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

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