Share this article

print logo

FAMILY MOVIES VS. ARTISTIC INTEGRITY

Taylor Hackford's 2000 film "Proof of Life," starring Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe, told the story of an American oil executive who was kidnapped for ransom by insurgents in a fictional South American country.

Hackford says he went to great lengths to portray the kidnapping as realistically as possible -- which surely meant as brutally and dramatically as possible in an R-rated work.

The scene was slightly edited for television and airline audiences, with the director's approval. But Hackford was not consulted when a private company "sanitized" the film by removing the entire kidnapping scene because of its violent content. And he was not pleased.

"This unauthorized version may lead viewers to believe Taylor Hackford directs movies that just don't make sense," he told Congress last year.

Anyone who creates anything put before the public can sympathize with Hackford's complaint. His testimony was related to a provision in the Family Movie Act, which would permit the sale of technology that narrowly edits movies for specific content and exempts such action from copyright laws. The bill is expected to pass Congress.

But this is bigger than one clause in a single act. It concerns two larger challenges. The first is protecting intellectual and artistic property in a digital age. The second is the right of the community to protect children from the harmful effects of popular culture.

Right now, it looks as if Hackford and his fellow directors are losing this round. For good reason.

To some degree, Hollywood asked for the pickle it's in. The number of companies that rid films of sexual and violent content -- by selling editing equipment and already-edited DVDs -- is growing because the demand is growing. Many viewers, fed up with gratuitous sex, violence and profanity on screens small or big, want entertainment that doesn't expose children to it.

"We're providing a service Hollywood doesn't provide," says Ray Lines, founder of a Utah-based company called CleanFlicks, which sanitizes movies for what it calls "family-friendly viewing."

Once Hollywood began marketing films directly to consumers, so that we can now own something that for decades we could watch only at a set time and place, it lost control over what happens to the product. Lines started his company after a neighbor asked him to edit a movie with his high-end editing software. If the movie was legally purchased, why not?

Well, there is this tricky issue of copyright law, guaranteed as far back as Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution. Artists, like teachers and plumbers and football players, should be paid for their work. The film-sanitizing companies say they do that, by purchasing the DVDs they go on to edit.

An artist also should be allowed to protect the integrity of his or her work, as a scientist is able to patent a discovery. "The notion that someone can change my work without my permission and then make a business out of it is morally wrong," says the TV and film director Marshall Herskovitz.

But if that business is providing a sought-after service -- one that is, arguably, a social good -- is that still morally wrong? Film sanitizing wasn't available decades ago because the technology wasn't available. It wasn't necessary because television and films more accurately reflected community standards and values than they do today.

Despite the solemn pleas from famous directors, it's hard to oppose giving parents the tools to exert some control in their own homes.

But there will be many sequels to this story. The challenge of ensuring artistic integrity in a digital age will only grow as the free market offers new ways to customize what we view, read and hear. Copyright protections have changed enormously since the introduction of the printing press to England in the late 15th century. They're about to change again.

There are no comments - be the first to comment