Rehab II: Get me re-write!!!

Law, technology, sex and religion throw a groovy little party, and Bob gets overwhelmed

One of the fun parts of my new gig is being a general-assignment reporter within a field–entertainment–I know relatively little about. Or, put it this way: I have strong feelings about the way entertainment is made and consumed and manipulated, but I know little about the technical processes.

Rehab II: Get me re-write!!!

Rehab II: Get me re-write!!!

So when I was asked to do an explanatory piece on litigation between Hollywood directors and companies that are independently sanitizing videos of popular films, I had some catching up to do.

I would also suffer, once again, from my compulsion for putting my paragraphs and sentences in order at the expense of vivid writing. Fortunately, my editor would once again bail me out.

The story in question was a pissing match. It began with a lawsuit filed by a couple of Colorado “CleanFlicks” outlets. CleanFlicks is a Utah-based corporation that got the bright idea to edit cursing, sex and violence out of video copies of hit movies and rent them to consumers. The Directors Guild of America went nuts because directors hate to see their work altered by anyone but them. (We reporters know that feeling.) The CleanFlicks stores, anticipating a suit, filed their lawsuit first, asking a federal court to find that there was no violation of copyright law. Then the Directors Guild filed its suit, asking the same court to put not only CleanFlicks out of business, but to clamp down on a host of other companies that manufacture software that allows a computer or DVD player to edit sex and violence out of a movie.

This was great territory because it touched on law, religion, sex, and technology. It was also a pain in the ass for the same reasons. We had only run a couple of short stories on the litigation. So I thought it might be interesting to juxtapose some people who were renting (and presumably loving) the sanitized videos with some directors who were cursing the videos.

The closest CleanFlicks was in Mesa, Arizona, so I phoned up and asked if I could hang out in the store for a day. The owner, sensing it was in her interest, said sure. Coincidentally, the Directors Guild, feeling that a previous story about the litigation was unnecessarily dry, simultaneously offered a group of top-flite directors. If you think this made it easier for me than it should have been, you’re right. It ws one of those times where a reporter has to remember that working for a big paper gives him enormous advantages–and shouldn’t be taken them for granted.

The interviewing was not difficult as long as I kept asking questions that were specific. I needed to know, for example, which specific videos grossed out the CleanFlicks renters, and I needed to know which specific aesthetic principles the directors felt were being violated. Once I got my stuff, the challenge was the same you’d have with a pissing match over commercial zoning: Establish the context and let the fight begin. During my reporting I’d tried to do some interviewing with experts who I thought saw broader perspective in this conflict, and wanted to make sure I filtered that in.

I WROTE A LEAD THAT TRIED TO MAKE THE CONTRAST CLEAR WITHIN THREE GRAFS:

In a Bel Air hotel suite, three prominent motion-picture directors complain that their art is being corrupted by a mounting number of video-rental stores and software businesses that edit sex, violence and profanity from hit films.

In a suburban Arizona strip mall, conservative customers trickle into one of these small video shops, grateful that they can finally see R- and PG-13-rated movies shorn of offensive scenes and language.

This is America’s latest culture war, headed for a showdown in federal court because each side holds a different definition of sacrilege.

THEN I TRIED TO EXPLAIN, MORE SPECIFICALLY, HOW BOTH SIDES SAW THE WORLD:

The directors are consumed by the need to protect the purity of their films.

“The idea that somebody else…can arbitrarily take our works apart and destroy them in any manner they want and represent it as still being that film…is a breach,” says Michael Mann, whose films include “The Insider” and “Ali.” “There’s no polite word for it-it’s stealing. It’s stealing from the consumers…from the copyright holders [the studios] and it’s certainly stealing from us. That’s not the film that I made.”

The people who run and patronize businesses like the CleanFlicks video store in Mesa, AZ, are consumed by the need to protect the purity of their homes.

Marva Sonntag, a mother of four who is browsing through the store’s 400-plus edited titles on a recent afternoon, is practically giddy at finally getting to know Tom Cruise. “I have loved him forever but I’d only seen one of his movies,” she says, explaining that her family stopped going to R-rated films, then PG-13s because “PG-13 was halfway to R and it was offensive.”

