Hollywood has always been regarded as something of a dirty business, but what happens when it tries to go clean?
That's the question Sony Pictures is facing this week after unveiling its "Clean Version Movies" initiative, a concession to family audiences who just want to watch today's blockbusters without all the swearing, violence or any other artistic choice that may not jibe with the preteen set. Basically, it's another use of the films Sony already licenses to television networks and airlines – sanitized entertainment for the masses.
So, for instance, a CVM cut of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby will erase any instance of swearing from Will Ferrell's filthy mouth. A CVM version of White House Down will reduce the spectacular violence that makes the Roland Emmerich production so enjoyably disposable. And so forth. It's all detailed online with a surprising level of zippy glee in a CVM promotional video.
The wrinkle with this new initiative, though, is that Sony is now playing in the open digital marketplace, not some relatively confined environment such as an airplane cabin or a network TV feed. Suddenly – at least for the 24 titles of CVM's initial slate – there are two different cuts of a film available to any paying customer with access to iTunes, Vudu or FandangoNOW: the version theatres played with the presumed blessing of the filmmaker and a sanitized cut of more questionable provenance.
Yes, in some instances directors do have a say in how a film is edited for TV and airlines. And it's true, not every director has final cut, even when a film makes its way to the big screen. Aside from issuing a boilerplate statement – "Clean Version now allows families to screen the broadcast or airline versions of their favourite blockbuster movies at any time, free from certain mature content" – Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has not responded to multiple requests for comment on the strategy behind CMV or the editing and approval process behind its selections.
Yet, representatives for filmmakers whose work is part of CVM's lineup expressed surprise on Wednesday when contacted by The Globe and Mail. And actor/writer/director Seth Rogen, who has a long history with Sony but whose films are not currently part of CVM, tweeted his own distaste. After kicking things off, appropriately enough, with an expletive, he issued a plea to Sony: "Please don't do this to our movies. Thanks."
Whether or not Rogen's movies will fall prey to CVM is an open question, but it's undoubtedly disheartening to see a studio chop up its own movies, even with the filmmaker's consent. It's almost the inverse of the late-1990s boom in director's cut DVDs, when producers eager to exploit consumer loyalty would push countless iterations of a movie, tweaked here and there, each promising to be the definitive edition. (I own at least three versions of Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness.)
The business case for CVM is intriguing, though. On the one hand, launching an in-house service allows Sony to immediately own a game that third-party services have been fighting over for years. Recently, companies such as VidAngel and ClearPlay have sold a similar scrubbing of Hollywood product – until ClearPlay stopped offering its services in February owing to a "technical issue," and VidAngel became locked in a legal battle with studios, which claim the company acted as an "unlicensed VOD streaming service."
On the other hand, the introduction of CVM might also signal a larger shift in Hollywod strategy – a renewed push toward appeasing the lucrative family-friendly market. This seems increasingly important for Sony, which has cornered the evangelical Christian market thanks to its faith-based label, Affirm Films.
The studio launched Affirm in 2007, distributing "faith-based and inspirational content across a wide range of genres and budgets." So far, those films have included such hits as Soul Surfer (grossing $47-million [U.S.] worldwide), Miracles from Heaven ($73.1-million) and Heaven Is for Real ($100.1-million). Affirm has two more films coming this year: August's drama All Saints, starring John Corbett (tagline: "From a seed of faith grows hope") and November's animated The Star ("The Story of the First Christmas"). Any one of these movies would feel right at home on CVM, no alterations necessary.
No matter the filmmaker outcry, then, expect plenty of other studios to follow Sony's lead. Family entertainment may be a clean business – but it's a business all the same.