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Published: Monday, 4/25/2005

Some like it less hot

BY MIKE KELLY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Some of the more graphic portions of Brad Pitt s movie Troy were edited out in the  sanitized  version
of the fi lm, and Hollywood studios and directors are incensed about the practice.
Some of the more graphic portions of Brad Pitt s movie Troy were edited out in the sanitized version of the fi lm, and Hollywood studios and directors are incensed about the practice.
MURRAY CLOSE / AP Enlarge

It's an epic battle scene from last year's movie Troy, in which Brad Pitt's character, Achilles, is about to finish off a wounded Hector with a mighty thrust of his sword.

Achilles approaches his foe, raises his sword, and then

Nothing.

We see Achilles walking away, Hector evidently having been dispatched, but we never actually saw him strike the fatal blow.

We've just watched a "sanitized" scene from Troy, and this edited film clip serves as an apt introduction to a new, hour-long documentary called Bleep: Censoring Hollywood?, which will premiere tomorrow night at 10 on the cable channel AMC.

The documentary, produced for AMC by ABC News, delves into the controversial and politically charged practice of editing movies to make them more "family-friendly" by removing sex, graphic violence, obscenities, and anything else the editors deem unacceptable.

Using new computer technology, a number of small businesses, many of them based in Utah and run by Mormons, are entering the DVD and home video marketplace to offer edited versions of popular movies. Companies with names like CleanFlicks and Family Flix simply buy DVDs of movies, digitally edit out whatever they deem unacceptable, then package and sell the "cleaned-up" versions of the movies at a slightly higher price.

CleanFlicks owner Ray Lines explains in the documentary that he began sanitizing films years ago, when neighbors approached him and asked if he could remove scenes of nudity from their copy of Titanic. Lines, who ran a video production company at the time, was glad to oblige, and a new business was born.

"Since then we've edited more than 750 films, from Aliens to Shrek," he says.

While CleanFlix takes out scenes featuring sex, nudity, graphic violence, or profanity, another company, Family Flix, goes even further, deleting all of the above, as well as "inappropriate dress," "innuendoes," and "non-traditional family values" such as cohabitation, homosexuality, and inappropriate uses of the word "God."

A company called ClearPlay uses a different approach. Rather than editing a DVD or videotape, it provides filtering software for use with a VCR that enables viewers or parents to remove whatever they want with a click of a button on their remote. The DVD player does not permanently change the movie.

While they think they're doing viewers a favor by offering them toned-down versions of certain films, these "sanitizers" have Hollywood directors and producers hopping mad.

At issue is the right of consumers to decide what they or their children see versus the rights of movie-makers who want their copyrights honored and the integrity of their work maintained.

Several major studios and the Directors Guild of America have sued the companies, claiming copyright infringement because their work is being altered without their permission. A handful of A-list movie-makers make appearances in Bleep to give their side of the debate. Among them are directors Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Oceans Eleven), Taylor Hackford (An Officer and a Gentleman, Ray), and Michael Apted (Married in America), who is also president of the Directors Guild.

Producer Marshall Herskovitz (Traffic, The Last Samurai), says the people who are editing someone else's movies, then selling them under their original titles are doing an injustice to both the filmmakers and the viewers. He maintains that it shouldn't be up to some faceless editor with his or her own agenda to decide what's important in a movie and what can be cut out.

"I decide what's essential and integral to my work," Herskovitz says.

Hackford is even more critical of the sanitizers.

"You think some minimum-wage editor that's brought in is going to have that same knowledge that I have?" he asks somewhat archly.

Snippets from several movies that have been edited are shown in the documentary, and in most cases, the differences don't materially affect the story line. In a scene from The Bourne Identity, a close-up of a blood-spattered shooting victim inside a car is excised; in Mean Girls, a teacher can no longer be seen stripping to her bra, and in an early segment of Saving Private Ryan, a gory scene showing a dying soldier disappears.

The latter scene is a particularly egregious example of ham-handed editing, according to Herskovicz.

"The first half hour [of Saving Private Ryan] is about the violence," he says. "It was supposed to be upsetting."

Viewing edited versions of movies is nothing new. For years, Hollywood has been editing its own films for viewing on airlines and TV, and sometimes directors even shoot alternate scenes for that very purpose. But in those cases, directors usually have a say in how their movies are cut, so they feel like the integrity of their product is protected.

So why don't the directors and producers just make those versions available to the public as well?

At least one already has. Mel Gibson recently released a re-cut version of his controversial 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ, with some of the goriest scenes excised. The reception by audiences, however, was tepid at best.

But even if Hollywood would release its own edited versions of movies, the sanitizers don't trust them to remove enough objectionable material. Conversely, filmmakers don't think anybody else should have final editing power over their films.

They point to the voluntary film rating system developed by the Motion Picture Association of America and the National Association of Theatre Owners, and suggest that parents can use the system's ratings to decide what's appropriate for the families to see. But many parents contend the system isn't as effective as it once was because there's been "ratings creep" over the years. Films that might have received an "R" rating 10 or 15 years ago are now rated "PG" or "PG-13."

The subject of AMC's documentary couldn't be more timely. Just last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that, among other things, legalizes the technology that allows firms like ClearPlay to filter out sex, violence, and bad language from commercial DVDs. The Senate OK'd the same measure in February.

The bill, which is expected to be signed by President Bush, would get ClearPlay off the hook as far as the filmmakers' lawsuit goes.

As for the other companies, their long-running battle with the movie industry has no end in sight. But the sanitizers predict that they will ultimately prevail.

Says Curtis Fullmer of CleanFilms: "We're not trying to force anything on anyone. We're just giving them an option."

Contact Mike Kelly at: mkelly@theblade.com

or 419-724-6131.



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