Sonntag became a member of CleanFlicks a few months ago, paying $25 a month for unlimited rentals of videos that are sanitized at the chain’s corporate headquarters near Salt Lake City, Utah. There are about 500 like-minded families with memberships at the CleanFlicks store in Mesa, a city of 425,000. There are 75 other CleanFlicks stores in 14 states, half in Utah (none yet in California). There are several other, smaller chains offering the same kinds of videos. There are also software companies selling programs that tell your computer or DVD to eliminate certain words or scenes from hundreds of movies.

NOW SOME NUTS-AND-BOLTS BACKGROUND ON HOW THE SQUABBLE GERMINATED AND THE LEGAL CLAIMS

Almost all of these enterprises have sprung up within the past two years, triggering legal threats from the Directors Guild of America. In August, a CleanFlicks operator in Colorado preemptively sued the DGA and 16 high-profile members, including Mann, asking for a court’s endorsement of CleanFlicks’ practices. The DGA responded last month with a countersuit against CleanFlicks’ corporate office and 12 other companies, asking the court to effectively shut them down. The DGA contends the unlicensed video and software editing violates federal copyright law. CleanFlicks contends each store operates as a co-op, meaning members “own” all the store’s videos, which makes the editing as legal as buying a book and tearing out a page in your home.

NOW SOME SOCIAL PERSPECTIVE:

Competing philosophies of commerce, art and morality deepen the fray.

Many CleanFlicks customers, and some conservative commentators, characterize the chain as the first shot in a rebellion against Hollywood’s casual use of sex and profanity. The DGA dismisses CleanFlicks and other companies as an extremist fringe movement concerned more with profits than principles. Many CleanFlicks customers claim a moral right to rent the same kind of edited movies that appear on TV networks and airplanes. The directors struggle to point out that such editing is permitted only because it is licensed by the studios in consultation with the director. The studios, aware that a strong stand either way could offend potential consumers, have yet to join the litigation, leaving the directors to lead the battle.

WITH THAT I COULD TRANSITION BACK TO A DIRECTOR…

“We think it’s an abomination,” says director Michael Apted (“Enigma,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter”), during a conversation with Mann and director John Turteltaub (“Phenomenon,” “Disney’s ‘The Kid'”). “We also think it’s the tip of a very dangerous iceberg, since we’re all in fear and dread of what can be done digitally these days. We feel this is just the beginning of all sorts of possibilities…This would appear to be a benign issue-making a family version-which could easily go a thousand other ways: making pornographic versions of films, political versions of films, any way you wanted to.”

…AND THEN BACK TO A CLEANFLICKS FAN, GETTING MORE AND MORE SPECIFIC.

The directors’ outrage is lost on Richard Ray, a chiropractor and father of seven, who on another recent afternoon is returning an edited copy of “We Were Soldiers” to the Mesa CleanFlicks. “They may talk about artistry and all that other stuff, but when it comes down to it, they made the movie and then some editor came and cut it and the reason they cut it was to make it a marketable movie,” Ray said. “They cut out scenes they thought may have been great. And then it goes to the airlines. They OK that. It goes to TV, they edit that. And they’re making money all along the way and nobody hears anything

I TURNED THE STORY IN, and my editor, as she had with my previous story, on the Electric Prunes [see previous posting], said: Good, but you can do better.

In this case she made two suggestions: Let’s open the top with individual people, not groups; and let’s put the litigation boilerplate lower down.

“But, you have to nail that down pretty soon to let people know what the story’s about,” I whined.

“The story is about the people on both sides,” she answered. “And besides, this is a feature story in a feature section. What you’ve done reads more like a news feature. In a feature section we ought to assume people will come along for the ride once we entice them.”

All of which made sense to me. I needed to be, in effect, a little LESS responsible. The paper’s editor, John Carroll, has made this point in the past about our feature sections–that they needed to develop their own personality, their own identity. This can be taken the wrong way and used to justify sloppy writing, but I understood that wasn’t the point here. Once I got mad at myself for not doing this the right way the first time, I sat down re-ordered the story. Here it is in full:

ARE THESE VIDEOS RATED ‘C’ FOR CLEAN OR COMPROMISED?
By Bob Baker
October 14, 2002

THE GAMBLE WAS BEGINNING WITH A FOUR-GRAF ANECDOTE OF ONE CLEANFLICKS FAN…

MESA, Ariz.–Marva Sonntag drives to a modest strip mall to browse the local CleanFlicks video store, a place where the clock has been turned back; practically nobody swears in movies here.

