Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Directors Guild yells cut . . . to stop edited versions


December 31, 2002

Parents often ask me where they can get "airplane versions" of films. For movies to be shown on airplanes, studios edit out or even replace scenes that have profanity, nudity, violence or other material to make them suitable for "general audiences" (about the same standard as network television or this newspaper). Parents wish they could get these versions because a few small cuts and substitutions can make a movie appropriate for family viewing without losing any of its story or artistic merit.

It used to be that people could see these versions only on an airplane or on broadcast television. Recently, a group of companies have made it possible for families to get their own edited versions of movies. Their customers are happy, because they are buying movies they would not otherwise get to see. The movie studios should be happy, because they are selling movies to people who would not otherwise buy them.

But one group is unhappy. When the companies that provide customers with edited versions went to court to ask for a ruling to confirm that what they were doing was legal, the Directors Guild of America (DGA) filed a counterclaim to try to stop them, arguing that allowing edited versions of the movies to be sold interferes with the directors' artistic vision. DGA asked the movie studios to join them in the lawsuit, because as holders of the copyrights on the material, they have a stronger legal claim. So on Dec. 13, the studios, who do not want to offend their star directors, have entered the lawsuit, claiming that the "family-friendly" versions infringe on their copyrights.

This position is simply wrong, legally, morally and economically.

The legal issue

Let's look at the legal issue first. Once someone has already bought a video, it is his. He can watch it all. If there is a scene he does not like, he can fast forward through it or leave the room. He can use the videotape as a paperweight and never watch it at all. He can even edit scenes from the video into his own home movies, as long as he does not try to sell it commercially.

CleanFlicks and Clean Cut are two of the companies that provide customers with edited versions of films. They sell a video in its original form to a customer, then edit the video at the customer's request. There is no legal difference between skipping the scenes you don't want to see in your own house and having someone help you do that by deleting them at your direction.

Another company, ClearPlay, provides software so that parents can play an uncut, commercially purchased or rented DVD and skip over or mute content they deem to be of concern. Any "adulteration" is performed by the parents themselves in playing the DVDs through software they have installed. If this is illegal, so is a fast-forward button. So is a remote control. Unless the DGA and movie studios are prepared to send representatives along with every film rented or purchased to make sure it is watched according to their dictates, they have no right to object to making these tools available.

Height of hypocrisy

Now for the moral issue: The claims by the DGA and the studios are the height of hypocrisy. Most of the material these companies take out of the films has nothing to do with art and everything to do with marketing. The DGA does not object to the adulteration of its members' artistic vision when they enter into multi-million-dollar studio contracts that require them to create a film that meets certain MPAA rating requirements and that also comes with the additional material required to provide "airplane" versions. Those alternates are used not just on airplanes, but also for broadcast television and overseas release. If the DGA is so concerned about artistic integrity, it should work to make those personally supervised versions available to families who want to see them.

Matthew Jarman, vice president and founder of ClearPlay, said, "When the Federal Trade Commission released their report, `Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children,' senior representatives from the eight major studios asserted the importance of parental control. Yet, now they want to limit parental control by banning technology like ClearPlay from American homes." Even those who might differ over what material is appropriate for their own families will agree that all parents should have the right and the tools to make that decision themselves.

Finally, there is the economic issue. Why hasn't the studio complaint alleged any monetary damages? Because there aren't any. These services open up new markets to parents who are eager for movies they can share with their children. "Legally Blonde" is no less delightful for the removal of a couple of crude jokes. "Lord of the Rings" is no less stirring because the violence is slightly less graphic.

This is not about artistic vision or about copyright infringement. It is about the right of parents to protect their children from the crude and violent material that Hollywood seems to think is essential for selling movie tickets. I only wish that CleanFlicks or ClearPlay could come up with a filter for the charges made by the DGA and the studios. Unfortunately, that's one category of offensive material that even they haven't figured out a way to screen out.


