Sanitized movies redux

In the months since I initially sounded off on edited movies, the face of the entire edited movie landscape has been permanently changed.

Last month a federal judge ruled that companies like CleanFlicks and CleanFilms, which produce alternate versions of popular Hollywood films scrubbed clean of excessive violence, profanity, and sexual material, are in violation of copyright law and must cease such activities immediately. Since producing edited films is at the core of both companies’ business models, they will be forced to close their doors for good at the end of August.


Living in Utah, with access to local media outlets (which have run numerous stories about the ruling and its effects) as well as the Internet, gives me a unique perspective on this issue. DVDFile cheered the judicial decree as some sort of victory of free expression over the outrageous efforts of religious extremists.

Whatever. As I pointed out in my previous post on this issue, "artistic freedom" has nothing to do with it. Only Steven Spielberg, one of the directors involved in the lawsuit, has actually prohibited any of his films (Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan) from being broadcast on national television in any edited form. It’s well-known that motion picture studios provide alternate cuts of movies for airlines and TV networks. It’s all about the Benjamins, you see, and I resolutely maintain that if CleanFlicks and CleanFilms had been giving the studios a cut of the revenues from the beginning that this would have been a moot issue. Hollywood just can’t stand the fact that other people are making money from their products without asking permission first – which is entirely understandable. If I had created a work of art, I’d certainly want to give my approval to any edits that were being made to make it more palatable for a certain audience. The point here isn’t to debate the definition of "art" (which, unfortunately, some people have reduced the issue down to), but it should go without saying that we should respect the artist’s usage of the term to describe his work, even if we have a fundamental disagreement about what that work portrays. We can respect others’ opinions while privately disagreeing about the issue.

What’s especially interesting to me is the community’s reaction to this whole thing. Here’s a bit from a Deseret News article that had me rolling my eyes:

Ben Kartchner rifled through three large tubs of movies labeled "Edited" at Cougar Video Friday evening, picking over what was left of the store’s "clean" collection.

"The Island," "House of Wax," "Date Movie," "Tristan and Isolde," "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" — the tubs were stuffed with current blockbusters and classics, all edited squeaky clean and free of profanity, sex and violence.

Kartchner comes here frequently with his wife to rent edited flicks, which they feel align better with their values. In fact, cleaned-up videos are almost all they watch now.

They’ll soon have to figure out a new strategy for finding movies scoured of unwanted scenes, however.

After a federal judge ruled last week that the sanitization of films violates federal copyright law, nearly all video stores in Utah that offer a selection of edited movies have pulled their collections off the shelves.

Some stores have announced they’ll soon close for good.

Hollywood producers "are going to lose a lot of people who don’t want to watch rated-R movies," said Veronica Kartchner, Ben’s wife. "If you can take the bad stuff out, you should. I guess we’ll just have to not watch movies any more, which is sad, because there are a lot of good movies out there." (emphasis mine)

Well, that’s a rather extremist position. I recommend that the Kartchners check out the movies section at their local library to re-instill their faith in film.

Then there’s this quote from the same article:

"People have been ordering $200, $300 worth of movies," [Mandy Botts, manager of three Clean Flicks movie rental stores in Orem and Provo] said. "What else can they do? They know it’s the last chance they’ll have. This is Satan at his best."

Say what? Are you trying to tell me that to watch an edited version of The 40-Year-Old Virgin is to draw nearer to God, while watching the original version is to make my pact with the devil? Wow, I didn’t know that CleanFlicks was the only thing keeping me safe from an everlasting damnation. This truly is cause for alarm!

Here’s an interesting rebuttal from a local reader:

The determination of CleanFlicks to continue its editing of movies despite a court ruling that doing so violates copyright is quite an exercise in selective morality. The simple fact is that creators have an internationally recognized right to have their work seen only in a form to which they have agreed.

Is it OK to edit out sex and language? Try the opposite. Would it be OK to edit some nudity and profanity into "Mobsters and Mormons" or "Church Ball"?