They don’t swear because the 400-plus titles on the shelves have been shipped back to CleanFlicks’ corporate headquarters in Utah and clipped of profanity, sexual scenes and some violent episodes. Much of the time it’s a matter of removing the “damns.” Other times, the surgery is extensive. In CleanFlicks’ version of “Saving Private Ryan,” men still die and scream during the invasion of Normandy, but most of the suffering and blood have been eliminated, changing director Steven Spielberg’s nightmarish frankness to mere unpleasantness.

Sonntag, a mother of four who believes “most crimes start with pornography,” loves CleanFlicks, which opened in her neighborhood nine months ago. She’s practically giddy as she talks about finally getting to know Tom Cruise.

“I have loved him forever but I’d only seen one of his movies,” she says, explaining that her family stopped going to R-rated films, then PG-13s because “PG-13 was halfway to R and it was offensive. Now I’m really enjoying it. I didn’t realize how good his movies were.”

…AND THEN INTRODUCING, MORE EXPANSIVELY, AN OUTRAGED DIRECTOR.

A week later, this anecdote is briefly relayed to director Michael Apted (“Enigma,” “The World Is Not Enough”), who is horrified. The British-born Apted is a party in the Directors Guild of America’s month-old lawsuit against CleanFlicks and a dozen other video-rental and software companies that sanitize hit films. But the description of Sonntag’s gratitude pushes him to a new level of outrage.

“The terrifying implication of what you’re saying is that any small interested parties are entitled to change anything to suit their own particular will. Where does that leave you? That leaves you in anarchy and chaos,” he says. “It’s fascism to me.”

THOSE SIX GRAFS THEN LED TO A SUMMATION OF THE BATTLE

This is an exchange of fire in America’s latest culture war, headed for a showdown in federal court because each side holds a different definition of sacrilege: Directors like Apted are consumed by the need to protect the sanctity of their films. CleanFlicks customers like Sonntag are consumed by the need to protect the sanctity of their homes.

Differences over commerce, art and morality have dug an ideological chasm that dwarfs the 385 miles between Mesa, a fast-growing city of 425,000 just outside Phoenix, and Bel-Air, where Apted has gathered in a hotel suite with two other leading directors, Michael Mann (“The Insider,” “Ali”) and Jon Turteltaub (“Phenomenon,” “Disney’s ‘The Kid’ “) to talk to a Times reporter about the threat of unlicensed editing.

WE CONTINUE THE FIRING MATCH BY RETURNING TO THE DIRECTORS…

“The idea that somebody else … can arbitrarily take our works apart and destroy them in any manner they want and represent it as still being that film … is a breach,” Mann says in a resentful staccato. “There’s no polite word for it — it’s stealing. It’s stealing from the consumers … from the copyright holders [the studios] and it’s certainly stealing from us. That’s not the film that I made.”

“It’s the tip of a very dangerous iceberg” of digitizing, adds Apted. “This would appear to be a benign issue — making a family version — which could easily go a thousand other ways: making pornographic versions of films, political versions of films, any way you wanted to.”

AND THAT LEADS US TO THE SAME TRANSITION THAT THE ORIGINAL STORY ENJOYED

The directors’ outrage is lost on Richard Ray, a chiropractor and father of seven who, on the day a reporter visited the Mesa CleanFlicks, was returning an edited copy of “We Were Soldiers.”

“They may talk about artistry and all that other stuff, but when it comes down to it, they made the movie and then some editor came and cut it, and the reason they cut it was to make it a marketable movie,” Ray says. “They cut out scenes they thought may have been great. And then it goes to the airlines. They OK that. It goes to TV, they edit that. And they’re making money all along the way and nobody hears anything about their artistry being cut down.”

THE NEXT GRAF IS A COMBINATION OF BOILERPLATE [WE HAVE TO LET THE DIRECTORS RESPOND TO RAY’S OVERSIMPLIFICATION] AND A MORE SPECIFIC LITANY OF JUST WHAT BUGS THE CLEANFLICKS RENTERS. HAVING TO SQUEEZE IN THE FIRST SENTENCE MADE THE REST OF THE GRAF LOSE A LITTLE FLUIDITY, I THOUGHT.

The directors respond that such editing is permitted only because it is licensed by the studios. But this is a technicality that does not engage most Mesa CleanFlicks customers. One by one on this afternoon, they tick off the movies that had made them uncomfortable — for themselves or their children — and drove them inside this store: the bedroom moments in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” the sex scene in “Dances With Wolves,” the language in “My Cousin Vinny” and “Good Will Hunting.” The store’s manager, Karen Huggans, a mother of six children who invested in the business as a way to raise the family’s income, still remembers the cursing in “White Men Can’t Jump,” a comedy she had looked forward to seeing. “The next day I was speaking to a youth group of kids about doing good things and I could still hear those words ringing in my head.”