Nell Minow reviews movies for radio stations across the U.S. every week and on http://movies.yahoo.com/moviemom

Saturday, June 22, 2002

Whites take major roles in movies about minorities
Special to the Chicago Tribune

June 27, 2002

You might think that it is fair to expect a movie called "Windtalkers" to be about, well, Windtalkers, the Navajo soldiers whose indispensable contribution to the American forces in World War II was the development of an unbreakable code based on their native language. That code was used for battlefield communications in every battle with the Japanese for three years.

Their contribution was so important and the code they developed so valuable that it was not made public for almost half a century, just in case we needed to use it again. I really wanted to see that story. I wanted to see how the Navajo soldiers were treated in then-still-segregated U.S. armed forces. I wanted to see how they adapted the Navajo language, using the word for "sweet potato" for "hand grenade" and "bird" for "plane."

Maybe someday someone will tell that story. Unfortunately, "Windtalkers" is just the most recent addition to a long list of movies that fit into the category of "in theory saluting a marginalized minority but in reality marginalizing them further by making the movie about the white guy."

That list includes movies like "Ghosts of Mississippi," in which a white lawyer played by Alec Baldwin gets most of the credit for finally bringing the killer of Medgar Evers to justice, while Evers' widow (played with enormous dignity and grace by Whoopi Goldberg) has, literally, a supporting role. Similarly, "Mississippi Burning" was about the valiant efforts of the white lawyers, not the contributions of the black activists.

One of the most momentous turning points in American history is the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King following the arrest of Rosa Parks for sitting in a seat reserved for whites. "The Long Walk Home" tells the story -- from the perspective of the spoiled white woman who begins to think differently when her cleaning lady (again beautifully played by Goldberg) can't get to work. Then there is "Cry Freedom," which should have been the story of Stephen Biko, who was killed in a South African prison because he fought for the rights of black Africans. Denzel Washington is magnificent as Biko, but his role is brief. The movie turns out to be the story of Biko's white friend, played by Kevin Kline.

If Erin Brockovich had been black, the movie would have been about her white boss.

Many of these stories are based on the memories of the people who were there, and certainly, the stories of the white participants are legitimate and inspiring and deserve to be told. But they have been told, many, many times, and it is time to hear from someone else. In the case of "Windtalkers," the main character played by Nicolas Cage is an entirely fictional creation, while the code talkers are real people, some of whom are still alive. It is a terrible waste to give their story to someone else.

There have been exceptions. Denzel Washington's portrayals of Malcolm X and Hurricane Carter and Will Smith's performance as Muhammed Ali were extraordinary films, though box office disappointments. All are essential viewing for mature teens. And television does better than Hollywood. The producers of made-for-cable movies such as 1998's "Ruby Bridges" and 2001's "Boycott" (with the incomparable Jeffrey Wright as Martin Luther King) do not have to try to persuade studio executives that white people will buy tickets and thus have the freedom to tell the story that Hollywood thinks audiences won't care about.

Parents must make sure that all children and teens understand that books, movies, songs, even newspaper stories, have a point of view. And parents should also help them think about what the point of view might be and how their own point of view might be different.

I recently saw a map of the world that put the Pacific in the center. The U.S. looked smaller and much less significant off to the side. We need to make sure that kids of all races see movies with a point of view that will be as powerful a reminder as that map that just because our stories are central to us does not mean that they are the best or most important, and certainly they are not the only stories that need to be told. Maybe that way we'll even get a movie that really is about the Windtalkers.

Tuesday, May 14, 2002

Spider-Man and Kids
by Nell Minow
Special to the Chicago Tribune
May 14, 2002

Battling Spider-Man’s nemesis, the Green Goblin, is a piece of cake compared to battling Spider-Man’s fan, when you are a parent and the fan is a six-year-old who wants to see the PG-13-rated movie.

