When a little Utah mom-and-pop video store snipped the Kate Winslet nude scene out of the "Titanic" movie a few years ago, it didn't know what it was starting. That act caught the interest of many video-renters in Utah, a conservative state with a large population of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose church discourages viewing of movies with heavy doses of violence, steamy sex scenes and profanity.
It turned out there was a considerable market for the edited version of "Titanic" among all kinds of families who didn't want their children watching the sex scenes.
And as it further turned out, a national market has flourished for "E-rated" or edited films, which are cleaned up for families who don't want the violence and crudity that Hollywood injects into far too many of its movies. We are not talking about what scoffers call the "Mary Poppins" line of family movies here. We are talking about major and often significant movies that are simply overladen with filth that some families would just as soon avoid.
A lot of the edited films were originally R-rated, but some films rated PG-13 such as "Big Daddy" and "Anna and the King" are getting an editing as violence and profanity creep in. Stores renting the E-rated videos have mushroomed in many states, but the edited versions can also be ordered from Web sites that put the cleaned-up movies within reach of anybody with a mail box.
This grass-roots revolt against the moviemakers' pollution of our culture has not been well received in Hollywood. The argument producers and directors have used hitherto to justify the increasing use in their productions of four-letter filth and violence is that moviegoers demand it. The emergence of a substantial audience that clearly does not approve of this content surely belies this theory.
So now, the Hollywood opposition to edited videos centers on the thesis that it represents censorship of the original artist's creativity and is an invasion of his or her intellectual property. It is an intriguing ethical argument, with the hint of legal action by the originating studios hovering in the background.
The argument is somewhat undercut by the fact that the studios themselves alter movies for various markets, notably television, and for showing on airlines. Less well-known to American moviegoers is the fact that more than half of a popular movie's revenue comes from overseas, and moviemakers make substantial changes in those movies to accommodate foreign tastes. Violence is often toned down for European audiences, and sex scenes are often eliminated for viewers in India and for Islamic countries like Indonesia and Pakistan.
One key legal question is whether a viewer has the right to make changes to a video he himself owns. To illustrate this point: My family pays a small annual fee to belong to a cooperative at a local video-rental store that actually owns the edited videos. A section of the store is devoted to these edited movies, and when I exercise my membership, I pay a small rental fee to take out a video of which I am part-owner.
But other venues make no ownership demands. Albertsons, the second largest grocery chain in the country, recently began offering E-rated movie videos for rental and expects to have them in all of its 1,000 stores by summer's end.
New digital technology may soon make the actual editing of videotapes by snipping irrelevant. This technology, downloaded onto a computer that plays a DVD movie, will be programmed to skip over objectionable material, eliminating bad language, nudity and violence, without copying or altering the permanent contents of the DVD.
Moviemakers see all this as unethical and immoral and are pressing the studios to take legal action to protect the directors' artistic rights. Some academics argue we are on a slippery and dangerous slope toward censorship.
The best solution would be simply a recognition by Hollywood that it has descended to the outer limits of good taste and that it needs to clean up its act. At the very least, it could provide edited and nonedited versions of its products, so that viewers could make up their minds which version to buy.
While the debate over its ethics and legality is yet to play out, the revolt by a substantial number of viewers against the tawdriness of some Hollywood offerings is a signal that the moviemakers should heed.
John Hughes is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret News. He is a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org