OK NOW IT’S TIME FOR THE SCORECARD STUFF–NUMBERS, MAGNITUDE, PLAYERS IN THE LEGAL BATTLE. THIS WILL TAKE TWO GRAFS.

To Hollywood’s creative community, the movement is at once hugely ominous and a minuscule blip. About 550 families have bought memberships at Huggans’ dealership. There are 75 other CleanFlicks stores in 14 states, half in Utah (none yet in California or New York). In addition, there are several other, smaller chains offering edited videos. There are also software companies selling programs that tell your computer or DVD to eliminate certain words or scenes from hundreds of movies.

Almost all of these enterprises have sprung up in the past two years, triggering legal threats from the Directors Guild. In August, a CleanFlicks operator in Colorado preemptively sued the DGA and 16 high-profile members, asking for a court’s endorsement of CleanFlicks’ practices. The DGA responded last month with a countersuit against CleanFlicks’ corporate office and 12 other companies, asking the court to effectively shut them down. The DGA contends the unlicensed video and software editing violates federal copyright law. CleanFlicks contends that each store operates as a co-op, meaning members “own” all the videos, which makes the editing as legal as buying a book and tearing out a page at home.

NOW THE MULTI-GRAF SECTION I WAS GOING TO WRITE ON THE WIDER SOCIAL SIGNIFICANCE IS CRAMMED INTO ONE VERY LONG GRAF

Experts sometimes offer conflicting impressions. Michael Marsden, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University who edits a journal on film and television, decries edited videos as “almost vigilantism.” Jeremy Hunsinger, who directs a center for “digital discourse” at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, describes it as merely the latest example of the way digitizing dilutes reality — an extension, for example, of the way TV superimposes ads on stadium fences or the yellow first-down line on football fields. Ernest Miller, a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, says directors have overreached by trying to outlaw home software that masks content of a DVD: “The issue is whether Hollywood can dictate how a viewer experiences a movie in the privacy of his or her own home.”

FROM THIS POINT IN THE STORY I WANTED TO PRESENT A SERIES OF COMPETING QUOTES TO EMPHASIZE THAT NO COMPROMISE SEEMED POSSIBLE. I HAD TAPE-RECORDED MY INTERVIEWS BOTH SIDES. BUT THE PROBLEM WITH QUOTES IS THAT THEY TAKE A LONG TIME, AND EVEN THOUGH I LIKED THEM, THE STORY HAD TO BE SHORTER.

LUCKILY, IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT, I HEARD A VOICE IN MY HEAD. IT WAS THE VOICE OF L.A. TIMES COLUMNIST STEVE LOPEZ, WHO, WHEN MAKING A POINT, SOMETIMES BEGINS WITH THE EXHORTATION: “LOOK…”

SUPPOSE I CONSTRUCTED A SERIES OF GRAFS IN WHICH BOTH SIDES TALKED TO THE OTHER THAT WAY–EXPASPERATED AT THE INNABILITY OF THE OTHER TO COMPREHEND RIGHTEOUSNESS. IT’S ONE OF MY FAVORITE DEVICES AS A WRITER AND A READER: A DISTINCTIVE, DETAILED PASSAGE LOW IN THE STORY THAT MAINTAINS THE PIECE’S URGENCY AND IMPROVES THE READER’S DEPTH OF UNDERSTANDING.

You can hear a dialogue in the two sides’ exhortations, but it promises no compromise.

Look, says director Turteltaub, you can’t treat the work we spend years on as though it were a cookie-cutter project. We put our emotions and anxiety into our films. People like Marva Sonntag are fooling themselves if they think they’re watching a Tom Cruise movie. They’re simply watching clips from a Tom Cruise movie.

Look, says another CleanFlicks customer, Keena Baker, “there are some really good stories out there that don’t need the stuff they put in.” You rent the edited “Thomas Crown Affair” and you don’t miss the sex scene they clipped out.

Look, says Apted, you do miss these things. Look at what happened when they snipped the sex scene out of “Shakespeare in Love” — they obliterated the crucial link between art and life.

Look, says another CleanFlicks customer, Lisa Lengstorf, “if that’s what it takes to make the story good, then whoever made the movie didn’t do a very good job of writing the story.”