Is there that much of a difference between the intensity of the violence in the PG-13 “Spider-Man” and the upcoming PG-rated “Star Wars” movie? Probably not. The last “Star Wars” movie kept its kid-friendly rating by having most of its violence directed at robots, not people. These distinctions seem awfully fine when the ratings board is sorting through dozens of categories of material that can be troubling to kids – and their parents. Is the death of a parent more disturbing than a scene with children in prolonged peril? Will kids in the audience be more rattled by a parent calling a teen-age girl “trash” or by a scene in which her soaking wet shirt becomes very revealing?

PG-13 is the toughest rating to try to figure out. Are the extended jokes about bodily functions and injured private parts in the PG-13 “The New Guy” more appropriate than seeing a man in bed with two women in the also-PG-13 “The Scorpion King?”

It is especially frustrating when a character that is popular with children appears in a movie designed for teenagers and young adults. Many parents who remembered the Doctor Dolittle character from the Hugh Lofting books and the Rex Harrison movie were very uncomfortable with the raunchy humor of the PG-13 Eddie Murphy remake.

So what is a parent to do when Spider-Man becomes all but inescapable? Normally, I advise parents not to give in to an “everyone else has seen it argument.” In the first place, it is not usually true. “Everyone else” often turns out to be one child whose older brother told him all about it. But more important, we don’t raise children by lowest common denominator. One of the greatest gifts you can give a child is the principle that we do what is right for us, and not what everyone else does. If you can be swayed by an “everyone else does it” argument or if your kids see you trying to do what everyone else does, then when they get older, and everyone is experimenting with alcohol or shoplifting, they will not have the resources to say no.

Once in a while, though, a cultural phenomenon comes along and that may be time to weigh competing considerations more carefully. On one hand, “Spider-Man” is scary, with some vivid violence (people get vaporized and we see their skeletons crumble into ash, there are many explosions, a character dies from a gunshot wound, another is impaled). On the other hand, most kids are just getting started in figuring out how to talk to each other, and being able to share “Awesomes!” about movies like “Spider-Man” can serve as training wheels for developing social skills.

As parents weigh this decision, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, no matter what your child says, he might be looking for limits, not permission. As always with kids, parents have to give them deniability – make sure they know that they can blame you if they do not want to see the movie but do not want to let their friends know that they are worried that it might be too scary.

Second, if the child really does want to see it and you have decided that your 7-11 year old can handle the movie, make it clear that this does not mean that any PG-13 movie is now fair game. You will make your decision about each movie based on its merits, so elicit ahead of time a commitment that there will not be any nagging or use of this movie as a precedent.

Third, prepare your child for what is in the movie and how it might feel to watch it. Talk about the difference between “fun scary” and “scary scary” and about options like holding your hand or leaving the theater to get some popcorn. Finally, after it is over, watch your child for reactions to the movie, even if they do not seem directly related. You may see some more violent play than usual, as kids work through their fears by re-enacting some of what they have seen. Or your child may seem less sensitive to the feelings of others, a common reaction to violent material. Talk to your child about the feelings of the characters in the movie: Peter’s regrets about what he said to his uncle, the way that Peter encourages MJ to follow her dreams, why it is hard for Harry and Norman to understand each other. If you can use “Spider-Man” to help you connect to your child when it comes to talking about rules, feelings, and growing up, he might just become a super-hero even a parent can love.

Friday, May 10, 2002

Seventeen grows up: It's not your mother's teen magazine



May 10, 2002

Seventeen magazine's May issue has the perennial pieces about skin breakouts, dating and the latest celebrity "it boy." It also has an article called "How to Tell Your Mom You've Had Sex." Another article has a survey showing that only a third of its readers would tell their mothers they had become sexually active. There are several fashion spreads, including short shorts ("sportier than a mini but just as sexy") and motorcycle helmets ("sexy cyclists"). And the "it boy" explains that he is so comfortable with his sexuality that he had no problem playing a gay man.

This is not your mother's Seventeen.

