Edited films back on the rise

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The last three winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture have all been R-rated movies. Each winner from 2005 to 2010 was also rated R. Six of the ten highest-ranked movies on the popular movie-rating site IMDb also share that rating.

“It’s too bad,” said Chris Tietjen, a junior majoring in business. “There are all these great movies out there, but a lot of them have things that I don’t want to see.”

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are encouraged to choose their media wisely. This is likely why since the early 2000s, businesses in Utah County have led the charge in providing viewers with a way to edit their film’s content.

In the past, this territory has been fraught with legal troubles.

When copyrighted material is produced, it is illegal to physically alter that material and redistribute it into the market. Early businesses, including CleanFlicks, that edited movies did just that — altering the objectionable material out of movies and then selling them to consumers. In 2006, CleanFlicks was forced to close its doors after a federal judge ruled that the company was in violation of this law.

VidAngel is a movie-editing company that appears to be on the cutting edge of filter technology. (Jake Healey)

The issue was not that people were watching edited films but that a third party was doing the editing. People have the freedom to edit audio and video recordings in the privacy of their own homes, provided that the edited material remains private. Because of this, a device known as ClearPlay briefly surged in popularity following CleanFlicks’ demise.

ClearPlay introduced a DVD player loaded with pre-made filters for thousands of films. All viewers had to do was insert an unedited DVD into the player, select what content they wanted cut and ClearPlay would allow them to enjoy a customized edit of the film. However, ClearPlay’s business model proved too expensive and inconvenient for widespread success, so it has since added online streaming to its services.

Though few people demand a filter for all media they watch, a recent Google consumer study showed that roughly 47 percent of American parents would use a filter if it was convenient.

That’s where VidAngel comes in. Founded by BYU graduates Neal and Jeffrey Harmon, VidAngel looks to be the future of edited movies. The company offers similar services as ClearPlay but adds an intuitive online system and an expanding database of content at a fraction of the price.

The company turned heads with an advertisement featuring a family on a couch watching a movie. The family was shot by over 3,000 paintballs, a representation of profanity in today’s entertainment.

“Media has impact,” Jeffrey said. “We want to provide people the chance to experience great media without being assaulted by content they find offensive.”

VidAngel is headquartered in Provo, but the owners don’t want to be grouped with past Utah Valley based companies. “Sometimes we’re pigeonholed into the subgroup that all those companies were in but that’s not the full story,” Jeffrey said. “That was censorship. This is freedom.”

The key difference is that VidAngel does not edit content. Rather, volunteers from the online community “tag” content in movies that people might find offensive, such as sexuality, drug use, language, nudity, violence and even Jar Jar Binks.

That’s not a joke. VidAngel allows users to watch “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” completely Jar Jar free. Viewers can remove instances in which the universally-hated character is tagged as “on screen,” “spoiling a perfectly good shot” or “in the background, ruining everything.”

Of course, movie watchers can also opt to watch a movie completely filter-free. “This is a platform,” Jeffrey said. “We allow our community to draw the line … It’s not our job to tell people what’s right and what’s wrong. We just offer them the freedom to choose.”

In this spirit, VidAngel’s new slogan is “Watch movies however the BLEEP you want.”

“We’re kind of like Redbox but we’ve innovated on the model,” Neal said. “Redbox rents movies, whereas we sell them. But we allow a user to sell it back to us for almost the entire cost.”

VidAngel’s sell-and-buy-back feature means that the entire process costs only a dollar, making it the cheapest “rental” service available. Such an enterprise is profitable to both the user and the studios in Hollywood.

VidAngel recently conducted a survey of its consumers and found that without the edits the company provides, 77 percent of them would not have watched the film they watched.

This business model is beneficial to the movie industry while maintaining respect for copyright laws. “Free speech allows you to, in the public sphere, present a message the way you decide,” Neal said. “But the flip side is that in the home, you get to choose how you consume speech. This was actually codified into federal law, but it’s common sense as well.”

VidAngel is supportive of a director’s right to control the distribution of his or her content. That’s why for every movie watched online, the company purchases a DVD that it streams to users. This means, as with Redbox, sometimes films are unavailable. But as their business expands and the market grows, Neal is confident that such instances will become fewer and farther between.

“Forty-seven percent of America is a pretty big market,” he said. “We want to reach them all.”

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