Stay-at-home mother Shauna Sheridan found herself in a dilemma. As an avid movie fan, there were many films she wanted to watch but just couldn't.
“I remember starting to watch Erin Brokovich but I had to shut it off because of all the profanity,” she said.
Then there were the films her 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter had heard about at school and wanted to see but were not allowed to because of objectionable content. “They felt they were being cheated,” Sheridan recalled.
That all changed once Sheridan discovered CleanFilms. CleanFilms is one of nearly a dozen companies that offer family-friendly versions of major motion pictures. The films are edited for profanity, sex, nudity and violence.
CleanFilms offers edited versions of popular DVDs through a direct-mail rental club, similar to Netflix. Since last August, Sheridan's family has been watching films such as Spy Game and SpiderMan — movies they otherwise would not have seen.
While the edited phenomenon began in Utah and was concentrated among Mormons, there is reason to believe that there is a much larger market for the family-friendly films.
Citing a Wirthlin Worldwide poll, ClearPlay chief executive Bill Aho said, “58% of all Americans are interested in watching popular Hollywood movies that have been edited of all graphic violence, nudity and profanity.”
Customers appear to be backing up that statistic.
“So often when you see nudity or a sex scene in a movie you ask yourself, why did they put that in? They could have done away with that,” said Dave Miller, a sales representative with Bowman Distribution in Taylorsville, Utah, and a father of five. “The MovieMask software does such a good job of filtering objectionable content out that you don't even know it is there.”
Miller said the software has allowed his daughter and four sons to watch the war films they enjoy watching.
“We've been able to watch We Were Soldiers and Blackhawk Down without having to see arms falling off,” he said.
Additional companies such as Video II, Clean Cut, Family Safe and Family Flix also rent or sell edited videos via the Internet or through retail stores.
Other companies, such as ClearPlay, MovieMask and MovieShield, do not rent films but instead offer equipment or software that masks or filters objectionable content as the movie plays.
Catholics in particular should be eager for the service. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
“Pornography consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners in order to display them deliberately to third parties. It offends against chastity because it perverts the conjugal act, the intimate giving of spouses to each other. It does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others. It immerses all who are involved in the illusion of a fantasy world. It is a grave offense. Civil authorities should prevent the production and distribution of pornographic materials.”
Most R-rated movies contain simulated sexual acts, making those scenes off-limits to Catholics.
The Big Screen at Home
The concept of edited films is nothing new. They are frequently offered on airline flights and television. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Varsity Theater at Brigham Young University even showed them on the big screen.
Chad Fullmer, chief executive officer of CleanFilms, remembered seeing such movies while he was a student at the university.
“People would come from all over the valley to see the edited films,” he recalled. “The lines were amazing.”
Believing there was an untapped market beyond Salt Lake City, Fullmer tried unsuccessfully to obtain a license to release airline versions elsewhere. Last year, after renting films from a CleanFlicks retail store, Fullmer created his monthly online direct-mail rental club.
For a predetermined price, club members are free to rent an unlimited number of edited DVDs. They arrive and are returned by mail.
“There really is a pent-up demand for this type of thing,” Fullmer said.
Within two weeks of the company's launch he had customers from across the United States and as far away as Japan.
Not Happy in Hollywood
While parents are pleased with the services the companies provide, Hollywood is not. The debate began four years ago when a company called Sunset Video profited by editing out the nudity and sex scene from hundreds of copies of Titanic brought to them by movie-owners.
Last September, the major editing companies were named in a counter-lawsuit by the Directors Guild of America and eight Hollywood studios — Disney, DreamWorks, Fox, MGM, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros. At issue is whether editing films, or making software that changes movies, runs afoul of the “derivative work right” of copyright holders to control the making of related works.
“What they are doing is taking something that was created by others, and owned by others, and changing it without permission, and then making a buck off of the derivative product,” said Andrew Levy, former spokesman for the Directors Guild of America. “That is illegal.”
The studios are seeking an injunction to stop the sale and renting of the edited videos and to declare that the unauthorized editing infringes upon the studio's copyrights and trademarks.
While Hollywood has long allowed movies to be edited for television and airplane viewing, Hollywood studios control that editing.
“To alter these creations in the name of 'morality' or 'family values' is the height of hypocrisy,” said Director's Guild of America president Martha Coolidge. She compared the editing to allowing parents to “rip pages out of a book simply because they don't like the way something was portrayed or said by somebody else.”
Others admit they are not sure how the court case will play out.
“It's pretty unlikely that a judge would say that editing out 10 seconds of bad language would run afoul of the derivative work right,” Pamela Samuelson, a law professor at the University of California, told the Wall Street Journal Online.
Meanwhile, the editing companies and media violence advocacy groups contend that parents have the right to control how they view a film in the privacy of their own homes.
“If I wanted to watch Titanic tonight with my boys, I might watch it differently than I would with my wife. It's up to me to make that choice,” said Merrill Hansen, director of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Viewer Freedom. The organization's mission is to help the home and school to avoid potentially offensive content through information, solutions and creative partnerships.
“We appreciate the principles of creative choice, but there are some sound arguments on the viewer's side,” Hansen added. “We would like to see the courts be most generous in allowing viewers the broadest offering of choices.”
Furthermore, the owners of the editing firms argue that they are providing the studios a market the films would not otherwise have.
“We are confident that because we are purchasing the originals at a 1-to-1 ratio that the fair-use provisions under the copyright law support what we are doing,” Fullmer said. “We have a growing number of members that are paying us to do this. These are people that would not normally be renting and watching these films.”
Tim Drake is a Features Correspondent for National Catholic Register and author of There We Stood, Here We Stand: 11 Lutherans Rediscover their Catholic Roots. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may order his books by clicking here.