Like Cosmo Girl, Twist, Teen and other magazines aimed at teenage girls, Seventeen strikes an uneasy balance between being empowering and being trashy. This is the result of another uneasy balance between their two constituencies, readers and advertisers. Girls want to attract boys. Advertisers want to avoid controversy.

Aimed at solving problems

The magazines are filled with tips on dating, fashion, makeup, managing stress, decorating and hair. After all, those of us with two X chromosomes love tips. Women secretly believe that all problems can be solved, usually with the female equivalent of duct tape: twist-ties, scrunchies, nail polish remover and cucumber slices. We love tips that make us feel like we are improving anything.

The magazines have tips on more than good grooming and accessorizing. Cosmo Girl's internship survival guide has first-class information and lots of good advice about finding a job, acing the interview and demonstrating professionalism and commitment in the office.

But there is something of a tip vacuum when it comes to sex. That leaves today's girls with magazines that encourage them to look sexy but do not give them much support for thinking about sexual choices. It's a dangerous combination. The current cover of Cosmo Girl is a good example of the mixed message it conveys. Movie star Tara Reid wears a tight T-shirt that reads, "Be SEXY -- it doesn't mean you have to have sex."

Creating a moral vacuum

I seem to remember from my days as a subscriber to Seventeen an article or two about how to respond to lines boys used when they were trying to persuade girls to have sex ("If he tells you he loves you, tell him that means he will respect your decision to wait!"). The underlying assumption that nice girls never, in the parlance of that era, "went all the way" may have made some girls who were sexually active feel isolated and ashamed, but it may have made others feel safer and more confident. Today's magazines abdicate anything other than a vague "you have a right to do what is right for you" policy, creating a moral vacuum. This is especially distressing when you consider that the target audience reaches girls as young as 12 and Seventeen magazine alone reaches 87 percent of all girls age 12-19 each year.

Debra Haffner, author of Beyond the Big Talk: Every Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Teenagers, is concerned that the magazines "too often promote the idea that it is in male approval that girls can find themselves." She says, "The magazines skew down several years," and are aimed at young teens who are looking forward to being 17. Cosmo Girl says its target audience age is 12-18, but that "the magazine is edited for a 16-year-old girl going on 25."

Older teens are reading magazines like Jane, directed at 18-34-year-olds (sample articles: "I'm sleeping with my best friend's dad"; "9 ways boozing it up makes you beautiful"; sample advice: it's worth it to "lie, cheat or slut it up" to get to eat top quality caviar).

In our media-saturated culture, girls are more than ever in need of accurate information and support in making decisions about sex. This is just the age when they don't want to discuss it with their parents or even their friends. So, they look to magazines.

Parents should make sure they know what messages their daughters are getting from these magazines and keep in mind, as an editor at Cosmo Girl told me, "A recent study shows that over 50 percent of teenagers say that they get their most reliable sex information from their parents.

Some parents think their teenager isn't listening when they're talking about difficult stuff. But the study I just mentioned and the letters Cosmo Girl gets from teenagers saying that they want to have more open dialogue with their parents prove that she is listening, and she wants to know that her parents care about these important decisions in her life."

What are the alternatives?

Parents of younger teens might also want to look into some alternatives like these:

Teen Ink is written and edited by teens, with fiction, interviews, helpful information about college searches and thoughtful opinion pieces. www.teenink.com

New Moon is geared toward 8-14-year-olds and covers "fun stuff for the thinking girl." It sponsors an annual Turn Beauty Inside Out Day (coming up on May 15) to promote good works, great hearts and activism. www.newmoon.org. Daughters, New Moon's newsletter for parents, has some great ideas about providing support, setting limits and improving communication.

Dream/Girl is an arts magazine for 8-14-year-olds aimed at encouraging girls to express themselves creatively. It has no advertising. www.dgarts.com.

Brio is a magazine for Christian girls published by Focus on the Family to "foster a healthy self-concept and closer relationship with Jesus Christ." www.briomag.com.