
University of Utah law professor Susan Poulter says the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it illegal to subvert copy-protection measures.
"[The law] allows owners of a lawful copy to dispose of it as they wish unless they make a derivative work, and an edited copy can be a derivative work," she says.
Long, however, suspects the studios may remain silent rather than sue and risk reams of bad publicity and more congressional scrutiny over movie content.
"If it ever came to a court decision, I suspect copyright owners would win," she says. "But it probably would be a pyrrhic victory."
So far, Hollywood studios seem to be following Long's script, maintaining a studied silence -- at least publicly -- on an issue some privately wish would fade to black. The Motion Picture Association of America is staying mum. Paramount Pictures sounded off in 1998 about Sunrise's "Titanic" tinkering, but has said little about subsequent editing efforts.
However, Hollywood artists are less reticent in speaking out when they see their movies mutilated. In fact, when a customer rents an edited DVD from CleanFlicks, the original that accompanies the copy is purposefully ruined so that it cannot be viewed.
"From an artistic standpoint, most directors are not huge fans of seeing their work altered," says Andy Levy, an executive with the Directors Guild of America.
Mormon moviemaker Richard Dutcher, whose films "God's Army" and "Brigham City" have been commercial and artistic successes, is not wild about it either.
"I don't like anyone altering anything in one of my films because the decisions I make about what to leave in are made for very particular reasons," Dutcher says. "Specifically, I would object if someone altered my film and showed it to others. But if it is done for someone's own viewing pleasure, I wouldn't have a problem."
William Siska, University of Utah film professor, says censors are basically saying the "filmmaker as artist doesn't know what he is doing and needs someone to clean up after him. With great art, that is a bad thing."
An example: cutting the shower scene from the suspense classic "Psycho."
"That scene is the most provocative scene in [Alfred] Hitchcock's movie, but it is the one everyone talks about and how the film is remembered," Siska says. "If you cut the violence out of Shakespeare, you wouldn't have any Shakespearean tragedies."
To censors and many moviegoers, arguments over artistic merit are much ado about nothing. Their reaction: cut.
Michael Medved, national radio host and former New York Post film critic, says the real issue is not about people trimming films, but studios refusing to offer edited movies even though they are proven moneymakers.
"A lot of it has do with an adolescent confusion about f-words and artistic integrity," he says.
Besides, moviemakers can keep their f-bombs and a-bombs. All consumers want, Medved says, is for studios to release sanitized versions of R-rated and PG-13 movies, something the studios do now for airlines and television.
Video smut busters, however, eagerly leap into the editing void where moviemakers fear to tread. Lines and his two partners, who expect to do several million dollars' worth of business this year, are about to debut two new CleanFlicks branches in Las Vegas. They also are selling franchises for approximately $20,000.
Dealerships already fly the CleanFlicks logo in California, Iowa, Michigan, Oregon -- and the list keeps growing. Lines' company already has been given a thumbs up from Christian televangelist Jerry Falwell, crooner Pat Boone and radio's Dr. Laura Scheslinger.
"We get up to 10 e-mails every day from people inquiring about dealerships," says CleanFlicks president John Dixon, who merged his video stores with Lines' in October.
Schenk also is branching out with independent Clean Cut Videos dealerships in North Ogden and Roy. Brigham Young University graduate Jared Martin of Provo-based Family Safe Media is marketing edited films and filters over the Internet at familysafemedia.com. His company is a top distributor of TV Guardian, a foul-language filter that substitutes "crud" for "sh--" and "heck" for "hell." An indiscriminate censor, the filter renders the hymn "Nearer My God to Thee" in "Titanic" as "Nearer My Man to Thee."
Not to be outdone, BYU grad Matt Jarmon's company ClearPlay is on the industry's cutting edge. ClearPlay's software program skips over objectionable parts as movies are playing on a computer's DVD-ROM drive; the discs are not altered or copied in any way. Subscribers pay to download the service from ClearPlay's Web site at www.clearplay.com.
