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Hypocritical Hollywood? Former Cougar Video owner stunned by decision to re-release edited 'King's Speech' with PG-13 rating

UTAH COUNTY — "I can't believe it."

That's what Kirt Merrill said when he heard producers planned to edit "The King's Speech" and put it on the market in a PG-13 format. Five years ago, Hollywood studios threatened to sue Merrill, former owner of Cougar Video in Provo, for doing just that. As a result, his — and more than half a dozen other Utah video editing companies — shut down.

"That is absolutely hypocritical," he said.

The film, which took home an Academy Award for "Best Picture" Sunday, originally received an R rating for a scene in which Colin Firth, who plays King George VI, is pushed by his speech therapist to use profanity in order to overcome his stutter and says the F-word at least 15 times. Distributors' decision to re-release the movie with less profanity has reignited an old debate about whether or not editing a film compromises its artistic integrity.

A federal judge ruled in 2002 that editing profanity, sex and violence out of films caused "irreparable injury to the creative artistic expression in the copyrighted movies." The decision, and subsequent threat of legal action, prompted the shutdown of more than a half a dozen video editing stores in Utah, including Cougar Video.

The Weinstein Company announced they wanted to make the film more "family-friendly," but the decision was largely economical. PG-13 films make 25 to 35 percent more money at the box office than R-rated films with similar content, according to a recent BYU study. "The King's Speech" has already made more than $115 million in the United States. With the rating change, the film is projected to earn millions more.

Director Tom Hooper, however, wasn't involved in the new editing process. Before the company announced plans to release a PG-13 version, he told Entertainment Weekly that "I wouldn't support cutting the film in any way."

Firth has been vehement about his opposition to the move.

"I think the film has its integrity as it stands… It serves a purpose," he said. "I'm not someone who's casual about that kind of language ... But in the context of the film, it couldn't be more edifying, more appropriate. It's not vicious or insulting. It's not in the context that might offend… I still haven't met the person who'd object to it."

In Merrill's opinion, the situation "is so ironic, it's almost offensive."

He's no stranger to the idea that "family-friendly" sells: edited videos only accounted for 25 percent of the stock at Cougar Video but they accounted for 85 percent of his business. Merrill got orders for cleaned-up videos from all over the world.

It was a "great niche market," he said, but it basically crumbled after a group of prominent directors, including Robert Redford and Steven Spielberg, took a group of stores — mostly in Utah — to court for defiling copyrighted work.

"Their whole argument was, 'It's about the art, not the money. You're hurting our ability to express ourselves,'" he said. "Clearly, that was totally bogus."

Tori Baker, executive director of the Salt Lake Film Society, on the other hand, believes this is a business decision that the Weinstein Company has a right to make.

"We absolutely disagree with censorship, but this is not censorship," she said. "These are the people who own the film. It's their content. If they want to change it, that's a lot different than the CleanFlicks approach."

She plans to let Utahns decide for themselves whether they approve of the studio's decision.

"If they want to see the edited version, we'll show it to them," she said.

Although not everyone agrees on the ethics of remaking movies, in Utah, "It's simple," said Blake Andersen, senior vice president of Megaplex Theatres. "The guests at Megaplex Theatres vote for movies by purchasing tickets. Based on our years in business, guests overwhelmingly vote in favor of G, PG or PG-13 rated films over R-rated movies."

When special education teacher Jessica Ford heard "The King's Speech" would be released in an edited format, her eyes lit up.

"I've wanted to see that!" she said.

Ford works with children who deal with speech impediments just like the film's main character. She was excited when she saw previews — until she found out it was rated R.

"I don't watch R-rated films," she said. "I heard it was rated R because there are a lot of 'F' words. I hate that word."

Wounded feelings aside, even Merrill, who generally avoids R-rated movies, said he's glad there will be a cleaner version of "The King's Speech" on the market.

"Anything that promotes good is ultimately good," he said.

On a national level, the change is getting mixed reviews.

Cinemablend.com blasted Weinstein for censoring the movie. Author Josh Tyler wrote that censoring the film makes sense to get more people to see it, but "The King's Speech" has already made more than $100 million at the box office and won big at the Oscars.

"There's no reason to censor it," Tyler wrote. "It serves no real purpose, and in censoring it the Weinsteins are not only hurting their movie but potentially the movie industry around it by setting a dangerous precedent. That's not OK. Don't support it. Don't let others support it. We can send a message here as long as that PG-13 version impostor plays to empty theaters."

The Boston Globe criticized the MPAA for making "The King's Speech" rated "R" in the first place. "It's hard to understand any criteria that yield the same rating for 'The King's Speech' as for 'No Country for Old Men,' another Best Picture winner — but one soaked in violence from start to finish. ... King George VI overcame his stutter to communicate better with the public. The MPAA needs to overcome its own stifling rating criteria to better communicate which movies are right for whom."

Scott Sawitz, the "Monday Morning Critic," said he loved the rating change because now more audiences will see the film. More theaters can show the film and two versions (one with profanity and one without) can be released on DVD, he said. He really blames the MPAA for messing up the rating in the first place.

"In reality it's some foul language in relatively small doses, nothing that isn't all that bad, but the real problem is the MPAA and their ridiculous standards for rating a film," Sawitz wrote. "Really this should've been a PG-13 film to start, regardless of the language, but that's a different discussion for a different time."

According to the MPAA, for restricted movies, children under 17 must be accompanied by an adult. They contain adult material, such as hard language (more than two F-words), intense or persistent violence, sexually-oriented nudity, drug abuse or other elements, so that parents are counseled to take this rating very seriously. Parents are strongly urged to find out more about a film in determining their suitability for their children.

The King's Speech

Domestic box office:

$117.3 milion

Foreign box office:

$154.3 million

Worldwide total:

$271.6 million

MPAA rating: R

Re-release rating: PG-13

Distributor: Weinstein Company

Nominated for 12 Academy Awards

Won four Academy Awards:

Best Picture

Best Director

Best Actor

Best Original Screenplay

Contributing: Sara Israelsen-Hartley

e-mail: estuart@desnews.com