Thursday, September 15, 2005

Hollywood Idiocy

Posted in: Culture

(This is a re-post of an article that was lost in the great purge of '05)

Since tu quoque has "culture" as part of its emphasis I thought I'd make my first post in line with one of my passions - movies. It seems that Hollywood has made itself a new enemy: Movie Sanitizers. It all started with TV Guardian - a product that automatically muted foul language based on a program's closed captioning and replaced the profanity with a cleaned up version of the audio in text form on the screen.
Now you can buy movies that have been edited by private companies, or purchase hardware that removes it for you. In 2000, Ray Lines created CleanFlicks, a Utah based video sanitizing company, that cuts nudity, sex, violence, and bad language from movies. CleanFlicks then records and sells the edited films to consumers for about $12-$17 depending on the amount of work involved to clean the film up. CleanFilms provides essentially the same service. Another company, ClearPlay, does not change the original movie, but instead provides hardware/software that skips flagged scenes based on the viewer's preselected choices.

In this article I wish to expose the faulty thinking of Hollywood on this issue. It is one thing to say that a particular action should not be done (such as enjoying bad music), and another to say it is unethical or illegal. Whether or not movie sanitization is "wrong" in the first sense is up for debate (my thoughts on this aspect are presented at the conclusion). Whether or not it is unethical or illegal is the focus of this writing.

What's the Issue?

Members of the DGA (Director's Guild of America) have begun an outcry against this practice, what they consider to be illegal, or at least immoral, tampering with their work. These “e-rated” (for “everyone” or “edited”) movies, they claim, violate federal copyright law. The sanitizers say the practice is protected by the law's “fair use” provisions (such as allowing parodies to be made without the original director's intent). Indeed, what the sanitizers are doing is not all that different from studios creating edited versions of movies for TV or airline flights. The directors answer that those changes are made with the directors’ permission and are true to their original intent for the film. To issue these e-versions with the director and studio's name is unethical.

From the Sanitizer's POV

Sanitizers argue that they have created a market for Hollywood that it would have otherwise lost. ClearPlay does not change the studio version, instead it merely creates electronic flags on certain scenes. Again, those who would never purchase a non-edit might now do so. Sanitizers say they are simply meeting a market need. Studies consistently show that the majority of Americans think movies are too violent / sexual and would like to have the ability to view the films with these elements taken out. Hollywood can produce whatever it wants under the First Amendment, and individuals can personally edit what Hollywood produces under that same Amendment. So long as these edits are not misrepresented as original works then copyright law is not violated. If this is the case then selling these edits is not illegal or immoral either.

From the Director's POV

The challenge to this practice is based on the fact that a screenwriter’s story, a director’s vision, or an actor’s art is the intellectual property of that person. To tamper with it is to change it into something its creator never intended. Members of the DGA were scandalized by what they consider to be poor editing and the destruction of their creation. Legally, the DGA can argue that Clean Flicks' business amounts to a violation of copyright laws. Or that this practice violates trademarks by using the studio's name on a product the studio did not make. This might also involve the charge of false advertising if the editing results in a substantially different product. This could extend to those involved in the films as well since anyone whose name is used for commercial purposes has the right to control the use of their name and image.

Analysis of Arguments


It's not about money - and few people seem to argue that it is, although it is often the first thing that comes to mind because, despite the evidence to the contrary, many are still convinced that Hollywood is just giving people what they want in order to make more money. Sanitizers are quick to point out that they are not robbing anyone of income - in fact they are increasing it by creating a market that the original movie would have missed out on. When CleanFlicks sells a copy of one of their sanitized movies the consumer is also sent a non-edited copy. Thus, for every sanitized DVD CleanFlicks sells, a corresponding non-edited DVD is also sold. These directors are not concerned over income loss - otherwise they would produce more family-friendly pictures that have historically generated more money than non-family-friendly movies.

Copyright Infringement

The facts seem to indicate that what these companies are doing does indeed fall under the Fair Use Act. Parodies, for example, do not require authorial consent to be protected from copyright infringement. Individuals may make edited movies on their own, and so long as they possess a copy of the original it is legal. Thus, so is selling said edits (along with the original).

