You might be a child of the 1990s if you’ve had this experience: One day, flicking through your Netflix queue, you spot a movie you loved so much as a kid that you wore out the VHS. Craving a little oasis of nostalgia in 2017’s bad-news monsoon, you fire up the movie and settle into the couch to relive some childhood memories.
Hold up, you think. Where did this scene come from? Oh, wow, was this movie always this violent? What did he just say? You don’t remember this much swearing. Are you losing your mind?
Eventually, 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 — having never gotten around to seeing the real thing until now — didn’t realize that in the original American Pie, Michelle doesn’t announce that one time at band camp she put a flute in her mouth, or that the famous Die Hard line wasn’t “Yippee-ki-yay, Mr. Falcon!”
Censored films produced for TV broadcast — and then, invariably, taped onto VHS for repeated rewatchings — are, for most people, just an amusing part of growing up in the 1990s. But those same films, along with the broader impulse to “bowdlerize” or modify movies for content issues, have been at the center of a number of controversies in the past quarter-century, from heated arguments among movie executives and directors to full-on legal battles.
So-called “clean” entertainment is popular and profitable
There’s plenty of evidence that Americans have an appetite for “cleaned-up” movies. Mainstream films with minimum levels of objectionable content are often impressive box office performers; Beauty and the Beast is still the No. 1 highest grossing film in America so far this year by a healthy margin (and the relatively tame Wonder Woman is in the second spot). The Hallmark Movie Channel, which airs boilerplate clean films, often posts very high ratings, especially around the holidays, when families spend time together. And the faith-based movie market — of which the most marked indicator is a lack of any “objectionable” content — continues to grow, often raking in huge numbers at the box office despite tepid critical reception.
Understandably, both movie studios and entrepreneurs want to capitalize on this appetite, since it might expand the market for a particular film to those with more sensitive or conservative taste in movies. But satisfying that demand means essentially creating alternate versions of existing movies. That can take the form of consumers purchasing the “regular” version of the movie and editing it themselves or paying to have it edited; paying for technology that edits films on the fly; or watching an already-existing cleaned-up version, like those made for airplane or television airings.
The Directors Guild of America, along with many individual directors, have repeatedly spoken out against the practice of modifying existing films for content. One such directorial outcry came in June of this year, when Sony Pictures announced it was piloting a “Clean Version” initiative that would allow customers who purchased films from a selected group of 24 to view the airline or TV edit of the movies, with some of the violence, nudity, profanity, and innuendo taken out or creatively edited to make the film more palatable to a broader audience. Sony’s plan was to offer “clean” versions of movies like 50 First Dates, Captain Phillips, all of the Spider-Man films, and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby bundled alongside their unedited counterparts. The tagline: “Adapted for a wider audience.”
While the proposed editing would have had little effect on some films, like the Spider-Man movies, it would make a big dent in others. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Sony planned a Clean Version of Adam McKay’s 2008 raunchy comedy Step Brothers, which stars 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 marry each other. The Clean Version of the film cuts out 152 instances of bad language, 91 instances of sexual content, and 22 instances of violence. Step Brothers would remain, but given how much of its humor draws on bawdiness and slapstick, the viewing experience wouldn’t be the same at all.
Immediately, several filmmakers objected, both those whose movies were slated to be included in the program — like McKay, whose representative told the Hollywood Reporter that he hadn’t agreed to the inclusion — and those who weren’t included in the initiative, but rather colorfully objected anyway:
Holy shit please don't do this to our movies. Thanks. https://t.co/0lpoESaIQd— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) June 6, 2017
Sony soon backed down, with Sony Home Entertainment president Man Jit Singh stating that the company believed they had permission from the filmmakers to include the edited-for-TV version of the films (typically not sold to consumers) in the bundle. “But if any of them are unhappy or have reconsidered, we will discontinue it for their films,” he continued. The Directors Guild of America, meanwhile, demanded that Sony go further and remove the Clean Version of all the films from availability until the director of each film had given permission, rather than simply promising to remove them upon the director’s request.