There’s your answer.

In speaking with others about this issue, the question naturally arises: "Don’t I have the right not to watch objectionable material in my own home?" And the answer is an emphatic yes, you do! But it has to be within the bounds of law. It’s worth noting that the purchase of a CD or DVD does not grant a person ownership of the material contained on the disc. Rather, it grants a person a license to use the material for personal home use. The LDS Church is very explicit about this fact on the packaging for their LDS Scriptures CD-ROMs.

So what constitutes personal home use? I’m no expert on music copyright issues, but the Family Movie Act of 2005 clarifies the issue as it relates to editing film content for viewing:

[M]aking limited portions of audio or video content of motion pictures imperceptible by or for the owner or other lawful possessor of an authorized copy of that motion picture for private home viewing, and the use of technology therefor, is not an infringement of copyright or of any right under the Trademark Act of 1946.

So there you have it. If you want to create your own version of a film using your own technology, you’re more than welcome to do it. You just can’t distribute that copy to anyone else. This law also protects ClearPlay, which creates downloadable filters to skip past the naughty bits in movies without physically altering the films themselves. It’s like paying someone to fast-forward through the parts you don’t like. (Not that it doesn’t present an interesting social dilemma for members of the LDS Church in areas like Utah and Idaho, which you can read about here.)

So, if you want to watch films without the filth, it looks like you’ve got three options.

  1. Buy the necessary computer hardware/software and make them yourself. Two drawbacks: you have to actually expose yourself to the bad stuff to know how to edit it out, and you can’t sell your splice-‘n-dice version to anyone else or rebroadcast it anywhere but your own home.
  2. Buy a ClearPlay subscription. Aside from the social dilemma it presents for LDS Church members, there’s an interesting moral dilemma which I’ll address in a moment.
  3. Don’t watch anything containing content you find objectionable. There are a few great websites (ScreenIt.com and Kids-in-Mind, for instance) which provide fairly detailed descriptions of all the violence, language, and sexual material in nearly every movie released over the last 15 years. In addition, there’s a huge library of older films that needs to be continually re-discovered by modern audiences. The library is a terrific (and usually free) resource for these movies.

Personally (and this may come as somewhat of a surprise), I’m least fond of option (2). And I say this as one who had a membership to CleanFilms for nearly a year, so I’ve seen my fair share of edited DVDs. One thing which ClearPlay, CleanFlicks, and CleanFilms all have in common is that the edited movies they produce (regardless of the technology used to achieve that aim) are cobbled together by other people. How would you like to be part of the army of technicians charged with watching nearly every R- or PG-13-rated film for the purpose of editing out objectionable material? Watching and then re-watching, hearing over and over the same stuff so as to create a seamless splice for the sake of your customers . . . man, talk about having a carnal fixation. Whenever I watch a film, I try not to let that stuff sink in too much – but that’s what these people are paid to look for! So, is it okay only if these people aren’t LDS? What if they are LDS (one of the creators of the ClearPlay concept is a BYU graduate)? Are they wicked people for watching so many R-rated movies, even though it’s a service to their customers who want their entertainment choices to remain "squeaky-clean"? Is that not taking advantage of another’s morality to protect your own sanctimony? Personally, I think it’s better for no one to be subjected to that stuff. That will send a clearer message to Hollywood than any amount of "movie sanitizing" will.

Of all the opinions expressed on this issue, the one that resonates most with my own is this one:

With all the recent commentary from the religious-right on the CleanFlicks ruling and the profanity that plagues the streets, I’m rather disappointed in the level of ignorance displayed by such pandering. I’m just as disgusted as anyone about the sleaze and mindless schlock that the media present us, but I’m tired of hearing complaints from the soapbox about how the world needs to bend to the desires of the conservative will. Stop trying to restructure that which you find offensive to fit your fancy, and start avoiding it altogether. Remaining morally upright might have less to do with outlawing the worldly and more to do with an ability to walk away from the world.

Amen!

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