'Please don't do this': Why Sony's plan to sanitize movies could be a 'slippery slope'
Films remove some swearing, plus 'sex, graphic violence and gore'
If you ever dreamed of watching the Somali pirate thriller Captain Phillips or the raunchy Will Ferrell comedy Step Brothers with your kids, Sony Pictures just made your movie night.
The entertainment company's home entertainment wing launched "clean versions" earlier this week, offering digital downloads of sanitized family-friendly versions for two dozen of their movies — including White House Down, Moneyball and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Even the kids book series-turned-Jack Black film Goosebumps made the list.
These clean versions are the censored ones shown on television and airlines, which remove some swearing and what the company refers to as "adult scenes such as sex, graphic violence, and gore." They are sold with the original movie and will be available on iTunes in Canada.
But the concept has elicited scorn from some filmmakers and creative types. Soon after the move was announced, Canadian comedian Seth Rogen tweeted these strong words: "Holy s--t please don't do this to our movies."
'The audience is so small'
Toronto producer Don Carmody, whose production credits include Chicago, Pompeii and Good Will Hunting, thinks the effort might flop.
"I think the audience is so small," he said. "Taking a standard Hollywood thriller and just removing the swearing or the marginal nudity is not going to appeal to anybody."
He said the directors guild would likely require any type of film recut to have the explicit approval of its director; Sony didn't clarify who needs to agree to releasing the clean version, particularly now that it is available to a wider audience.
Carmody has put out versions of his films for airlines but he said they are by no means family-friendly, as Sony is touting. The producer said airlines allow some swearing and a bit of nudity.
Carmody fears a more stringent, sanitized movie could lead to watered-down storytelling. He uses two films he produced — the bloody hockey comedy Goon and the crude sex comedy Porky's — as examples: "If they tried to clean them up, they would end up with a short," he said.
"To clean Porky's up … it would lose a lot of its attraction."
200-plus swear words axed from Good Will Hunting
Studios and filmmakers have cracked down on sanitized films before, so Sony's efforts are notable.
In the 2000s, video stores in Utah (the U.S.'s most Mormon state) specialized in renting out clean versions of films, editing out any risqué material. But they faced lawsuits from Hollywood studios and pushback from famed directors like Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.
The now-shuttered CleanFlicks was one of the more notable Utah businesses that specialized in the sanitized rentals and was the subject of a 2009 documentary. They actually cleaned up Good Will Hunting, one of the film's Carmody worked on, muting more than 200 swear words throughout.
Joshua Ligairi, one of the documentary's filmmakers, lives in Utah and has seen there is a demand for these sanitized films firsthand.
He said some of the editors he spoke to for the documentary said they were just trying to serve a underserved market and they would stop if the studios offered it.
"There were schools and prisons wanting access to the content," he said. "As long as they were taking out the kissing and sex scenes, they are OK with them getting their heads lobbed off."
And now that a studio has stepped up, Ligairi is eager to know if Mormons in Utah will support Sony; he said many still have a hard time with the entertainment industry deciding what's appropriate and what's not.
"They want the Hollywood content but they think Hollywood is the devil at the same time."
Complaints about copyright, artistic freedom
Scott Reave knows how editing beloved blockbuster movies can tick some people off. He is an administrator with FanEdit, a U.S. site dedicated to discussing fan made edits of films; many do it because they weren't fans of how the original was cut.
Fan-editing falls under a murky area of copyright so the site doesn't host links to the recut films — it is just simply a place to discuss them. Reave encourages editors to purchase the movies before splicing them up. He said fan-edits are different than what Sony is doing but said critics may be irked for the same reason.
"There is always comments [that] we are trampling on the artistic content of the creator," he said, noting that fan-edits aren't meant to replace the original — and neither should Sony's clean versions.
"It's a slippery slope I guess in that it could lead to people pre-editing their material to sell more."
Reave said Sony's offer might be a hard sell, given how their clean version list includes a lot of older classics which many might already own on VHS or DVD — the clean versions come digitally.
"I think it might be harder for people to justify purchasing another version."