You might be a 1990s kid if you’ve had this experience: One day, flipping through your netflix queue, you see a movie you loved so much as a kid that you spent the vhs. Yearning for a little oasis of nostalgia in the 2017 monsoon of bad news, you turn on the movie and settle into the sofa to relive some childhood memories.
wait, you think. where did this scene come from? oh wow, was this movie always so violent? what did you just say? You don’t remember so many swear words. are you losing your mind?
finally, after panicking about the state of your memory and reality itself, you realize what happened: the version of this movie in your headcanon was the TV edit, and you, who had never seen Reality Until now, I didn’t realize that in the original american pie, michelle doesn’t announce that once at band camp she put a flute in her mouth, or that the famously hard line wasn’t “yippee-ki- yay, mr. hawk!”
censored movies produced for television broadcast, and then invariably recorded on vhs for repeated rewatching, are, for most people, just a fun part of growing up in the 1990s. but those same Movies, along with the broader push to “intimidate” or modify movies for content, have been at the center of a number of controversies over the past quarter century, from heated arguments between executives and film directors to full-blown arguments. . legal battles.
so-called “clean” entertainment is popular and profitable
There is plenty of evidence that Americans have an appetite for “clean” movies. mainstream movies with minimal levels of objectionable content often perform impressively at the box office; beauty and the beast is still the no. 1 highest-grossing movie in America so far this year by a healthy margin (and the relatively tame Wonder Woman is in second place). The distinctive Movie Channel, which airs standard clean movies, often posts very high ratings, especially around the holidays when families spend time together. and the faith-based film market, whose starkest indicator is a lack of “objectionable” content, continues to grow, often racking up large numbers at the box office despite lukewarm critical reception.
It’s understandable that both movie studios and businessmen want to capitalize on this appetite, as it could expand the market for a particular film to those with more sensitive or conservative film tastes. but meeting that demand essentially means creating alternate versions of existing movies. that can take the form of consumers buying the “regular” version of the movie and editing it themselves or paying to have it edited; pay for technology that edits movies on the go; or watch an already existing clean version, such as those made for airplane or television broadcasts.
The Directors Guild of America, along with many individual directors, have repeatedly spoken out against the practice of modifying the content of existing films. One such outcry from directors came in June of this year, when Sony Pictures announced that it was testing a “clean version” initiative that would allow customers who purchased films from a select group of 24 to view the edit of the films on the airline or television, with some of the violence, nudity, profanity, and innuendo removed or creatively edited to make the film more palatable to a wider audience. Sony’s plan was to offer “clean” versions of movies like 50 First Dates, Captain Phillips, Every Spider-Man Movie, and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby alongside their raw counterparts. the motto: “adapted for a wider audience”.
While the proposed edit would have had little effect on some films, such as the Spider-Man films, it would have a major impact on others. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Sony planned a clean version of Adam McKay’s 2008 raunchy comedy Step Brothers, starring John C. Reilly and the film’s co-writer Will Ferrell as a pair of middle-aged losers forced to become friends when their parents get married. the clean version of the film removes 152 instances of profanity, 91 instances of sexual content, and 22 instances of violence. the stepbrothers would remain, but since much of their humor is based on smut and slapstick, the viewing experience wouldn’t be the same at all.
Immediately, several filmmakers objected, both those whose films were scheduled to be included in the program, and McKay, whose representative told the Hollywood Reporter that he had not agreed to the inclusion, as well as those who were not included in the program. initiative, but was opposed nonetheless quite colorfully:
sony soon backed down, with sony home entertainment president man jit singh saying the company believed it had permission from the filmmakers to include the edited-for-television version of the movies (not normally sold to consumers ) in the package. “But if any of them are not happy or have reconsidered, we will discontinue them for their movies,” he continued. Meanwhile, the Directors Guild of America demanded that Sony go further and remove the clean version of all films from availability until each film’s director has given permission, rather than simply promising to remove them at the director’s request.
The protest seems to have worked: Sony’s clean build initiative seems to have disappeared. The show’s website went dark around June 16 (a cached version is still accessible) and a search for the show on the websites of both Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and Sony’s parent company returns no relevant results.
but while this particular skirmish between the dga and sony has apparently been resolved, it is representative and informed by a decades-long battle over who owns a film, who can modify it, how copyright laws are enforced under changes in technology, and whether the public is allowed to obtain and view movies that have had parts removed to meet individual content preferences.
