Hollywood Balks at High-Tech Sanitizers


Photofest
New technology can clean up popular films like "Titanic."

By RICK LYMAN in today's New York Times


LOS ANGELES, Sept. 18  After months of watching a gradual proliferation of
companies offering sanitized versions of Hollywood hits to sensitive or
politically conservative consumers, movie studios and filmmakers have decided
it is time to get a handle on this phenomenon.

"This is very dangerous, what's happening here," said Jay D. Roth, national
executive director of the Directors Guild of America. "This is not about an
artist getting upset because someone dares to tamper with their masterpiece.
This is fundamentally about artistic and creative rights and whether someone
has the right to take an artist's work, change it and then sell it."

The issue goes well beyond this small, growing market in cleaned-up movies,
whether it's taking the violence out of "Saving Private Ryan" or the nude
scenes from "Titanic." As the entertainment industry moves into the digital
age, and as more movies and other entertainment forms are reduced to easily
malleable electronic bits, the capability will grow for enterprising
entrepreneurs to duplicate, mutate or otherwise alter them.

"We're just beginning to understand that this is part of a wider issue," said
Marshall Herskovitz, the veteran writer, director and producer. "As long as
something exists as digital information, it can be changed. So as a society we
have to come to grips with what the meaning of intellectual property will be in
the future."

To filmmakers, who point to a federal law that prohibits anyone from altering a
creative work and then reselling it with the original title and artist's name
attached, it is a simple question of artistic rights.

"If people can take out stuff and do what they want with it and then sell it,
it just completely debases the coinage," the director Michael Apted said. "You
don't know what version of a film you're buying, frankly. I think it's
ridiculous." To the studios the implications concern both copyright and
branding. "This is all new to us," said Alan Horn, president of Warner
Brothers. "We're all trying to understand it. But it doesn't sit well with me,
frankly, because these people could go the other way, too, with more sex and
more violence."

To the companies involved in selling these altered versions  or software that
does the altering for you  the question is one of consumer choice. "We leave
it entirely up to consumers where their comfort level lies," said Breck Rice, a
founder of the Utah company Trilogy Studios, whose MovieMask software can
filter out potentially offensive passages. "People get to choose for
themselves."

At issue is a string of companies, based largely in Utah and Colorado, that
offer edited videotapes and DVD's or software that allows users to play any DVD
with the offensive passages automatically blocked.

One of the earliest to enter this field, a Utah company called CleanFlicks, has
a chain of rental stores that offer sanitized versions of more than 100
Hollywood films, like "The Godfather" and "Mulholland Drive." Video II offers
what it calls E-rated films (cleaned up versions of box-office hits) at several
dozen Albertson's retail stores in Utah.

MovieMask has a different approach. Its software can be downloaded onto home
computers and will shortly be available embedded into laptops and DVD players
that can be connected directly to televisions. The software allows the consumer
to watch more than three dozen possible versions of a movie, including the
original one shown in theaters. It works only on films, about 75 so far, that
have been watched and tagged by MovieMask editors.

Both the numbers of such companies and their reach have expanded in just the
last few months. One company, ClearPlay, already offers its software embedded
into a $699 DVD player. Another, Family Shield Technologies, offers a set-top
box for $239.99 it calls MovieShield that offers its own array of filters,
including making the screen go blank during offensive moments.

Although CleanFlicks has been operating for more than two years, it was not
until MovieMask executives made a series of presentations around Hollywood in
March that the issue came to the fore.

"We came to show them what our technology was capable of doing, purely to grab
their attention," Mr. Rice said. "It certainly did that."

The directors were not pleased by what they saw. A swordfight from "The
Princess Bride" (1987) was altered so it looked like the characters were using
"Star Wars" light sabers. The scene from "Titanic" (1997) of Leonardo DiCaprio
sketching a nude Kate Winslet has been altered by covering her with a digital
corset. These are currently available from MovieMask but were intended to show
the software's potential, Mr. Rice said. What it did, however, was to mobilize
the directors and their organization to find a way to put a stop to this.

Last month the owner of several CleanFlicks stores in Colorado filed suit
against 16 top Hollywood directors, including Steven Spielberg, asking the
court to declare that what CleanFlicks was doing was perfectly legal. The
company argues that anyone who buys a work of art is free to alter it, and that
CleanFlicks is only providing a service to those who have already purchased
copies of the film or become members of its rental club. CleanFlicks officials
did not return calls for comment today. But Jeff Aldous, a lawyer for the
company, said it had no knowledge of the Colorado lawsuit before it was filed
and did not support it. "We realize there's going to be an issue at some point
in time that we've got to discuss," he said.

Perhaps as early as this week the Directors Guild will file a response to the
lawsuit, probably including some counterclaims. And for the first time, the
major Hollywood studios, which have been strangely silent on this issue, may
also support the action.

Exactly why the studios have not joined the fray is not entirely clear. But
several people involved in the talks between the studios and the directors and
writers guilds said the problem was a difference of opinion among the studios
about the whole issue. They said some felt that the proliferation of these
companies showed that a market existed for sanitized products, so perhaps the
studios themselves should get into that business. Others felt that the market
was too small to be worth the costs, especially since some video chains had
indicated they would stock only one version of a film to conserve precious
shelf space. And still others were more worried about protecting their brands.

"If you're a studio that's spent a lot of money developing a 'Spider-Man'
brand, do you want to dilute it by having a `Spider-Man Lite' on the market
competing with it?" asked an executive involved in the talks.

Officials for the clean-movie companies point out that Hollywood already does
release sanitized versions of movies to airlines and some television networks.
But directors respond that those versions are made with input from the
filmmakers.

"That's exactly what we're trying to do here," said Mr. Rice of Trilogy
Studios. "We want them to a part of our process, too. We believe that the
technology is available today where everyone can win."

And if the directors are upset about what they have seen so far, they probably
will not like to hear that MovieMask just signed a contract with a
product-placement company to insert products into existing films, perhaps even
region by region.

"The law as it stands now is just not sophisticated enough," Mr. Herskovitz
said. "I think there won't be a satisfying solution until the laws are all
rewritten."