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Cleaned-up films for $1? Movie-filtering streaming service VidAngel draws the ire of Hollywood

Screenshot of VidAngel, which three major studios have accused of ripping and streaming movies without a license.
A screenshot from the website for VidAngel.
(VidAngel)

Brothers Neal and Jordan Harmon wanted to show how rampant profanity in “The Wolf of Wall Street” harms families. So they made a viral ad. 

The two-minute video showed a family of four getting blasted by 3,192 paintballs, one for every swear and curse in the 2013 movie. “Every word has an impact,” the caption read, “Protect yourself & your family.” 

The video was a promotion for VidAngel, a Provo, Utah-based streaming service that lets people filter out the swear words, sex and violence from Hollywood movies for $1 each. The service has attracted hundreds of thousands of people to its website that erases the naughty bits from movies including “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the “Captain America” series and even “Zootopia.” 

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“There’s a wide gap between much of the content Hollywood creates and what families want to allow into their homes,” said Neal Harmon, 38. “VidAngel gives families a tool to bridge that gap.”

But VidAngel has incurred the wrath of the film industry, which says it’s little better than Napster dressed up for churchgoers. The Walt Disney Co., Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox Film and Warner Bros. Entertainment in June sued the startup for illegally ripping DVDs and streaming without a license. 

Still, some see it as an answer to the prayers of values-centric viewers who want to watch cleaner movies. It has been cheered by religious leaders, families and advocates who have long bemoaned the prevalence of sex and violence in film and television. The Motion Picture Assn. of America’s ratings were designed to help parents choose what they want their kids to watch, but many still complain that the system is woefully flawed. 

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VidAngel and parental advocates say that what really irritates the studios is the sanitization of their movies for squeamish audiences. VidAngel’s team of high-profile lawyers say the business is protected from piracy claims by a law that allows people to tweak movies they own for personal use. 

It’s the latest in a long line of companies that have attempted to build a business by skipping and muting objectionable material for family viewing, only to provoke lawsuits from Hollywood. 

Copies of “The Revenant,” a 20th Century Fox release, at VidAngel’s headquarters
Copies of "The Revenant," a 20th Century Fox release, at VidAngel's headquarters
(VidAngel )

Multiple companies cropped up in the late 1990s and early 2000s to satisfy the demands of people who wanted to watch movies without sex and profanity. Utah companies such as CleanFlicks reedited and sold their own sanitized versions of mainstream movies.

Directors such as Steven Spielberg and Robert Altman decried the services, saying they compromised the artistic integrity of the filmmakers’ work and illegally profited from unauthorized copies. Virtually all those companies were shut down. The lone survivor was ClearPlay, also headquartered in Utah, which still sells DVD and Blu-ray devices that filter movies as they play without making permanent copies.

“Every single step to help parents filter content has been fought all the way to the finish line,” said Tim Winter, president of the watchdog group Parents Television Council. “There’s never been a filtering device that the industry has supported.”

VidAngel’s software lets customers pick what kinds of content they don’t want to see when they watch a movie. Once customers choose a film to watch, they can select scenes or words like “hell” or “sex” they want to mute or skip.The website then plays the edited version of the movie. 

The company gets work-from-home contractors to watch new movies and tag every instance of profanity, blasphemy and nudity they can find so that customers can choose what kinds of offending content to mute or skip. The PG-rated “Angry Birds Movie,” for example, is tagged with 71 instances of crude language (“pluck my life,” is one example). Applying all 530 filters to “Deadpool” shrinks the movie’s run time by more than half an hour. 

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The Harmons started working on the concept for VidAngel in 2012 by adding filters to licensed movies on YouTube and Google Play. They raised $867,000 in capital from venture investment firms in early 2014, but they were kicked off YouTube for violating service terms. So VidAngel changed its business model.

In lieu of securing Hollywood’s permission, the company has purchased thousands of physical DVDs and Blu-ray discs from retailers such as Amazon in order to make them available for its customers online. Users can purchase “The Force Awakens” for $20 from the VidAngel website. After they’ve watched it, they can sell the movie back for a $19 credit. That means the consumer only actually pays $1 for the movie, much less than iTunes and Amazon charge for digital rentals. 

VidAngel says it has a physical vault filled with all its DVDs (including 2,000 copies of “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”), which it monitors and assigns to each customer that makes a purchase.   

A beta version grew to nearly 5,000 users before VidAngel’s official debut in August 2015. Executives would not disclose the company’s finances but said more than 500,000 people have tried the system, which houses 3,000 film and TV titles.

VidAngel general counsel David Quinto, the veteran entertainment attorney who came up with the company’s quirky model, says they are protected by the Family Movie Act of 2005, a law designed to cover companies that create technology to filter films while people watch at home, as well as parents who make edited versions of lawfully owned copies for personal use. 

But the studios say that VidAngel’s argument is nonsense. 

Disney, Lucasfilm, Fox and Warner Bros. sued VidAngel in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on June 9, asking the court to stop VidAngel from publicly performing copyrighted works, and demanding unspecified damages and attorney’s fees. VidAngel counter-sued with an antitrust complaint in July, saying that the studios had tried to unfairly squash the nascent business out of their unwillingness to allow filtering technology. The studios filed a motion to dismiss the antitrust counter-suit. 

In legal documents, the studios say VidAngel is merely using filtering as a clever justification for circumventing the law, and they dismiss the notion that they are trying to combat existing law that permits filtering technology. 

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“VidAngel continues to invoke the Family Movie Act (FMA) to distract from its unauthorized activities,” said Disney, Fox, and Warner Bros. in a joint statement to The Times. “Plaintiffs are not challenging the FMA; rather, they are challenging VidAngel’s unlicensed streaming service.”

Several legal experts interviewed by The Times said the 2005 law doesn’t exempt VidAngel from copyright and streaming rules. If VidAngel prevails, they say, the case could have a significant effect on how tech firms are allowed to distribute content online, legal experts said.

“It would completely disrupt the marketplace for digital distribution of films,” said Larry Iser, an intellectual property lawyer at Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert LLP who is not involved in the dispute. “It would turn the whole economics of the movie business on its head.”

VidAngel says its wants to partner with studios and purchase streaming licenses but the studios refuse to deal with them. Attorneys are skeptical.

“There are always people who are going to try to come up with ways to circumvent copyright law and distribute content,” said Caroline Mankey, an intellectual-property expert at the Los Angeles firm Sedwick whose is not involved in the case. “And the good thing about that is it forces the copyright owners to stay at the top of their game.” 

Nonetheless, the nascent company has earned a strong showing of support of people who like the freedom of filtering that VidAngel affords them. Bryan Schwartz, a former football player and minister in Jacksonville, Fla., built a website with the slogan #SaveFiltering to get petition signers to show support. The petition has earned 26,000 signatures.  

“We’re being exposed like no other time in history to content that can be deeply offensive,” Schwartz said. “We want to put parents back in the driver’s seat.”

ryan.faughnder@latimes.com

Follow Ryan Faughnder on Twitter for more entertainment business coverage: @rfaughnder


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