People who grew up in more conservative families, or who have friends from conservative families, may remember that this type of editing predates sony’s failed attempt to provide “clean” versions of mainstream movies. mainstream, content-edited movies have been a part of American culture for decades. and it all started with some enterprising parents and the humble vhs.
people have been re-editing movies for a long time
almost since the advent of vhs and video recording technology, people with conservative film taste (lowercase c) have been creating edited versions of movies.
A young man I spoke to about this, who ended up studying film both in college and grad school, fondly remembered his father, an evangelical pastor, editing Joe Dante’s 1998 film Little Soldiers, to satisfy the insatiable desire of his 6-year-old son. to watch the movie.
His father confirmed the story. “There were a couple of scenes too scary and a couple of bad words, so I bought the vhs and made a ‘clean’ version,” he wrote to me. “he accidentally left a swear word, but let it slide.”
The benefit of editing a movie for your kids, rather than sitting next to them on the couch and fast-forwarding through the objectionable parts, is obvious to any parent. children have superhuman ability and a desire to rewatch the same movie eleven billion times, as parents of frozen fans know. if you can hand them a copy of a clean movie, you don’t have to personally sit through it until every line of dialogue haunts your nightmares.
but not all parents have the technical knowledge to edit a vhs tape on their own, so some enterprising companies jumped at the chance. In 1998, a video store called Sunrise Family Video in American Fork, Utah, which did not rent R-rated movies, produced ostensibly R-rated copies of Titanic by removing a scene in which Kate Winslet poses nude and another suggesting that the characters from winslet and dicaprio have sex. customers would buy a copy of the vhs, bring it in at dawn, and pay $5 to receive the edited version. for an additional $3, the sunrise would remove any other scenes the customer found objectionable. The New York Times reported that Sunrise received more than 1,000 requests for the edited film.
because the customer bought the vhs from the company that distributed the film (in the case of titanic, paramount pictures), people like the owners of sunrise could claim that these edits are not illegal piracy. rather, they were simply providing a service to their customers, who were still paying a significant sum for the film.
Carol Biesinger, owner of Sunrise, told the Times that she would stop editing if Paramount proved that what it was doing was illegal, presumably in court. “I don’t mean to break the law,” she told the newspaper. “We’re just trying to fill a demand.”
by 2002, the number of mainstream movie editing services had grown enough to be worth studio attention. Their concern, they said, was not simply that people were cutting out bits of film they found objectionable; it was that emerging technology made it possible to substantially alter movies, and that these technologies could leave a larger imprint on intellectual property.
As Marshall Herskovitz, who produced films like Legends of the Fall and Blood Diamond, told the New York Times in 2002, “As long as something like digital information exists, it can be changed. So, as a society, we have to face what will be the meaning of intellectual property in the future”.
There are two approaches to creating “clean film” from mainstream film, and only one is currently considered legal
sunshine family video was one of several companies around the turn of the millennium that capitalized on the desire for clean film, usually using one of two methods that still exist in some form today. in one, the company edits a film and offers it for purchase or rental to the customer (or edits a purchased film for a fee). in the other, viewers pay for technologies that allow them to make those edits on the fly.
US law treats these two approaches differently, and two cases from about a decade ago help illustrate why.
one of the best-known companies offering edited movies was cleanflicks, a utah-based company founded in 2000 that was shut down by court ruling in 2006. cleanflicks operated much like sunshine family video, but at larger scale. customers purchased the film (often on dvd) and mailed it to cleanflicks, which edited out the objectionable content, burned a new dvd of the edited copy, and mailed the two films to the customer, “packaging” the two into one package only. the way sony’s clean build program intended to do it.
several directors (including martin scorsese, steven soderbergh, robert altman, michael mann, robert redford, steven spielberg and sydney pollack), along with the dga and eight major hollywood production companies and studios, opposed this practice by cleanflicks and some similar companies. In 2002, noise from the movie business led publishing companies to file pretrial litigation in the United States District Court seeking a declaration that their work fell within the “fair use” clause of the law. copyright and therefore did not infringe copyright; Meanwhile, as defendants in the case, the studios cross-suited, alleging that the publishing companies were infringing on their copyrights.