The outcry seems to have worked: Sony’s Clean Versions initiative appears to have been scrubbed from existence. The program’s website went dark around June 16 (a cached version is still accessible) and a search for the program on the websites of both Sony Pictures Home Entertainment and the Sony parent company does not turn up any relevant results.
But while this particular skirmish between the DGA and Sony has seemingly been resolved, it’s both representative of and informed by a decades-long battle over the questions of who owns a film, who can modify it, how copyright laws apply under changing technologies, and whether it’s permissible for audiences to obtain and watch films 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, might remember that this sort of editing long predates Sony’s botched attempt to provide “clean” versions of mainstream films. Mainstream movies edited for content have been 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 the VHS and video recording technology, people with conservative (lowercase c) taste in movies have been creating edited versions of films.
One young man I spoke to about this — who ended up studying film in both college and graduate school — fondly remembered his father, an evangelical pastor, editing Joe Dante’s 1998 film Small Soldiers to satisfy his 6-year-old’s insatiable desire to see the movie.
His father confirmed the story. “There were a couple of overly scary scenes and a couple of cuss words so I bought the VHS and made a ‘cleaned up’ version,” he wrote to me. “Accidentally left in one cuss word but let it slide.”
The benefit of editing a film for your kids — rather than sitting next to them on the couch and fast-forwarding through the objectionable parts — is readily evident to any parent. Children have a superhuman ability and desire to rewatch the same movie eleventy billion times, as parents of Frozen fans know. If you can hand them a copy of a cleaned-up film, you don’t have to personally sit through it until its 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 businesses picked up on the opportunity. In 1998, a video store called Sunrise Family Video in American Fork, Utah — which did not rent R-rated films — turned out ostensibly G-rated copies of Titanic by taking out one scene where Kate Winslet poses nude, and another that suggests that Winslet and DiCaprio’s characters have sex. Customers would purchase a copy of the VHS, bring it to Sunrise, and pay $5 to receive the edited version. For an additional $3, Sunrise would edit out any other scenes the customer found objectionable. The New York Times reported that Sunrise received over 1,000 requests for the edited film.
Because the customer purchased the VHS from the company that distributed the film — in the case of Titanic, Paramount Pictures — people like the owners of Sunrise could claim these edits did not constitute illegal bootlegs. Rather, they were simply providing a service to their customers, who still paid Paramount for the movie.
Carol Biesinger, owner of Sunrise, told the Times that she would stop doing the editing if Paramount proved that what she was doing was illegal — presumably in court. “I'm not out to break the law,” she told the paper. “We're just trying to meet a demand.”
By 2002, the number of editing services for mainstream films had grown large enough to make them worth the studios’ attention. Their concern, they said, was not simply that people were cropping out bits from movies that they found objectionable; it was that emerging technology made it possible to substantially alter films, and that these technologies could leave a bigger mark on intellectual property.
As Marshall Herskovitz, who produced films like Legends of the Fall and Blood Diamond, put it to the New York Times in 2002, “As long as something exists as digital information, it can be changed. So as a society we have to come to grips with what the meaning of intellectual property will be in the future.”
There are two approaches to creating “clean movies” from mainstream films, 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 movies, generally using one of two methods that are still around 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 let them make those edits themselves on the fly.
US law treats these two approaches differently — and two cases from about a decade ago help illustrate why.
One of the most well-known companies offering edited films was CleanFlicks, a Utah-based business founded in 2000 that was shut down by a court ruling in 2006. CleanFlicks operated much like Sunshine Family Video, but on a bigger scale. Customers would purchase the film (often on DVD) and mail it to CleanFlicks, who would edit out objectionable content, burn a new DVD of the edited copy, and mail both of the films back to the customer — effectively “bundling” the two in the way Sony’s Clean Version program had intended to do.