"It's like picking up a needle on a record player and putting it back down," says Jarman, vice president of productions for ClearPlay, started in Utah but now based in Los Angeles.
Where will it all end? Lines believes it won't.
"We are sending a message," he says. "Because whether we like it or not, we live in an R-rated world. We live in a world in which there is more wickedness, more pornography and more junk than ever before. . . . We can either allow that to continue or we can do something about it. And that is what we are attempting to do."
Cutting sex, violence, and profanity from movies is normally considered censorship. But if studios and directors like Steven Spielberg and Steven Soderbergh win a copyright suit against 11 small companies that permit consumers to avoid such scenes, free speech will be the loser, not the victor.
Most of the companies are based in Utah and offer families "clean" versions of popular films. Since they each use different methods for bypassing potentially offensive portions, the directors' and studios' claims against some are more legally compelling than others. Clean Flicks, for example, makes a master copy of Saving Private Ryan, editing out the bullet shots in the movie's first battle scene. It then duplicates the revised version for rental or purchase by the "members" of its franchises. Another company, ClearPlay, creates a software filter or mask that is downloaded to a special DVD player. Once a consumer pops an unaltered Erin Brockovich DVD in the player, the software simply instructs the player to mute Julia Roberts' foul language. Trilogy Studios of Salt Lake City takes this process one step further: Instead of skipping over the nude Kate Winslet posing for Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, its latest software tells the DVD player to display a picture of her body clothed with a corset.
Until last year, all of these companies' operations were so small-scale that no one in the motion picture industry bothered to challenge them. But last March, in a bid to attract Hollywood support for its software, Trilogy Studios displayed its set of substitutions to a group of elite directors, including Rob Reiner and Wes Craven. The directors saw the corset and were appalled. Around the same time, the Albertson's grocery chain announced nationwide plans to begin selling another one of the companies' "E-rated" edited movies. Those moves motivated the Directors Guild of America. The editing and scene-skipping companies "have decided what the vision of the movie is to be," said Carol Stogsdill of the directors' guild. "Copyright is about ownership, and these guys don't own it."
But the directors don't own the copyrights, either. Those are held by the studios. That left the directors charging trademark infringement, citing a 1976 court precedent in which the British theatrical group Monty Python successfully sued ABC for broadcasting a truncated version of its Flying Circus. But because customer confusion is central to proving a trademark violation, in the Clean Flicks case, the directors argue implausibly that a consumer who specifically sought out an edited version may have confused it with the original.
Although the studios were reluctant to get involved initially, they had a stronger case: They could legally claim copyright infringement if someone merely copied and redistributed a work -- or made a modified "derivative work" -- even when the consumer knew it is not the same as the studios' version. The studios' hesitance to join the suit could have led to a reprise of the colorization debate of the 1980s. There, directors had to fall back on arguments about their "moral right" to keep black and white films from being colorized, even after they had sold their rights in the intellectual property to corporate owners.
The French term droit moral, or "moral rights," is perhaps better translated as the right of personality. It implies that the artist's personal integrity is at stake in the way his works are seen and heard. It means that Steven Spielberg is personally harmed whenever someone knowingly views an altered copy of Saving Private Ryan. Theoretically, these rights stem from continental European philosophies, in which a copyright is a property right or a personality right of the artist, justified because his artwork springs from his creative genius. France has taken this to an extraordinary degree: An artist who sells a painting can still stop its owner from destroying it, and an author can force his publisher to stop selling a book if he no longer believes in it.
Traditionally, America has had little patience for such airy theories of copyright. Our law explicitly grounds copyrights (and patents) in the utilitarian bargain between a creator and her public -- not in theories of intrinsic moral rights. Authors write books for the enjoyment of readers and for the advancement of public knowledge. In exchange for this benefit to the public, the Constitution empowers Congress to grant them certain exclusive rights for a limited period of time, so as to make money for their efforts. While the First Amendment protects artists from government censorship, it also protects those who would criticize or mock an artist's vision. The United States acceded to the Berne Convention -- the main international copyright treaty in 1988 -- which subsequently granted limited moral rights to painters and sculptors, and this approach to copyright has in recent years been creeping into U.S. court decisions. This notion took another step forward last week when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Eldred v. Ashcroft that Congress' 20-year extension of copyright terms did no injustice to the copyright bargain. In a 7-2 decision, the court barely addressed First Amendment concerns about an expansive reading of copyright law.