soderbergh et al v. Colorado Clean Moves et al. dragged along for a long time. But finally, in 2006, the United States District Court in Colorado ruled in favor of the directors and the studios, writing in its opinion that Cleanflicks had infringed copyright law. (In 2005, Mel Gibson also sued Clean Flicks for removing three minutes from his version of the Passion of the Christ.) the company went out of business, and though it reopened in 2007 as a provider of family-friendly movies, its website and editing service are now long gone.
companies like Salt Lake City-based clearplay offer a different kind of service, selling a special blu-ray and dvd player that filters disc content on the fly, based on controls set by a parent . So, technically, clearplay movies aren’t “edited” like cleanflicks movies were. their service is more akin to fast-forwarding through parts of a movie, but with the added benefit that no one in the family has to watch the movie first to decide what needs to be censored.
clearplay was also the subject of a lawsuit in 2002 brought by the directors, the dga and major movie studios. But the lawsuit was dismissed by the federal district court judge in Colorado and protected by Congress in the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act of 2005, signed by George W. bush, which had two parts. the first targeted copyright infringement, specifically shooting movies in a movie theater and leaking copies of movies and software before their release dates. The second created a special exemption for services like ClearPlay, which edited movies “on the fly,” rather than creating a new, censored version of the movie.
the family entertainment and copyright law was passed a year before the case against cleanflicks was decided, and it also played a role in the lawsuit against cleanflicks: the judge noted that by passing the law, congress had only protected on-the-fly editing services, rather than “fixed copies of altered works” that cleanflicks created.
Thus, Clearplay’s editing services were protected from the fate of cleanflicks by law, and the company has continued to evolve its service: Clearplay can now also filter movies rented from Amazon through a Chrome browser extension; until recently they offered that same service through google play. And in December 2016, ClearPlay announced a partnership with PureFlix, which is one of the leading producers and distributors of “inspirational” and Christian family films in the United States. (PureFlix also operates a consumer streaming service for faith-based movies, with a library that includes not only its own productions, like the Christian and politically conservative indie hit God’s Not Dead, but also compliant movies and streaming series. their conservative standards).
partnering with clearplay allows pureflix customers to filter out any instances of potentially offensive language in the company’s already spotlessly clean library. A press release announcing the association noted that the service, for example, would allow families to silence uses of the word “hell” in the series heartland.
another service extends the challenge to streaming movies and, more importantly, TV
However, the cleanflicks and clearplay decisions weren’t the end of the discussion. In the years since the cases were decided, streaming video through services like Netflix, Hbogo, and Amazon has become a massive part of the home entertainment market. therefore, filtering and editing of the entertainment provided through these streaming services have naturally entered the discussion.
A service similar in nature to ClearPlay, the Provo-based Vidangel, which seems a little more irreverent than its cousins, with the catchphrase “watch how you want”, has recounted a number of legal battles in the recent past on its blog integral part of the company, and is actively working to challenge the legal precedents that currently govern leaked movies.
If the concern about legal precedents on the vidangel website seems unusual, there’s a reason. Previously, the company used an innovative and ethically thorny workaround to sell edited movies: customers bought a physical copy of a dvd for $20, then set their filters using vidangel’s technology, watched it via streaming (or physical dvd ) provided by vidangel, and then “sell” it to vidangel for $19, thus effectively paying $1 for each movie they watched without owning the movie afterwards. the net effect was similar to renting an edited movie for $1, although some of the movies might not be available for digital rental through normal means. (This differed from cleanflicks, which edited copies purchased by customers and then returned those physical copies to customers.)
In December 2016, a federal judge ordered the company closed following arguments from Disney, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Bros., who argued that this constituted copyright infringement under United States law. Copyright and Family Entertainment Act 2005. Vidangel continued to broadcast in defiance of the order for two weeks before shutting down the service. In January 2017, Vidangel was held in contempt of court and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.
