Hollywood’s Battle Over ‘Clean’ Entertainment

Who owns a movie? The filmmaker? The studio? Distributor? The person who buys the DVD? It’s a sticky question, especially when it comes to altering films for different audiences and outlets.

Anyone who watches feature films on commercial TV or on an airplane is familiar with the following disclaimer:

Usually that means removing or altering foul language, adult situations or violence. For a lot of people, that edited version may be the only one they’ve seen.

That upsets a lot of filmmakers.

On Sept. 6, website Vox posted an extensive history of a quarter-century of skirmishes among various companies, studio executives and filmmakers concerning re-editing films after the fact.

(Click here for the whole thing.)

Why do they do it? It’s often because of you, the “family,” “values” or “conservative” audience.

From Vox:

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.

Earlier this year, Sony Pictures announced Sony Clean Versions, an initiative to allow customers who purchased certain films in their original form to also obtain the edited-for-TV or edited-for-airline versions, which aren’t normally available to consumers. That set off a firestorm of complaints from filmmakers. Sony offered to back off if directors objected, but in the end, the initiative pretty much disappeared.

The issue touched on artistic sensibilities, but also copyright law and entertainment-union contracts.

Back in VHS days, some parents edited films themselves, or there were companies or video stores that helped them do it. In modern times, other companies have offered more technologically advanced ways of altering films, running into a variety of legal problems.

One company, VidAngel, based in Provo, Utah, wound up in federal court facing complaints from Disney, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros., which argued its service violated copyright law. Now, VidAngel is changing direction, offering to “clean” content from streaming services.

Ultimately, filmmakers argue that that uncontrolled editing of films not only violates the law but could fundamentally alter the content and intent of the movie. On the other side are consumers demanding movies and TV shows that don’t offend their sensibilities or are suitable for family viewing.

It’s likely a dispute that will continue for quite some time.

Asked for comment by email, Matthew Faraci, president of Inspire Buzz, and an expert on marketing to the faith and values audience, wrote:

Clean entertainment that the whole family can enjoy together has historically been and continues to be in high demand, and is nearly always a moneymaker. Fifty-two million American adults, fully one-third of the entertainment market, are actively looking for family-friendly options. Yet, incredibly, Hollywood continues to undervalue this huge market.

For example, a recent study by the Parents Television Council found that the major streaming platforms are largely unsafe for kids, and lack both suitable family content and parental controls.

Is it any wonder that, for decades, numerous services have been created in an attempt to address this? And can someone please explain why, when cleaning up content expands the audience for any movie or TV series, that so many in the industry continue to do everything they can to oppose such efforts, robbing a key audience of options they’re asking for in the marketplace?

Of course, Hollywood could make “clean” content in the first place, but that doesn’t seem a popular option among most modern filmmakers. But if anyone wants to do it, and can get the financing and distribution, there appears to a large and grateful audience eager to watch.

UPDATE 9/13: A comment from Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., a filmmaker who just joined the staff here at Family Theater Productions. Frequently, when films are sent to other countries, they’re re-edited to accommodate those cultures.

As Father Kuna points out:

I don’t see the same righteous indignation from Hollywood filmmakers when their films are regularly censored for global distribution.

Image: Courtesy Sony Pictures

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