The tensions between moral rights and free speech can't be avoided in the Clean Flicks lawsuit, where rival worldviews -- copyright for "authors" versus copyright for "readers" -- butt heads. Although the studios and directors charge all 11 companies with copyright and trademark infringement, the editing and filtering companies make different arguments in their defense. The Clean Flicks folks say they respect those copyrights by only making a single edited copy for each original video or DVD they purchase. Moreover, certain acts of copying can be excused under the "fair use" doctrine, which permits individuals and companies to make limited uses or noncommercial copies of others' copyrighted works. But recent court decisions have limited businesses' ability to claim "fair use" as a defense. In other words, it may be legal for a consumer to cut offensive scenes out of her own videotape, but illegal for a company to do it for her -- even though Clean Flicks claims that it is merely offering a service for its "members."
Clean Flicks makes a broader point, too: They say they just want to show their families movies free from offensive content and claim that studios secretly support them even if the directors don't. In fact, it is possible that the studios were headed in that direction anyway. As consumers have flocked to the DVD format, studios have loaded on extra features like directors' interviews, wide-screen versions, and even (in Moulin Rouge) alternate camera angles. Just as they offer versions edited for airline flights or TV broadcast, the studios could easily recut many R-rated films as PG-13 or PG and even release them on the same disc. The recording industry already sells edited songs with sexually explicit lyrics side-by-side with the unexpurgated versions. But in Hollywood, directors have so much power -- and see themselves largely as European auteurs -- that they resist multiple versions of their work even when the studios think it could make them more money. In the end, directors may just be hurting themselves. As the best-selling author and screenwriter Michael Crichton has said, "The smart move is to release the bowdlerized versions yourself and make the money. The dumb move is to fight it."
Because ClearPlay and Trilogy Studios do nothing to physically copy or alter DVDs, they are not vulnerable to charges of copyright or trademark infringement. Even though the DVD viewed by a consumer is completely unaltered, a viewer sees it differently because he has bought the Trilogy or ClearPlay software and obtained a filter that tells his DVD player where in the movie it should skip over a scene. Although the studios call that a "derivative work," it is much more like a book review referencing certain pages and paragraphs in the book.
The only way to argue against this kind of skipping technology is to empower the director with the European-style moral right to force his audience to experience the movie only as he intended it. On the other hand, the filtering companies have a free-speech right to tell consumers at what point in a movie they will find offensive portions, and consumers have a right to heed them and press their remote controls. No law bars these software companies from taking the next step and creating tools to automate the process of avoiding offensive scenes.
The current lawsuit is a harbinger of exactly what could be precluded if "moral rights" continue to grow on U.S. soil: Much less freedom to play with our cultural heritage. Viewed in a different light, a victory for either Clean Flicks or Trilogy and Clear Play could unleash considerable creativity. Take the "Phantom Edit," an anonymous alteration of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace that cut 20 minutes from the film by deleting scenes with the universally annoying Jar Jar Binks. Traded widely on computer file-sharing services, the bowdlerized film would clearly run afoul of the current copyright law's bar on preparing "derivative works." And what a tragedy that would be. What about a software "mask" that instructs DVD players to simply skip over Jar Jar? Sounds pretty attractive, huh? Great things can be born from such small ideas.
As hard as I try, I simply cannot summon up any sympathy for Hollywood, which has been making a fuss lately about all of the companies trying to clean up movies.
You have probably heard of companies like CleanFlicks or MovieMask, which make products to clean up the foul messages in today's movies. Hollywood heavyweights have filed suit against some of these companies because they're interfering with directors' "art."
