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Hollywood Directors Go to Court to Fight Companies that Clean Up Their Films - 2002-10-03

This month, Hollywood directors filed suit against 13 companies that edit their movies without permission, or sell editing software to let viewers do it at home. The companies serve a growing market of viewers who object to profanity, sex and violence in the movies. The directors say they are protecting their copyrights.

One target of the lawsuit is the Utah company CleanFlicks, a two-year-old video rental firm, which president John Dixon says has expanded to 70 stores in 14 U.S. states. "We take out the gory violence. We take out sex and nudity. And we take out all profanity," he said.

The Oscar-winning war movie Saving Private Ryan is one of the films from which the company cuts violent scenes that its customers object to. The bad language is muted in A Beautiful Mind, a film about a brilliant mathematician who suffered from mental illness. Kate Winslet's topless scene has been taken out of Titanic, and the climax is cut from Training Day because, John Dixon says, the film already has too much violence.

The Directors Guild of America and 16 prominent members, including Steven Spielberg, filed suit against CleanFlicks and other companies that rent the edited films or sell computer software for editing the movies.

The targeted companies actually prompted the showdown by filing a preemptive action against the directors, asking a judge to declare their businesses legal. The directors' suit is a counterclaim to a lawsuit by a CleanFlicks franchisee and a software developer. The Hollywood filmmakers say the issue is copyright law, which prevents unauthorized changes to their movies. But John Dixon of CleanFlicks says edited versions of the movies are already on the market, and he simply makes them available to his customers.

"There are edited versions that the airlines get," he said. "There are edited versions that other countries get. There are edited versions that go on the network [television]. So the precedent was set a long time ago that edits do get made."

Peter Kiefer, a labor and legal writer for the Hollywood Reporter newspaper, says the directors see the issue as one of control. They say the films for airlines and foreign markets are edited with their approval.

"They argue that the edits that occur when a movie goes onto a television set or makes its way onto a film, they have a say in how the ultimate version is going to be viewed on TV or on the airplane, whereas in the case of these companies, there are really arbitrary decisions being made by the companies in question and in certain cases by individuals that can use and manipulate software that some of these companies are selling," he said.

John Dixon of CleanFlicks says Hollywood is missing out on a lucrative market, and notes that many of his customers would not normally see the films he rents or sells.

Legal writer Peter Kiefer says the studios know this, and that representatives of the rental companies came to Hollywood earlier this year. They met with some directors and studio executives.

"But apparently the meeting didn't go so well when the companies in question showed what they were doing to some of these films and it really irked a number of the directors, who were saying, hey, you can't go in and change my movie like that without clearing this with me," he said.

Director Martin Scorsese, one of the parties to the lawsuit, said companies like CleanFlicks are destroying the credibility of his movies.

A lawyer for CleanFlicks says the retail chain buys a copy of every movie for every edited copy that it rents or sells. The company is set up as a membership organization, and the lawyer argues that after it buys the videos, its members can do whatever they want with them.

Two major Hollywood unions, the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America, have backed the directors in saying that the companies in question are creating illegal re-makes of the films, in violation of copyright law.

CleanFlicks, meanwhile, hopes to expand its business closer to the home turf of the directors. The company plans to open a store in California.