“Cleanflix” is a riveting documentary about a number of companies during the early part of the 2000s who sold and rented edited versions of PG-13 and R rated films to people who wanted to see popular films, but didn’t want to be exposed to violence, sexuality, nudity, or profanity. These companies, most of whom were housed in Utah, would edit the films themselves and to skirt anti-privacy concerns, they would require the customer to buy a legitimate copy of the movie and the companies would edit the film themselves, sending the customer a copy of the “clean” version. The creative community in Hollywood was understandably upset with the way these companies edited their films and eventually got many of the companies shut down through legal means. However, a few rogue companies and dealers tried to stay in business, mistakenly using a loophole in “fair use” laws, claiming the edited films were for “educational” use. Eventually, these companies were shut down as well.
“Cleanflix” provides a detailed look at this controversy, going into some of the odd decisions the edited film movement would make regarding certain films. For example, the edited version of “Fargo” apparently showed the beyond-gruesome wood-chipper murder scene in graphic detail, but cut out some dialogue regarding an uncircumcised penis. In addition, some companies apparently provided PG-rated versions of the “Saw” films (a group of films routinely referred to as “torture porn”), but refused to sell or rent an edited version of “Brokeback Mountain” for so-called “general principles.” Mmmm-kay.
The documentary also centers on one dealer, Daniel Thompson, who became the face of the edited films movement, despite the objection of many of the people involved behind the scenes (including the original company called Clean Flicks, whom Thompson was never a part of, aside from being a buyer of their films). Thompson attempted to stay in business despite the court orders and became a popular interviewee for various news programs and talk shows. Thompson earned the enmity of his fellow edited film advocates for many reasons detailed in the film, but later became embroiled in a severe moral and legal scandal, which involved him pleading no contest to sexual battery of two 14-year old girls in 2008.
Arguably the most telling summary of the documentary came from Noel Murray’s and Scott Tobias’s Onion AV Club’s review of the film from 2009: “The real story isn’t just about intellectual property; it’s about the daily difficulties that the devoutly religious have in trying to participate in mainstream American culture while retaining as much of the purity of their own beliefs as they can. To some extent, the filmmakers fighting the clean-up business are contending that their work grapples with the ugly, messy, sexy world that some Mormons would rather not confront, and that the PG versions actually do their viewers a disservice. Certainly what ultimately happens to Daniel (in turns of events loaded with irony upon irony) proves that avoiding R-rated movies may not mean that you avoid an R-rated life.” Well put.
However, as much as I agree with the Hollywood filmmakers who objected to their work being tampered with, I would agree with one point the edited film advocates make: Hollywood frequently creates sanitized versions of their films available for airplanes and television. Why aren’t these versions made available to people on a retail level who might enjoy them? The advocates requested that Hollywood make these versions available for sale and rental and the studios responded that there was no market for these edited versions … an assertion discounted by the vast number of people who purchased and rented edited films from these dealers. Granted, as copyright holders, the studios and filmmakers can do whatever they want with their intellectual property. However, since many studios have increasingly licensed their older catalog titles to other companies for release on DVD and Blu-Ray, why would they close off another source of revenue, even if all they did was license the edited versions they already created to another company? It wouldn’t cut into the sales of the unedited films, because the audience who would want the edited films aren’t buying them anyway. And, as long as it was clear that what was being sold was an edited version (with the option of the filmmaker taking his / her name off the edited version if they so chose), I wouldn’t see an issue with it. Of course, that subject is open to debate, but I will say the edited film folks make a legitimate point.