Stop and think for a second how absurd this is: For about the first 40 years of the movie business, you could go to a film without having to see any sex or violence or anything objectionable to young children. Then the movie business decided it wasn't "artistic" to adopt these limits. These days, the movie business has descended to appealing to the worst of human nature in the hopes of allowing its directors to be "artistic" and at the same time earn some big bucks.
But surprise: the most popular movies are also the ones that have the least objectionable material to families. This is common sense, because if you make a family-friendly film chances are mom and dad will take their kids too, and, what do you know, three or four or five tickets brings in more revenue than two tickets. Still, year after year, Hollywood refuses to recognize this and continues to churn out garbage in the name of "art."
So a few small companies are letting the free market do its magic. They are taking films and deleting the bad words, nudity, sex scenes and extreme violence and then reselling the clean movies to the public. And they are having tremendous success.
Let's see how many Meridian readers find this scene familiar: you're watching a PG or PG-13 rated movie with your children about, say, horses. All of a sudden, the hero says an R-rated word. And then the two main characters, who are not married, start having R-rated interactions. You run to the VCR or try to find the stop button on the remote, but it's too late. Your kids have already had imprinted on their young minds the R-rated words and actions. You can't erase them, and your kids have completely forgotten that the movie was about horses in the first place.
It's moments like these when I begin to have angry thoughts about Hollywood directors. The rest of the movie is fine, of course. There are only about two minutes of the entire movie that are objectionable. Why couldn't they just leave those objectionable parts out in the first place, or at least offer to sell me a version of the movie without all the garbage?
So, when I heard about CleanFlicks and its ilk I was ecstatic. Finally, a company that understands my needs! No more surprises during movie watching!
And, right on cue the big guys from Hollywood make it very clear they don't want anybody watching clean movies. In Hollywood's view, it's either dirty movies, or no movies.
The Directors Guild of America has sued CleanFlicks claiming that it and other companies violate trademark law when they buy a new film, edit it and resell it.
Now, let me see if I get this right. CleanFlicks pays for a dirty film, cleans it up and resells it. Hollywood gets its money from the film. The film becomes CleanFlicks' property once it buys it. But Hollywood believes it has the right to prevent CleanFlicks from doing whatever it wants with its own property. Cleanflicks is not copying the movie and reselling them, which clearly would be illegal. Everybody should be happy: the movie business gets its money for the video or DVD, and I get a clean movie. In fact, if anything, Hollywood should be ecstatic: CleanFlicks is helping it get revenue it would not otherwise get. There is no way I would buy most R-rated movies, but if a company like CleanFlicks has cleaned it up, chances are high I would.
Filmmakers say they can't allow companies to alter its movies because in theory they could take a tame movie and make it even worse. They claim that soon Bambi would become pornographic. There's only one problem with this argument: the demand for a pornographic Bambi is already being filled by all of the thousands of dirty movies already in the marketplace. The reason that CleanFlicks exists in the first place is that there is an unfulfilled demand for clean movies.
Hollywood has gotten itself into an awful mess. Not only is the movie industry saying we can only watch unfit movies, but it is saying it's not interested in the extra revenue it could earn by allowing others to make its movies more family-friendly.
The suicidal behavior by Hollywood is even worse than it may appear: Hollywood already produces edited versions of many movies for television and airplane flights. Obviously, there's a market for these cleaner versions of the films, and directors are not jumping out of tall buildings at the idea of their "art" being offended so their movies can be shown on television and airplanes. But these cleaner versions of the films are not widely available, so it doesn't solve my home viewing problem.
So, here's what modern-day culture has descended to:
A) Hollywood would rather lose money in the name of "art" than make movies that are family-friendly in the first place.
B) Even when Hollywood has recognized that there is a market for clean films (TV and airplanes), the movie business refuses to make these versions available.
