Review: Cleanflix

CleanflixIt was the late 90’s.  Ray Lines was constantly getting approached by friends to edit the nudity out of their VHS copies of Titanic.

Where other editors were literally using scissors and tape, Lines had experience in broadcasting and knew how to use modern technology to do more effective film editing.  He could see the demand for “sanitized” copies of films like Titanic and The Matrix and the business opportunity it presented.   Together with Allen Erb, Ray Lines founded Clean Flicks, a company devoted to editing and selling Hollywood movies with the profanity, sex, and violence removed.  Edited movies turned into big business in Utah Valley (85% LDS) with Clean Flicks franchises — and competitors — popping up almost overnight.  But what happens when Hollywood gets word and tries to put an end to the edited movie craze?

The story of Clean Flicks and their legal battles with Hollywood over the “right” to edit offensive material out of movies is the subject of Cleanflix, (official site, IMDB) a documentary by Andrew James and Joshua Ligairi.  Originally completed in 2009, Cleanflix remained in distribution limbo until now, where it is currently available through Amazon Instant Viewing and other outlets.

Cleanflix provides interviews with key players, and details of the edited movie business that will be interesting even to those LDS who lived in Utah Valley during the Clean Flicks saga and know the outcome of the story.  And for those unfamiliar with the “culture wars” between Hollywood and the edited movie barons, the documentary provides a compelling narrative with twists and turns, as well as some unique insights into the LDS culture that spawned the legal battles in the first place.

Editing movies for content has always been subject to debate.  In Cleanflix, Ray Lines and others outline the ethical premise behind editing movies:

  • Latter-Day Saints are encouraged to avoid “R-rated” material in movies.
  • Most “offensive” material in movies is not consequential to the plot or the theme.
  • Edited movies are not “censorship”:  they are clearly labeled as edited and are alternatives to (not replacements for) the originals, which are always available for those who want them.  They are developed and sold to a clientele who fully understand that they’re watching an edited film (with all the artistic and continuity compromises that represents) and are fine with it.
  • The 1-to-1 principle — that Clean Flicks will be buying an original VHS or DVD for each edited copy they sell to a consumer — means movie studios won’t be losing money.  In theory, they will be earning money, as edited films find audiences that were never going to spend money to buy or rent the original.

In practice, things weren’t quite so ideal.  We learn that some films were judged to be “beyond editing” (Pretty Woman / Brokeback Mountain).  Financial margins and competitive pressures caused some local dealers to abandon the 1-to-1 principle by making multiple copies of a film for distribution.  (There’s a word for this, of course: piracy)   Some “customers” would rent edited films from one outlet and then copy them to sell or rent out at their own store.

Cleanflix also presents the directors’ side:  that an edited film is a derivative work that still has the director’s name on it, even when it no longer represents their artistic vision.  Like software products which are allowed to dictate how they are installed or resold, customers don’t “own” a movie by buying a DVD in the same sense that they own a pair of shoes and can do whatever they want with them.  (As someone who once got in trouble for showing a rented DVD in a “public place” in violation of copyright, I can testify the laws regarding digital entertainment and what consumers can actually do with the things they buy are fairly strict.)

As outlined in a previous article, I’m not a supporter of edited films, both for reasons of artistic purity and the fact that buying an unedited DVD for someone to edit doesn’t encourage Hollywood to produce cleaner material in the first place (in fact, it does the opposite).   It’s a way for Saints to try to be “in the R-rated world” without being “of the R-rated world” when the distinctions are minimal.  Regardless of your personal opinion, however, the Cleanflix filmmakers do a good job of letting each side speak for itself and defend their own position.  Watching Cleanflix probably won’t change anyone’s mind on the matter, but each side of the debate will probably feel the film treats their position fairly.

Some of the LDS supporters of edited films in Cleanflix refer to the struggle in black-and-white terms (“It’s a matter of good versus evil” says one), although in practice the edited film industry exposed a lot of moral gray area.  How do some edited film store owners justify editing movies out of moral and ethical concerns, but then pirating the movies either from Hollywood, or from other stores?  On the other hand, how can the DGA complain about artistic integrity when they already happily consent to edited versions being created for airlines and TV, still with the same directors’ names attached?  And if those edited versions already exist, why NOT release them and let those who want the edited version give you their money for it?

Subsequent legal judgments against edited movie sellers provided another ethical dilemma:  Latter-Day Saints are obligated to obey local laws, but do judges’ rulings count as “the law” pending appeal?   Is editing gratuitous profanity, sex, and violence a “higher principle” that should motivate store owners (and customers) to keep up the fight rather than submitting to legal authorities?   (Some business owners thought yes, others no.)  Later, after a legal loophole is discovered that may potentially allow the editing to continue, stores owners have to ask:  is the “principle” worth the financial risk to keep going, knowing they may be shut down (again) at any time?