The Copyright Office has testified that ClearPlay does not violate U.S. copyright laws either. This should be obvious, since ClearPlay technology does not alter the original film in any way. ClearPlay acts as a sort of "preset" fast forward or mute button, rather than creating an edited version of the movie. In fact, a new bill makes this explicit. The Family Movie Act may soon be passed into law protecting technology like ClearPlay's in order to help parents keep children from unwanted content.

Freedom of Speech

The claim that sanitization is a violation of the director's First Amendment Right is simply absurd. There would not be a sanitized version of a film if the director had not already been allowed to produce the original. Further, disallowing anyone from editing what they watch may very well be a violation of the First Amendment which includes protections from indiscretion. People clearly have the right to censure what they watch, and simply because a company is providing prepackaged censured versions of films does not change that fact.

False Advertising

The idea that directors/studios do not want their names associated with these sanitized films would be more legitimate if it was not done all the time for other reasons (e.g. airlines and television). Further, those who own a sanitized film are well aware that it has been edited. That's the whole point! The idea that people will credit the director with a bad film based on the edited version is rather ungracious. Besides, these directors obviously do not care about this particular audience anyway since they continue to make violent, sex-filled movies despite their proven unpopularity in the overall market.

Ratings and "Adult Oriented" Films

Hollywood directors seem to be altogether ignorant when they miss the point that this is not simply an issue of parental consent. They argue that parents should have an active role in determining what their children watch (which is true), and that this is the purpose of ratings (which is often a joke). However, it is not this simple. This is an individual moral question of whether or not certain material should be viewed regardless of one's age. Hollywood seems to think that once one reaches adulthood that offensive elements magically become acceptable (thus the euphemism used to refer to pornography as "adult films"). This leads to the next objection.

Who Decides?

One common objection to this process is that sanitizers are deciding what people should and should not watch. How, it might be asked, is this any different than what the directors are doing? They seem to think that what they create is what people want to see. The popularity of the sanitizing business indicates that they are in fact wrong in many situations. Studios playing the ratings game also have control over content - the existence of "uncut and unrated" versions bear testimony to this fact. All sanitization does is provide additional options (and isn't Hollywood all about pro-choice???). So why is it only the "moralists" who are being attacked? Perhaps the sanitizers should respond to Hollywood the way its members often respond to pro-lifers: "If you don't want a sanitized movie, don't get one."

As far as the actual editing decisions, it is a somewhat subjective process of course. In fact, different companies base their editing on very different standards. CleanFlicks and CleanFilms edit the kind of material most conservative moviegoers (religious or not) might find objectionable (such as sexuality, cussing, gore, violence). Another company, FamilyFlix, also edits out religiously offensive material (such as using titles of deity as curse words), homosexuality, inappropriate dress, crude humor, sexual innuendoes, alcohol and drug content, etc. and won't even edit films with objectionable themes. Thus, people now have more content choices than ever!

Turning the Tables

Some directors have asked, "Why not take all the sex and violence out of the Bible or Shakespeare?" This only reveals their ignorance of the world outside Hollywood, because this already takes place. Children's Bibles do not include such stories, and Cliff's Notes are well known for the violence they do to the texts they summarize. This does not make the process right, but it does show that originals do not lose value just because alternate versions exist.

Artistic Integrity

It should be noted at the outset that very few movies are the creation of a single source. The very existence of "Director's Cuts," "Unrated / Uncut Editions," and "Extended Versions" argue for this fact. Few directors are given carte blanche with regard to their films. The final product is a collaboration between the producer, studio, director, screenwriter, editors, actors, etc. In fact, there is even a title (auteur) given to directors who have gained enough control to be considered the primary source for a film. All of that to say this: the DGA's claim that editing their work is to destroy it are being somewhat whiny and dishonest about the actual process that led to "their" creations.

The fact is that many people make decisions about the "vision" of a film besides the director - and this often massively affects the final product. In fact, this is a large enough issue that official DGA policy has been enacted to address the situation. When directors believe that they have lost control of a project, and are so unhappy with the result that they no longer wish to be associated with it, they may appeal to the DGA to have their directorial credit listed as "Alan Smithee" (an anagram for "The Alias Men", and the only permissible pseudonym for a director).
Further, even if it were true that these sanitized films rob a given movie of its original intent, beauty, intensity, sexiness, or whatever - so what? If someone is truly concerned about these things they probably wouldn't watch the sanitized version in the first place. At least this gives people a choice (which is, ironically, the paramount ethical consideration in most liberal dialogues).

