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Studios Go on Offensive Against Film Sanitizers

Companies are expected to mount an assault on firms that alter movies to clean them up.

December 13, 2002|Michael Cieply | Times Staff Writer

Hollywood's big studios may soon dirty their hands in the fight over sanitized films.

Eight major film companies are expected to file copyright infringement claims as early as today against CleanFlicks of Colorado and other firms that alter movies to remove scenes and language they deem offensive, according to people familiar with the studios' plans. The move will boost substantially the position of film directors, who have asked a federal court to stop the unauthorized editing.

The studios had been reluctant to join the ongoing legal battle between sanitizers and directors, largely for fear of seeming to oppose advocates of film decency. "We were dragged in kicking and screaming," one executive said.

In Hollywood, the fight raises an uncomfortable reminder of the political battle over marketing of violence to youth two years ago, and seems particularly ill-timed as studios prepare to sell a number of films that appear harder-edged than the PG-13 rated fare that has dominated schedules since the violence flap.

Walt Disney Co.'s Miramax unit will release director Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" and Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill," a pair of expensive, violence-oriented films; AOL Time Warner Inc.'s New Line will distribute commercial director Marcus Nispel's remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

CleanFlicks of Colorado, a franchisee of a Utah-based company, initiated the legal fight in August by suing Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg, Curtis Hanson and other prominent directors, asking for a declaration that cleaning up their films didn't violate copyright laws. The Directors Guild of America argued that studios should be brought into the suit as the copyright holders.

Rather than simply responding as defendants, the studios are expected to mount an aggressive assault, probably seeking an injunction to stop the sanitizers. The studios are required by the federal court in Denver, where the suit was filed, to respond by Monday.

Jonathan Zavin, a lawyer with Loeb & Loeb in New York, confirmed that he expects to file papers by the deadline on behalf of the Motion Picture Assn. of America member companies -- Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc., AOL's Warner Bros., Sony Corp.'s Columbia Pictures, Disney, Vivendi Universal's Universal Studios, Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures and News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox Film. DreamWorks also will join the filing, Zavin said.

Zavin declined to discuss the substance of the filing, as did representatives of the studios.

Attorney David Schachter, who represents CleanFlicks, said studio lawyers advised him at a conference two weeks ago to expect a copyright infringement claim. Asked whether his client and similar companies that are party to the suit had the resources to withstand a studio legal assault, he said: "They are committed to the principle of what they're doing here. This is not about money. This is about what Hollywood's doing to our ears and our eyes."

About a dozen film sanitizers, all relatively small operations, have become involved in the legal fight, as has Robert Huntsman, an Idaho copyright lawyer who joined CleanFlicks in filing the original complaint after inventing a technology that hides film content without actually altering it.

Some operators, including CleanFlicks, rent videos from which offending scenes have been edited. Others sell software that lets consumers edit a DVD copy to their own specifications. CleanFlicks has argued that it doesn't violate copyright laws because it buys a new copy every time it edits a film.

Directors Guild representatives declined to discuss the expected studio filing. In the past, however, guild insiders have said they anticipate a protracted legal fight that could wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The directors appear to be strengthened by the studios' stand on copyright law, with its extensive protections. Until the firms decided to launch their offensive, the filmmakers had relied on the Lanham Act, a federal statute that protects artists from association with unauthorized versions of their work.

The studios apparently became especially wary of any tangle over the film-cleaning issue after Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) organized a failed peacemaking session between the Directors Guild and a Utah company called Trilogy Studios Inc. in March. Trilogy makes consumer-operated editing software, and has since been named a defendant in the guild's action.

Hatch argued that Trilogy's approach creates a situation in which "artistic expression and viewer choice both can flourish."

Though reluctant to risk a fight with Congress, after the embarrassment of Senate hearings on violence, the studios concluded that to ignore alteration of their product might set a dangerous precedent in a world rife with piracy and rocked by rapidly changing technology.

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