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Now on DVD: The Sanitizer's Cut

Filmmakers Aghast at 'Scrubbed' Feature Films

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 18, 2005; Page A01

Ray Lines is one of the most prolific film editors working today. Thousands of movie fans have seen his handiwork on some of Hollywood's most successful films, from big-budget blockbusters like "Saving Private Ryan" to smaller works like "Sideways." By his count, Lines has edited more than 800 films in just the past five years.

But Lines is unlikely to win any Academy Awards. In fact, the directors whose work he edits haven't authorized him to touch their films, and often have no idea that he's cutting dialogue and sometimes whole scenes.

A scene depicting the Omaha Beach assault in "Saving Private Ryan." "Sanitizer" Ray Lines deleted the film's goriest scenes, disputing Steven Spielberg's argument that they are crucial to an appreciation of the allied soldiers' courage. (Dreamworks Via AP)

Lines is a film "sanitizer," one of a new kind of independent and self-proclaimed "family-friendly" editors who delete scenes containing sexuality, violence or crude language -- and sometimes more -- from the DVD releases of Hollywood movies. The edited DVDs are resold or rented to parents and others who want a "clean" version of the movie.

Fans of such movies can, for example, find copies of "Titanic" with Kate Winslet's nude scene snipped out, or versions of "Traffic" without a sequence in which a prominent politician's teenage daughter prostitutes herself for drug money. Scrubbed copies of Steven Spielberg's "Schindler's List" delete depictions of the title character's extramarital affairs.

For "Private Ryan," Lines cut out some of the gorier moments from the movie's 24-minute depiction of the landing at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Although Spielberg, "Ryan's" director, has said those images were critical in illustrating the courage and sacrifice of American troops and the viscerally disturbing nature of warfare, Lines found them over the top. "You still get the full effect" even after the cuts, he says.

Plenty of people in Hollywood would dispute that claim. Filmmakers see sanitizing as both a violation of their copyright protections and, worse, a desecration of their artistic vision. "When you change or delete a scene, you change the very nature of a film," says Marshall Herskovitz, the producer of such movies as "Traffic" and "The Last Samurai." He adds, "It's such a simple concept: The original work of the artist should be protected. An unauthorized third party shouldn't profit from it."

Herskovitz compares film sanitizing to buying a book, removing a few objectionable pages or chapters, then reselling it. "If I did that," he says, "I'd be hauled into court."

As it happens, the Directors Guild of America and a group of movie sanitizing companies have traded lawsuits over the issue. An affiliate of Lines's CleanFlicks Media started the legal crossfire in late 2002 when it went to court seeking a declaration that its practices were legal; for maximum publicity it sued 16 prominent directors, including Robert Altman, Robert Redford, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh and Spielberg. The DGA shot back, charging CleanFlicks and several other film sanitizers with copyright violations.

Both sides are hoping for a court ruling that will clarify the issue.

No one is quite sure how many sanitized films are sold and rented each year, but it appears to be a growing segment of the DVD market. Lines claims to have pioneered the business in 1999, after a neighbor asked him to edit "Titanic" on his home editing equipment. Since then, the field has expanded, with companies such as Family Flix, CleanFilms, Flicks Club and ClearPlay, all of which are based in Utah. The businesses started by catering to the state's socially conservative Mormon population, but have expanded beyond that.

The dispute is, in some ways, less about money than a clash over social values and control of a creative product. "A lot of people are just really tired of what's out there," says Sandra Teraci, who runs Family Flix with her husband, Richard. "They're tired of turning on the TV or renting a movie and constantly being hit by violence, profanity and nudity. A lot of people want to go back to the 1950s, before this sort of thing was routine."

Rather than harming Hollywood's bottom line, sanitizers say, they're helping to expand it. Since the sanitizers buy a new original copy for every DVD they alter, the studios don't lose a sale or royalties when a film is edited. Typically, the sanitizers buy an original copy of the movie, edit it on a computer, then send an altered copy, plus the disabled original, to the customer. The movie studios actually profit, says CleanFlicks' Lines, because many customers wouldn't rent or buy an unsanitized DVD.

Film sanitizers say their business falls within the "fair use" exception to copyright law, a concept that, among other things, allows artists to create parodies that look similar to an original work. Because they don't make multiple copies of an edited DVD, they say they aren't engaging in video piracy. To earn a profit, the companies typically mark up the original retail price of the DVD by $6 or $7.

Lines compares film sanitizing to buying a new sports car, repainting it or restoring the interior, then reselling it. "Spielberg says no one has the right to impose their truth on top of his," he says. "My response to that is, he's the god of truth? We just want to watch a movie without sex and nudity."

But critics say sanitizers sometimes alter a film so much that its original themes are muted or even turned upside down. Robert Rosen, dean of UCLA's film, theater and television school, points to a sanitized version of "The Hurricane," about African American boxer Rubin Carter, that eliminated racial epithets uttered by police officials investigating Carter. That, according to Rosen, undercut two of the movie's central themes, racism and police corruption.

"This has very little to do with protecting children," Rosen says. "There are all kinds of religious, political and ideological biases at work."

In fact, sanitizers don't adhere to a common set of editing standards. Each makes its own decisions, although most routinely take out nudity, curse words, blasphemous references to God and Jesus, and violent acts like the graphic sword-impalings in "Gladiator" and "Troy."

Family Flix, which claims to have the toughest standards, removes "sexual innuendo," including suggestions or depictions of homosexuality. It recently edited "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie," an animated film with a PG rating, to eliminate a scene in which a male starfish character sings and dances while dressed in fishnet stockings and high heels.

"We don't hate homosexuals," says Sandra Teraci. "We just don't think that lifestyle should be glorified. It's becoming rampant in more types of films."

Some films are beyond editing. Family Flix didn't even try to sanitize the ultra-violent "Kill Bill, Vol. 1" because it would have been reduced to almost nothing. For the same reason, it won't touch movies in which a character appears "immodestly dressed" in too many scenes. It also has not tackled Mel Gibson's violent but reverential "Passion of the Christ," because, Teraci says, "everyone has already seen it."

Directors have received only tepid support from Hollywood studios in the fight against the sanitizers. (The studios own the copyrights on the films they release.) Some sources speculate that this is because the market for sanitized films is still small, and that the studios could control it if they marketed their own "officially" sanitized versions, like those now shown on airlines or on broadcast TV.

The Motion Picture Association of America, which represents the industry's biggest companies, initially declined a reporter's request for an interview, referring questions to the Directors Guild of America. Pressed for comment, MPAA spokesman John Feehery said, "This is an issue that causes some heartburn."

In fact, the studios are supporting a bill that includes a provision favorable to one member of the film sanitizing industry. Part of the proposed Family Entertainment and Copyright Act would protect a Salt Lake City company, ClearPlay, from copyright-infringement lawsuits. ClearPlay markets a DVD player with special filtering software; the technology enables home users to skip or mute objectionable parts of a DVD, but doesn't permanently alter the DVD.

However, most parties agree this provision wouldn't resolve the dispute between directors and companies that sanitize DVDs by removing scenes and dialogue.

The studios oppose the ClearPlay language, but support the legislation in general because it includes several unrelated proposals favorable to Hollywood.

The Senate passed the bill in March; the House is expected to approve its version in a few weeks. "We think the good far outweighs the bad," said Feehery.

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