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'SANITIZERS' ARE GIVING FEATURE FILMS A CLEAN-CUT LOOK

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 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 they often have no idea he's cutting dialogue and sometimes whole scenes.

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.

Such customers can, for example, find "Titanic" with Kate Winslet's nude scene snipped out or "Traffic" without a sequence in which a prominent politician's teen-age 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 some of the gorier moments from the 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.

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, 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."

The Directors Guild of America and a group of movie-sanitizing companies have traded lawsuits. An affiliate of Lines's CleanFlicks Media started the legal cross-fire in late 2002 when it sought 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 sure how many sanitized films are sold and rented, 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, companies such as Family Flix, CleanFilms, Flicks Club and ClearPlay, all based in Utah, started by catering to the state's socially conservative Mormon population, but have expanded.

"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. Typically, 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 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.

"Spielberg says no one has the right to impose their truth on top of his," Lines 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, Rosen says, 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."

Sanitizers don't adhere to a common set of editing standards, although most routinely take out nudity, curse words, blasphemous references to God and Jesus, and violent acts.

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.

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 has not tackled Mel Gibson's violent but reverential "Passion of the Christ," because, Teraci says, "everyone has already seen it."

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