In addition to recounting the legal battles, CleanFlix analyzes the LDS culture that spawned the edited movie craze in the first place.  President Ezra Taft Benson’s famous conference talk in 1986 encouraging Saints not to watch R-rated movies is quoted, as well as a number of BYU students who talk about the principle of clean entertainment.  While edited films tended to cut out anything related to profanity, sex, or violence, the filmmakers notice the tendency of LDS to emphasize the profanity and sex aspect far more than violence.  (“It’s good to have the swearing, profanity, and sex out of the movie — something that we can enjoy as a family.” says one LDS dad.  Did you forget something there?)   One local (non-LDS) college professor raises the question of whether LDS over-emphasis on avoiding sex and nudity might cause rather than eliminate sexual issues in LDS members?

(Note:  the Clean Flicks dealer whose later arrest for pornography and soliciting underage girls for sexual favors that made national headlines and is chronicled in detail by the film is not actually LDS — the documentary is not really clear here — so this question about how LDS attitudes towards sex and nudity in entertainment affects LDS sexuality is purely a hypothetical one.)

The larger cultural question remains:  why do LDS audiences feel compelled to edit movies, instead of simply choosing to watch only the “decent” films and ignoring the rest?   Is it a psychological need to feel like they’re keeping gospel standards, but at the same time not feeling left out of modern US culture (including popular movies)?   Are LDS audiences compelled to pretend the real world is PG-rated, and thus shape all forms of entertainment to conform to that fantasy?   If the real world is frequently “R-rated” and movies accurately reflect that reality, does pushing everything into a “PG-rated” box help or hurt LDS efforts to be in the world but not of the world?    (Note this interesting story of “editing” a work of art to conform to modern LDS standards.)

In practice, the LDS cultural analysis is a little shallow given the brief amount of time the documentary devotes to it, and some of the Church elements feel like unnecessary tangents from the edited film topic.   (Richard Dutcher of God’s Army / States of Grace fame shows up in this section to give his usual diatribe about how LDS audiences are stupid, uneducated, dense, cowardly, and unworthy of his presence among them as a filmmaker.  Okay, Richard, we get it.  Go make movies for other people, then…)

It’s important to note that edited films aren’t going away.  Some edited movie stores are still open today, defying the courts.  Different editing technologies like ClearPlay that are immune from legal complications are still a viable alternative.  Will further technological developments present other editing options that won’t fall under existing copyright law?  If so, then perhaps Hollywood will be forced to revisit the edited movie problem once again.  Regardless of your opinion on edited movies, Cleanflix does a good job of mixing an entertaining story with compelling ethical questions for discussion.

[NOTE:  Cleanflix appears to have been released “unrated”, but contains several comparative clips showing how the edited versions of R-rated movies differ from the unedited versions, making Cleanflix itself essentially R-rated.  I wonder what the Clean Flicks’ “edited version” of Cleanflix would look like…]

  • Kevin Burtt

    Coincidentally enough, Mormon Matters has just posted a podcast with the Cleanflix filmmakers here, along with Richard Dutcher (gee, I wonder if he’ll rant against the LDS film community again…) and some other panel guests to discuss the documentary and the LDS cultural aspects as well.

  • meetloaf13

    The “artistic” argument is stupid.

    I could go buy a Monet and take a sharpie to it and hang it on my wall…let alone a reproduction of a Monet.

  • Terrance V. Mc Arthur

    I was always happy to avoid R-rated films. When a commercial showed that boxed R, I said “Good,. That’s one I don’t have to see.”
    Asked why I didn’t watch R-rated films, I didn’t blame Mormonism’s prophets and say “I’m not allowed to.” I told people, “If it’s rated R, there are things in it that I don’t need.
    “Language? I used to be a substitute teacher. I’ve heard more than I want to hear.
    “Sex? It always looks better in the movies, and I just get depressed. there are no retakes and special FX in real life.
    “Violence? I’m a survivor of a home invasion robber who set fire to my legs. I’m not interested in any more of it.”
    Now, I have watched television shows that were “edited for public broadcast,” and I can usually tell. I find it easier to vote with my dollars…and buy a good book.

    TV Mc Arthur

  • Cinephile

    I read the 1986 Conference talk by Ezra Taft Benson. It was titled “To the Youth of the Noble Birthright” and appeared to be directed at the young people of the Church. Is there anywhere you can find that a prophet has counseled the adult Saints to avoid R-rated movies? This is something I have heard all my life from local church authorities and other members, but never from the prophet or First Presidency.

  • Kevin Burtt

    You’re correct, the conference talk was addressed specifically “to the youth”, which was frequently forgotten (or deliberately ignored) when later Saints discussed the R-rated movie issue. If there is a link to non-youth, it would be that other Church leaders throughout history have said that the standards for youth (like in the “For the Strength of Youth” pamphlets) are also good guidance for adults. However, modern FTSOY publications don’t mention movie ratings specifically anymore in any case, only to “avoid media that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way”.

    As it should be, as the focus on specific ratings caused some to assume if any movie wasn’t rated R then it was “okay” (by Church standards), when in obviously a great many cases this wasn’t true.