Look, says Mann, you’re crossing a line. “If we were manufacturing a game we’d call it a game. But this isn’t a game, it’s a motion picture, and it has a narrative.” The parts of a film “bear complex relationships that, in architecture, without that kind of engineering, the building falls down…. The experience is degraded.”

Look, says another CleanFlicks customer, grandfather Lynn Mullenaux, what’s degrading is having to watch a film with even a single lewd moment.

“We can say, ‘Oh, it was a great movie and there was only one scene where we saw her naked from the top up, and I closed my eyes. Or I put my hands over my kid’s eyes. But aren’t we living a double standard when we do that? If I allow the violence and the filth and the sex to enter into my home, what am I teaching my grandchildren?”

I USED LYNN MULLENAUX TO EXPAND ON THE KEY ROLE OF THE MORMON CHURCH IN THIS SQUABBLE. [FACTS ON ARIZONA’S AND MESA’S HEAVY MORMON POPULATION GOT CUT AT THE LAST MOMENT.]

Like most of the customers who come into the Mesa store, Mullenaux is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which plays a key role in this dispute.

Since the 1970s, the church, which has 5 million American members, including 70% of Utah’s population, has counseled Mormons to avoid R-rated movies. CleanFlicks’ creator, Ray Lines, a church member with a video background, stumbled into the business when his friends began asking him to edit a nude scene out of their copies of “Titanic.” He opened his first stores in 2000. CleanFlicks charges new dealers a $5,000 fee plus $14,000 for an initial inventory of videos.

THIS PERSPECTIVE WAS MUCH HIGHER IN THE ORIGINAL STORY BUT DID NOT FIT THE FLOW IN THIS ONE…ANOTHER CASUALTY OF WAR.

Many CleanFlicks customers, and some conservative commentators, characterize the chain as the first shot in a rebellion against Hollywood’s casual use of sex and profanity. The DGA dismisses CleanFlicks and other companies as an extremist fringe movement concerned more with profits than principles. Advocates of sanitized videos say the marketplace supports them — that while two-thirds of U.S. films last year were rated R, all but two of the top 10 grossers were PG-13 or milder. These supporters say they want nothing more than to rent the same kind of edited movies that appear on TV networks and airplanes. Their target in that demand is not the directors but the studios, which — aware that a strong stand either way could offend potential consumers — have yet to join the litigation, leaving the directors to lead the battle.

A LOOK-AHEAD GRAF

Unless the two sides reach a settlement, the court will have to decide whether the editing companies are illegally making “derivative” works, or whether the changes are so minor that they comply with a “fair use” exemption. Another key question is whether software that allows a viewer to block content on an unedited DVD violates a director’s “artistic rights,” as the DGA claims, or is as harmless as hitting the fast-forward button on your remote.

TIME TO SAY GOODBYE, WHICH USUALLY MEANS TIME FOR A REFLECTION THAT RESONATES BACK TO OUR CENTRAL THEME.

Directors say they realize their absolutism may be a hard sell in a culture where, as Turteltaub says, “people have the right to have things the way they want it…. I don’t think it’s surprising we don’t have a lot of money for art in our schools when we have a society that feels when a piece of art is done, it’s OK to cross things out that you personally don’t like or edit it yourself or maybe put a black line through something that looks offensive to your group.”

I GOT A LUCKY BREAK WHEN, JUST AS I WAS GOING TO FILE THE STORY, I CALLED THE CLEANFLICKS STORE IN MESA AND THE MANAGER CASUALLY MENTIONED SOMETHING THAT HAD HAPPENED EARLIER IN THE WEEK, WHICH HAPPENED TO HAVE BEEN THE SAME DAY I WAS INTERVIEWING THE DIRECTORS.

Hours before that reflection, 385 miles away from Bel-Air, a less thoughtful but similarly minded person takes a lipstick tube and writes a rhetorical question on the glass window of Karen Huggans’ store: “Would you defile Van Gogh?”

–30–

I think both sides were disappointed by the story. I think each expected it would be the primary focus. I did not share my plans with them during the reporting of the story. First, it might have caused a pointless argument, and, second, how could I be sure what structure I was going to attempt until I finished the interviewing? I came away feeling I had struck a decent balance–and, of course, convinced I had left a lot of important stuff out, and that if I’d only had another 10 inches….

Next: Profiling a radio talk-show demon