C) When companies recognize there is a demand for clean films, Hollywood launches lawsuits to prevent companies from making filth-free movies, even when these companies are helping sell more movies and increase Hollywood revenues.
Go figure. No wonder they call Hollywood tinsel town. It's a place of flim-flam reasoning.
About the Author: Geoffrey Biddulph lives and works in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A 1985 graduate of Stanford University in California, he worked for several years as a professional journalist for publications including the Miami Herald, the Arizona Republic, the Economist and others. He became interested in telecommunications in 1992 and began a career in sales and marketing that led him to working for Embratel, South America's largest long distance carrier. He is the First Counselor in the Bishopric of the Jardim Botanico ward in Rio de Janeiro.
A trade in cleaning up "offensive" movies has outraged directors. They better get used to it, writes Bruce Elder. Nowadays everyone has the ability to tamper with films.
Nothing is more satisfying than seeing hypocrites exposed. It really doesn't matter who does it, or even how it is done, the results are always the same. Endless explanations, righteous indignation, pleas for fair play and an awful lot of people looking very, very silly.
Such is the situation in Hollywood at the moment. A bunch of high-profile directors - Robert Altman, Robert Redford, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg and others - as part of the Directors Guild of America, have taken legal action against an organisation called CleanFlicks, which, wait for it, has dared to remove the offensive language, violence and sex from their movies.
The directors are crying "censorship". And, by any objective measure, it is. But censorship has always been a bit of a joke. Everyone wants to suppress ideas and images they find offensive and, with few exceptions, this year's censorship is next year's absurdity. It is always a question of degree and nuance and the dividing line between acceptable and offensive is never the same for two people.
Who, in their right mind, could seriously defend the farcical stance taken by a New Haven school as recently as 1995, when they effectively censored Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it mentioned the word "nigger"? And what about the equally absurd situation in China, when they banned Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland because the state censors felt that animals shouldn't use human language?
But back to the present. A chain of stores in America known as CleanFlicks - owned by Ray Lines, a Mormon who operates out of Pleasant Grove, Utah - is doing a roaring business selling and hiring cleaned-up videos to people who want to watch latest-release movies without the sex and violence. These are not marginal films. They're not trying to clean up the The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, some snuff flick or Debbie Does Dallas.
They are producing a wholesome version of Titanic by cutting a nude Kate Winslet from the original movie. There's a version of Gladiator with no gory bits and Saving Private Ryan has no bad language and very little blood and body fragments. Basic Instinct is offered sans Sharon Stone crossing (or is it opening?) her legs, and even Schindler's List has some of the scenes carefully exorcised.
In its first 18 months, CleanFlicks opened 65 stores in the western states of the US and the business was so successful that it cleaned up more than 500 "offensive" movies. Such was the demand for these "pure" artefacts that CleanFlicks was charging $US12 ($20) to $US15 to rent what, with all the naughty bits intact, could be rented down the road for as little as $US2.
Ray Lines, who is rapidly becoming a very rich man, defends his enthusiastic cuts with all the usual banalities. "I'm a businessman. I satisfy the demand of customers whose values I share. I have great respect for James Cameron, the director of Titanic, and Steven Spielberg, who made Schindler's List. It's just that I want my seven kids to view great movies, and I don't think they need to watch all that sex, to listen to all those insults and to look at all that gore," he said in a newspaper interview last year.
And, before you start saying "hey, Ray, with seven kids there must have been a fair amount of sex in your house and gore on the delivery table over the years", let's look at the hypocrisy of the directors.
Film, and particularly the Hollywood dream factory, has really invited this kind of tampering because it's been allowing alterations to its masterpieces for decades. How many times does free-to-air TV screen "modified for television" versions of movies, where the language or sex has been cut because it is deemed to be offensive?
What about airline movies, which come under the censor's knife the moment someone offers an expletive or gets undressed?