A number of directors (including Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Robert Altman, Michael Mann, Robert Redford, Steven Spielberg, and Sydney Pollack), along with the DGA and eight big Hollywood production companies and studios, objected to this practice by CleanFlicks and a few similar companies. In 2002, the noise coming from the film business prompted the editing companies to file preemptive litigation with the US District Court to seek a declaration that their work fell within the “fair use” clause in copyright law, and therefore wasn’t copyright infringement; meanwhile, as defendants in the case, the studios filed a cross-complaint, claiming that the editing companies were infringing on their copyright.
Soderbergh et al v. Clean Flicks of Colorado et al. dragged on for a long time. But finally, in 2006, the US District Court in Colorado decided in favor of the directors and studios, writing in its opinion that CleanFlicks had infringed on copyright law. (In 2005, Mel Gibson also sued Clean Flicks over removing three minutes from his version of The Passion of the Christ.) The company shut down, and though it reopened in 2007 as a purveyor of family-friendly films, its website and editing service are now gone.
A different sort of service is provided by companies like the Salt Lake City-based ClearPlay, which sells a special Blu-Ray and DVD player that filters out content from discs on the fly, based on controls set by a parent. Technically, then, ClearPlay’s films aren’t “edited,” in the way CleanFlicks’ films were. Their service is more akin to fast-forwarding through parts of a movie, but with the added benefit that nobody in the family has to watch the film first to decide what needs censoring.
ClearPlay was also the target of a lawsuit in 2002 brought by the directors, the DGA, and the big movie studios. But the suit 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 filming 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 films “on the fly,” instead of creating a new, censored version of the film.
The Family Entertainment and Copyright Act was passed the year before the case against CleanFlicks was decided, and also played a part in the judgement against CleanFlicks: The judge noted that in passing the Act, 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 CleanFlicks’ fate by the act, and the company has continued to evolve its service: Now ClearPlay can 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 Christian and “inspirational” family-friendly films in the US. (PureFlix also operates a streaming service for consumers of faith-based films, with a library that includes not just their own productions, like the Christian and politically conservative indie hit God’s Not Dead, but films and streaming series that meet their conservative standards.)
The ClearPlay partnership enables PureFlix customers to filter out any instances of possibly offensive language in the company’s already squeaky-clean library. A press release announcing the partnership noted that the service would, for instance, allow families to mute uses of the word “hell” in the series Heartland.
Another service is extending the challenge to streaming film and, importantly, TV
The CleanFlicks and ClearPlay rulings were not the end of the discussion, though. 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. Thus, filtering and editing of entertainment provided through these streaming services has naturally entered into the discussion.
A service similar in nature to ClearPlay, the Provo-based VidAngel — which seems a tad more irreverent than its cousins, with tagline “Watch however the BLEEP you want” — has chronicled a series of legal battles in the recent past on its comprehensive company blog, and is actively working to challenge the legal precedents that currently govern filtered films.
If the preoccupation with legal precedent on VidAngel’s website seems unusual, there’s a reason. Previously, the company used an innovative and ethically thorny workaround to sell edited movies: Customers would buy a physical copy of a DVD for $20, then set their filters using VidAngel’s technology, watch it via stream (or physical DVD) provided by VidAngel, and then “sell” it back to VidAngel for $19, thus effectively paying $1 for each film they watched without owning the film afterward. The net effect was similar to renting an edited film for $1 — even though some of the films might not be available for digital rental through normal means. (This differed from CleanFlicks, which edited copies purchased by customers, then returned those physical copies to the customers.)
In December 2016, the company was ordered to shut down by a federal judge following arguments from Disney, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Bros., which argued that this constituted copyright infringement as established in the 2005 Family Entertainment and Copyright Act. VidAngel kept streaming 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 Ninth Circuit Court heard arguments in the dispute between VidAngel and Disney. VidAngel’s attorney asked the Court to overturn the injunction against the company. That request was denied in early August because, according to the judge, he didn’t have enough information to make a decision. The injunction was upheld in an appeals court in August, though because Disney’s subsidiaries aren’t affected by the injunction, VidAngel was still able to announce in early September that it would add Marvel films (Marvel is a subsidiary of Disney) to its catalog.