Finally, this position is incredibly hypocritical! Screenwriters and directors are constantly "adapting" books into movies without authorial input (or, in some cases, the author's approval - such as the case of Roald Dahl and the 1971 version of Willy Wonka). Why aren't these directors concerned about authorial intent when revising other people's visions? Within Hollywood itself countless "remakes" and "re-imaginings" of older films are done all the time - often without any attention being called, or credit given, to the original. It is widely known that these remakes almost never live up to the originals, yet no one complains about it except fans.

Creative Credit and Ego Issues

As a writer and musician I understand that creators do not like any secondhand distortion of their creation. Admittedly, this is often closely related to ego issues - credit is difficult to assess in a situation where the creator cannot claim sole responsibility. The main issue, as I see it, is that these directors want to be celebrated for their creations and can't seem to deal with the fact that the majority of moviegoers wish they had done it differently.

A case in point happened shortly after the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1999. There was almost universal disapproval of the character Jar-Jar Binks. This created a demand in the market that was met by some clever folks with video editing software who released a new version of the film (variously referred to as The Phantom Edit and Episode I.I) with Jar-Jar and some other spurious material edited out. It quickly became more popular with many fans than the original. Director/Writer George Lucas (who himself has created several controversial edits of his own) was surprisingly non-outraged.

"Armchair Directors" have always existed of course, but never before have they been able to publicly do something about it. I believe it is an affront to some director's egos that others think they can "do it better than they can", and the popularity of their reedits is causing the directorial outcry. Most of the attitude seems to revolve around the directors' annoyance with "some amateur" messing with "their vision." However, if these amateurs were not producing something that literally millions of consumers are willing to pay extra money for it is doubtful that it would ever have become such an issue.


Reediting is no more immoral than hip-hop music sampling, cover tunes, parodies, Cliff's Notes, or paraphrases. Certainly these kinds of works do not reflect a high level of artistic quality, and only the original work should be considered when evaluating the director (or writer, or actors, or studio, etc.), but to consider this kind of work immoral or illegal is simply special pleading.*
Personally, I try to get as close to the director's vision as possible. I will almost always choose the Extended / Unrated / Uncut / Director's Cut versions of any movie I wish to see in order to best evaluate what the movie's creator(s) had in mind. Personally, I would not invest in edited movies because I believe that style elements should not be universally categorized as right or wrong without considering their intended effect. However, I would certainly consider making user-controlled filtering technology available for times when I did wish to remove objectionable elements in order to accommodate more sensitive viewers (not that I find de-sensitivity an admirable character trait, mind you).

The main problem I have with this whole thing is that rather than sanitizing Hollywood, Christians should simply make better movies themselves. For most of the Church's existence it led the way in the arts (and sciences, and philosophy . . . ). The expectation that the world will be better at producing these things is extremely new on the scene. But we (Christians) have sacrificed significance for style, and cultural relevance for cheap "gospel messages." Even in this fallen world, quality is what counts (as films like The Passion of the Christ have demonstrated). So long as artistic garbage like Left Behind is offered as the pinnacle of Christian creativity we will have little to complain about when it comes to Hollywood's popularity.

* "Special Pleading" is an argumentative fallacy in which a person applies standards to others while exempting himself without good cause.


Blogger Doctor Logic said...

I must have missed that special 1971 version, Willy Wanka. ROTFL!!

Seriously though, I can see your point for some subset of movies. As long as the message of the movie isn't about sex or violence, I don't see a big problem.

However, I wonder what the Clear Play version of a movie like Kinsey or Pleasantville (removing "Implied Premarital Sex") must be like. I would find Clear Play's actions highly objectionable if they obliterated the message of such a movie. Diluting is one thing. Elimination or reversal is another.

But hey, that's what liberalism is about. Individual freedom. Some people want to cut the mere suggestion of extramarital sex out of a movie. Others want to watch Blond on Blond Uncensored.

Now, who doesn't want to be a liberal?

6:30 PM  
Anonymous purchase research papers, term papers said...

I think a foul language is necessary side of life. Anyway he who laughs last, laughs longest, I am sure

9:51 AM  

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