These are the overt examples of directors and film companies endorsing and approving censorship. What about all those movies that, after the Hays Office censorship code (a production code drafted by the Will Hays-led Motion Picture Producers and Distributors association) was introduced in the early 1920s, were modified to conform with some bankrupt notion of "community standards"? What about those movies that are cut and mangled so the distributor can remove them from an R or X rating and have them seen by teenagers?
A more subtle and insidious form of censorship occurs when a film is shown, before it is commercially released, to a bevy of hairdressers, truck drivers, secretaries and labourers in Dogsbody, Arkansas, who all declare that the death of the hero in the final reel is unacceptable. Bowing to this offensive form of pre-release censorship, the movie is changed so there is a happy ending.
And what about those ego-mad directors who, driven by an excess of hubris and an inability to see that their creative output is the product of dozens and dozens of people (and a big hello to the best boy and the gaffer), create a "director's cut" that ruins the original. Have you seen Francis Ford Coppola's reworking of Apocalypse Now? And the director's cut of Cinema Paradiso, the Academy Award-winning gem by Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore, so defiles the original that it calls out for directors to be barred from ever going near an editing suite with their creations.
Scorsese has argued that "not every picture is meant to be seen by everyone - especially children. The random alteration and distribution of these by companies without the consent or involvement of the film's legal owners and the filmmakers is unacceptable and destroys the credibility of our films and our names."
Oh, please. Martin, old boy, have you ever seen any of Spielberg's movies? Go and hire 1941 or A.I. and you'll realise that Spielberg "destroys the credibility" of his films before they get anywhere near a multiplex. It's all sentimental tosh - apart, maybe, from Duel. Let's be fair, "credibility", "artistic integrity" and "Hollywood director" don't sit happily in the same sentence. It's easy not to like what CleanFlicks is doing, but that kind of argument has little power or validity.
In fact, so awful was Spielberg's A.I. that an enterprising young film-maker, operating out of Sacramento in California and rejoicing in the name of DJ Hupp, got stuck into A.I., cut out about 30 minutes of sentimentality ("Only 30 minutes?" I hear you cry) and changed the ending in an attempt to rescue Stanley Kubrick's original vision. Hupp calls it A.I.: The Kubrick Edit. It's available free on the internet.
What Hupp has done is really at the nub of this argument. Given the new and wonderful world of DVD computer editing, the actual skills involved in altering a movie - be they trying to inject a bit of panache and integrity, or cutting out the naughty bits - are pretty easy. Buy yourself an Apple computer and iMovie, digitise a movie, and you can cut away till you turn The Ten Commandments into a three-minute Tropfest entry - if that's what you want to do.
The real question is: "Is this the ultimate democratisation of film or is it the ultimate act of artistic sabotage and censorship?"
Some experts, such as Siva Vaidhyanathan, an assistant professor of culture and communications at New York University and author of Copyrights and Copywrongs, are in no doubt. Speaking to The Village Voice last October, he argued: "We're seeing massive empowerment at the ground level, the sort of empowerment that frightens the elite. It messes with artistic integrity, but allowing people to make their own artistic decisions in their homes can only help to deflate the artistic pretensions that guide too much of our gut reactions to copyright."
His observations were echoed in the same publication by Paul Weiler, a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of Entertainment, Media and the Law. He noted: "There is a qualitative difference between someone making changes in a whole host of free copies from the original, and someone making changes in a whole host of originals they've bought. [CleanFlicks] bought these copies and, if consumers want to use their computers to edit out something, clearly they have the right to do that."
The answer to any form of censorship is to laugh at the stupidity of those who want to alter and protect. It never really works and it exposes those who would be our moral guardians to justifiable ridicule.
When Mark Twain learnt, from a librarian, that the Brooklyn Public Library had removed Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer from the children's department because they were deemed to be "bad examples for ingenuous youth", he wrote: "Dear Sir ... I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean.
"I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean, sweet breath again this side of the grave."
Personally, I'm all for getting iMovie up and running and doing a bit of work on Cecil B.de Mille's The Ten Commandments. I think I'll call it Moses Chucks Rocks and submit it for next year's Tropfest.