However, these and other content are now being provided by VidAngel through new means. After the arguments before the Ninth Circuit Court — and around the same time Sony was announcing its Clean Version initiative — VidAngel launched a new service, which works in tandem with services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and HBO to filter movies and, notably, TV shows by muting and skipping scenes, based on parental controls set by the user.
TV hasn’t been as big of a part of this conversation as films — though a company called TV Guardian has worked for decades by using set-top boxes and more current technologies to detect objectionable words in closed captioning 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, which made watching sports amusing, and it wouldn’t filter out “Jesus Christ” even if a character used the name to swear.)
There’s also the V-chip, a technology that lets parents block TV shows based on their ratings category, which has been included by law on small TV sets made for the US market since 1999, and all TV sets since January 1, 2000. This was driven by the 1996 Telecommunications Act signed into law by Bill Clinton — partly as a strategy to attract voters to the Clinton/Gore ticket during that year’s reelection. But the V-chip only blocks TV shows based on broad ratings set by the TV industry; it doesn’t edit or filter individual shows.
So the fact that VidAngel’s new service is capable of filtering not just movies, but TV shows produced by and streamed on services that offer premium TV — like Game of Thrones (HBO), Transparent (Amazon Prime), and Stranger Things (Netflix) — represents a huge leap forward for the technology. ClearPlay doesn’t filter TV shows unless the consumer owns or rents them through a service like iTunes or Amazon Digital. But a substantial number of today’s most popular TV shows are only available to subscribers of streaming services, and VidAngel’s technology aims to get around that.
The future of VidAngel is still in question. As of September 1, it was trying a new tactic: filing a lawsuit seeking declaratory relief in its conservative-minded home state of Utah, rather than California. But the larger question still remains: Does it fall under the “on-the-fly” category protected by the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act, or will the courts find that it’s more like CleanFlicks? And what happens if it wins its appeals, and filtering services become a norm for people watching streaming entertainment?
The implications of filtered movies and TV go beyond questions of legality
While most of the battles over censoring films have focused on copyright and on how much control an artist can have over their final product, there are some other considerations worth thinking about that the legal system is not equipped to handle. Any technology that lets an end user filter a movie for one type of content could theoretically be modified to let them filter for any type of content. The technology is neutral; it’s the developers and users who determine the end results.
In a sense, all objections to sex, nudity, drugs, violence, and profanity could be characterized as filtering for “triggers,” so there are other kinds of triggering content that could be filtered out, 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 film, based on their personal content preferences. The 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’s “clean” and what’s “objectionable” might not match another’s, or even have a coherent moral grounding.
This could strongly disincentivize the creation of films and TV shows for the general market. What artist would want to make a film with a prominent Muslim character, knowing that character could be filtered out by an Islamophobic viewer? Who would want to make an action film with an environmentalist message, knowing that people could just hit a button and take out the environmentalism, leaving only the destruction? Or what if a filmmaker didn’t intend to convey a message in a movie, but some creative editing put it in anyhow — with that filmmaker’s name still attached?
These may be worst-case-scenario extrapolations, but they speak to a deeper cultural concern. In an increasingly polarized age, the TV shows and films that we watch as a society — even in an age of niche entertainment and dropping box office numbers — are one of the dwindling number of things that we can point to as a common experience.
Certainly parallel cultures exist alongside one another, filtered by our geographic location, our taste, and the various ethnic, religious, and fan-based subcultures to which we belong. But for many people, this year has resulted in the realization that two people can see the same events occur and have vastly different interpretations of “truth,” based on what they saw on a TV screen. As technologies advance, filtering and re-editing could deepen the divide even more, creating the possibility for two parallel entertainment realities to exist as well. We may see the same movie — but we definitely won’t see the same movie.