But the company appealed the decision, and on June 8, the 9th Circuit Court heard arguments in the dispute between Vidangel and Disney. Vidangel’s lawyer asked the court to annul the injunction against the company. that request was denied in early August because, according to the judge, he did not have enough information to make a decision. The injunction was upheld in an appeals court in August, though because Disney subsidiaries are not affected by the injunction, Vidangel was still able to announce in early September that it would add Marvel movies (Marvel is a Disney subsidiary). ) to your catalog.
however, this and other content is now provided by vidangel through new media. After arguments before the 9th Circuit Court, and around the same time that Sony announced its clean version initiative, Vidangel launched a new service, which works in conjunction with services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO to filter movies and, in particular, TV shows by muting and skipping scenes, based on parental controls set by the user.
TV hasn’t been as big a part of this conversation as movies, although a company called TV Guardian has worked for decades using more current set-top boxes and technology to detect objectionable words in subtitles and filter out profanity. in real time. (The limitations of this approach, according to some people who grew up with a TV guardian in the house, could lead to hilarity; the word “balls” would be muted, making watching sports fun, and “Jesus Christ” would not filter through. even if a character used the name to swear).
There’s also the v-chip, a technology that allows parents to block TV shows based on their rating category, which has been included by law in small TVs made for the US market since 1999, and in all televisions from January 1st. 2000. This was prompted by the 1996 telecommunications law signed into law by bill clinton, in part as a ploy to attract voters to the clinton/gore ticket during that year’s re-election. But the v-chip only blocks TV shows based on general ratings set by the TV industry; it does not edit or filter individual programs.
then, the fact that the new vidangel service is able to filter not only movies, but also TV shows produced and broadcast on services that offer premium TV, such as game of thrones (hbo), transparent (amazon prime) and stranger things (netflix), represents a huge leap forward for technology. clearplay does not filter tv shows unless the consumer owns or rents them through a service like itunes or amazon digital. But a lot of today’s most popular TV shows are only available to subscribers to streaming services, and Vidangel’s technology aims to prevent that.
The future of Vidangel remains in doubt. As of September 1, he was trying a new tactic: filing a lawsuit seeking declaratory relief in his conservative-minded home state of Utah instead of California. but the bigger question still remains: does it fall under the “on the go” category protected by copyright and family entertainment law, or will the courts find that these are more of clean movies? And what happens if you win your appeals and filtering services become the norm for people who watch streaming entertainment?
the implications of the leaked movies and television go beyond questions of legality
While most of the battles to censor movies have focused on copyright and how much control an artist can have over their final product, there are other considerations worth considering that the legal system is not set up to deal with. handle. any technology that allows an end user to filter a movie by one content type could theoretically be modified to allow them to filter by any content type. technology is neutral; it is the developers and users who determine the final results.
in a sense, all objections to sex, nudity, drugs, violence, and profanity could be characterized as “trigger” filtering, so there are other types of trigger content that could be filtered, such as rape, abuse , politics, racial slurs or racist activity, mentions of specific people or groups of people, and more.
Filtering services suggest a potential world where everyone can see a different version of a movie, based on their personal content preferences. filtering could become sophisticated and deeply granular, allowing for massive edits that could even transform the film’s arc, themes, or message. one person’s definition of what is “clean” and what is “objectionable” may not match another’s, or even have no coherent moral basis.
This could strongly discourage the creation of movies and TV shows for the general market. What artist would want to make a film with a prominent Muslim character, knowing that this character could be leaked by an Islamophobic viewer? who would want to make an action movie with an environmental message, knowing that people could push a button and end environmentalism, leaving only destruction? or what if a filmmaker didn’t intend to convey a message in a film, but a creative edit put it in anyway, with that filmmaker’s name still attached?
These may be worst-case extrapolations, but they speak to a deeper cultural concern. In an increasingly polarized age, the TV shows and movies we watch as a society—even in an age of specialized entertainment—office numbers—they’re one of the smallest and smallest things we can point to as a common experience.
There are certainly parallel cultures right next to each other, filtered by our geographic location, our taste, and the various ethnic, religious, and fan-based subcultures we belong to. But for many people this year has resulted in the realization that two people can see the same events take place and have very different interpretations of the “truth” based on what they saw on a television screen. as technologies advance, leaking and reissue could further deepen the divide, creating the possibility that two parallel entertainment realities exist as well. we can watch the same movie, but we definitely won’t watch the same movie.