By Phoebe Flowers

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Picture this: You receive a movie in the mail from your favorite online DVD rental service. Say the movie is “Troy” – which, when it was released in theaters last year, was slapped with an R by the Motion Picture Association of America for graphic violence, nudity and sexuality.

Despite the rating, you and your kids – or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews – settle down to enjoy a family movie night. Because this is not the version of “Troy” that played in theaters, nor is it the one that’s available at your local Blockbuster. You rented it from one of a group of companies that make an increasingly handsome living stripping movies of any content they deem objectionable.

Gone from “Troy” is Brad Pitt’s bronzed bare bottom, and any hint of sex. Gone is any language that could be construed as offensive, and much of the blood and gore.

And gone, according to many critics, is the filmmaker’s original – and copyright-protected – vision.

Last week, the practice of selling sanitized Hollywood movies cleared a substantial hurdle when the House passed the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act. The legislation, which is expected to be signed into law by President Bush, primarily benefits one company, Utah-based ClearPlay, which sells DVD players outfitted with a program that allows consumers to skip over material in any movie that they’d rather not see or hear.

Other companies, such as CleanFlicks, CleanFilms and Family Flix, provide simpler versions of ClearPlay’s service. They buy the original Hollywood version of DVDs, painstakingly remove the material they judge inappropriate, and sell or rent it back to the consumer. Some even allow you to send them titles from your existing video library to be edited with far greater stringency than the MPAA ratings board applies to a G-rated movie.

Filmmakers, however, are less than thrilled with this fledgling enterprise. The battle lines between the two camps are explored in a documentary airing Tuesday night on AMC, “Bleep! Censoring Hollywood?” Among the loudest dissenting voices featured are Michael Apted (“The World Is Not Enough”) and Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s Twelve,” “Erin Brockovich”), the president and vice president, respectively, of the Directors Guild of America.

The guild, which hotly contested the Family Entertainment Act, has been embroiled in legal disputes with the movie-sanitizing companies for years. After the House vote last week, it issued a statement saying it would “continue in its efforts to vigorously defend the right of directors to protect their work from unauthorized alteration.”

The passing of the Family Entertainment Act “shows that there’s obviously a need for this out there,” said Ray Lines, founder of another Utah operation, CleanFlicks, and the pioneer of the film-cleansing industry. “We would probably make the argument that the way we edit the movie and the way ClearPlay does it is pretty much the same way. It proves that there’s a need for this.”

Lines, who is Mormon, got started in the business almost by accident, when a friend asked him to remove Kate Winslet’s naked breasts from his copy of “Titanic.” That was five years ago. Since then, CleanFlicks has edited some 800 titles, has membership “in the thousands” enrolled in its rental service and about 100 stores across the country that sell and rent its cleaned-up DVDs.

“This isn’t for protecting your kids,” Lines clarifies. “This is for protecting everybody. The bigger issue here is, this is about choices. Right now, Hollywood is making films for a certain group of people that like the violence, like the swear words, like the sex and nudity. What about the folks that don’t like it? What are they supposed to do, just not watch the movie? See, to me, that’s not a choice.”

Lines doesn’t see much difference, legally, in the service his company provides and the editing of movies for airplanes and network television. He does acknowledge one key distinction – filmmakers have a say over how their work is edited in those other cases.

But, he says, “I would wager to guess that our finished product and the finished product you see on the airplane is pretty darn close. In fact, the movies that I’ve seen edited on national television, they take more stuff out. Because they’re not just editing for television, they’re editing for time.”

He cites a personal example: seeing “The Thomas Crown Affair” recently on basic cable, and noticing entire scenes were cut out. “This is kind of the hypocrisy that I’m questioning,” Lines said. “Why don’t the director and the producer of “The Thomas Crown Affair’ scream and yell and rant and rave about what TNT just did to their film, when we’re doing this for private home use? I don’t understand that.”

Marshall Herskovitz, who produced “The Last Samurai” – one of CleanFlicks’ top rentals – is quick to point out that the filmmakers’ blessing on a TV or airplane cut is not the only issue.

“There’s another difference,” he said. “The reason why films are edited for airplanes is the same reason they’re edited for (TV) broadcast. There are situations in society where people do not have a choice as to what they’re going to see. If you’re sitting on an airplane and a film is screened in front of you, you have no choice but to look at it. Therefore, you have certain rights to be protected from things that will be disturbing to you.”

But, Herskovitz says, “Movies are different. And when a movie exists in the form of a DVD, it’s still different. You have to make a choice in a store to buy or rent that DVD and bring it into your house. That’s the level of control as a consumer that you have.”

Herskovitz fears the removal of specific material – for example, CleanFlicks cutting any use of the word “God” in a secular context – could result in the slippery slope that he calls the “customization of content.”

“There are probably people in this country who would like to see films with no black people in them,” Herskovitz says. “You could off the top of your head name 25 different categories where you could find several thousand people, at least, who would be happy to look at films without those elements.

“Commercialization of that is patently wrong, or” – he laughs – “copyright-ingly wrong.”


10 p.m. EDT Tuesday


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