In recent months, you may have noticed ads for a relatively new movie filtering service called VidAngel. Based in Utah (probably owned by a bunch of Mormons), it operates on a buyback model, where moviegoers can buy a movie, stream it through VidAngel’s content filters, then sell it back to VidAngel within 24 hours for a net loss of only $1. Well, sort of. Technically, if you read the fine print, you were paid back in VidAngel credit, so that you’d get a discount on the next movie you rented with them. See what they did there?
Anyway, it didn’t take long for Disney, Fox, Lucasfilm inter alia to notice the company in a legal way. You can read all about the team they’re assembling for the defense, posted last week on their blog. They seem confident about their chances, believing they’ve discovered a loophole that will allow them to continue operating. The comments on this article provide good summaries of the state of the law and theories about how good their case actually is. Not being a legal expert, I’ll let others make those predictions. At any rate, this kind of legal battle is merely the latest in a long string of Hollywood vs. Mormon Video Editing Outfit battles. I’ll let you figure out who typically comes out on top, although in fairness, the most recent one was decided in the Mormon company’s favor, using the same legal team VidAngel is now hiring.
To be honest, I find it difficult to care who wins or loses this case. In fact, given the way this particular site has compiled and marketed its content, I can think of a couple reasons why it might be just as well if it went away.
First, let me say that I’m not opposed in principle to the concept of filtering a film’s problematic content. There are otherwise fun and even inspiring films that have easily isolated, needless swearing, sex, etc. I don’t really have patience for a lecture about “the director’s artistic vision” when we’re talking about shoehorning two f-words into a movie just to jack up its rating to a PG-13. We all know how this works, at least sometimes. (Are there cases where swearing is appropriate to the feel of a film and the characters inhabiting it? Yes. If Matt Damon wakes up stranded on Mars and has to dig a piece of shrapnel out of his side, he has my permission to say the f-word.)
But when we’re talking about movies parents would otherwise be interested in watching with their kids anyway, I can see why they would find a tool like VidAngel useful. It’s especially handy when it comes to profanity, since a swear word isn’t the kind of thing you can easily “skip over,” like a scene of sex or violence. In addition, their filters for violence, sensuality, etc. are highly detailed, allowing you to read brief verbal descriptions of each potentially problematic scene and decide on a case-by-case basis whether you’d like to keep it or censor it. (Though this can get amusing, as in the case of a thriller movie where one of the three main characters wears the same cleavage-showing T-shirt for nearly the entire run-time. But if you don’t want to see anything her character does, you can now filter out her cleavage thanks to VidAngel!)
As for R-rated films, I’ve personally reached a point where I’m comfortable watching many of the more worthwhile ones with minimal self-censoring. But others may not agree. Here I have to part ways with some of my fellow Christian cineasts who find the concept of censoring a movie painful, because this doesn’t necessarily bother me. Maybe you like war movies, but you just don’t want to hear the soldiers swearing all the time. I would prefer to have the artistic experience of watching the film and hearing its characters speak the way they speak. But maybe you will get more out of the film by blocking that out altogether. So I’m not here to accuse VidAngel of some sort of sacrilege in offering viewers that option, either.
VidAngel does not limit itself to the kinds of films/shows that are worth watching in any form, by anyone. In fact, they have repeatedly, aggressively marketed the fact that you can “watch” the sleaziest hard-R hot releases imaginable through their filters. This includes the likes of The Wolf of Wall Street, Deadpool, and HBO’s Game of Thrones. These are just a few notable examples. Conservative Christian movie lovers everywhere will also be thrilled to know that they can finally filter Ted, all three Hangover movies, and Magic Mike (“fun, hot and sexy!”) under “comedies.” Quotes intentional.
But don’t laugh. Apparently there are people out there who actually want to “watch” Deadpool or Game of Thrones this way, thereby functionally not watching Deadpool or Game of Thrones. Why, you ask, in heaven’s name, why? Your guess is as good as mine, but my guess is it has to do with appearing relevant to a non-Christian peer crowd. Thanks to VidAngel, next time someone asks if you’ve seen the new Game of Thrones, you can say “Yeah, it was great!” And isn’t that great? Not pointless or time-wasting or pathetic at all. Nope.
In fairness, I believe the VidAngel team itself is divided here. Last year, co-founder Neal Harmon wrote a blog post attempting to address this very question. He said some commendable things, like that he personally doesn’t believe in watching certain films/shows even with filters if they are generally trashy and unedifying, and that viewers shouldn’t take the fact that VidAngel has something available for filtering as a recommendation. He also said that VidAngel will only offer a film if somebody on the team volunteers to comb through it. Nobody is obligated to sift through every possible film that could be added. Given this also commendable policy, which they call “no taking one for the team,” he admits he’s “surprised” that a movie like 50 Shades of Grey made it through.
“Surprised” is putting it mildly. And as people in the comments on that particular post point out, if having a movie in the library is not to be taken as a recommendation, why was VidAngel sending mass promo e-mails cum poster artwork announcing that they had “just added” 50 Shades? Why did they just recently do the same for Deadpool? I can’t really say it better than commentator Mark Reeves here:
Who at VidAngel says, “The buck stops here”? Who says, this is what we believe as a company and this will define the catalog of movies we offer? Clearly somebody has to. You as a company have to come up with a set of criteria that films featured on your site have to meet. If they don’t you shouldn’t offer the film. You have a community of taggers with a very diverse set of values. Clearly if a tagger thinks “Magic Mike” and “50 Shades of Gray” does not bother their conscience, then you have a problem. You have a community that can tag movies for your purposes but has no real unified consensus or worldview that guides the choices of the films you offer. You will end up offering anything because you will always find a tagger that is not bothered by the film. Now all you are is a movie site with a filter option. If you are only in this business to make money, then that’s no big deal. If you are truly trying to help families… then you will fail in your goal. You will offer films that have no business being offered in the first place. (Maybe one of the taggers will decided to code “Brokeback Mountain” or “American Beauty.”)
Now I said “a couple” reasons. That one was the biggie, but I also want to go back to the ridiculousness of some of the filters. In addition to the usual sex, violence and profanity filters, VidAngel also offers to filter out all scenes involving alcohol or smoking. Moreover, they will include scenes of pushing or shoving (I kid you not) under “violence.” This is beyond ludicrous. This reminds me of the literature anthologies I read as a kid. The uber-conservative press that put them out inserted mysterious ellipses into every O. Henry story where somebody mentioned wine or beer. Granted, VidAngel isn’t that bad, because you as the viewer have total control over what to censor. But the fact that it’s even offered as an option is a sad reminder of how stunted some people are in their ability to appreciate the arts. People who seriously have a fainting fit when they see a man smoking a cigarette or drinking a beer on screen shouldn’t be enabled, they should be educated. For heaven’s sake, at least two men are smoking throughout the entirety of the scene where Prince Edward and the committee try to persuade Eric Liddell to run on Sunday in Chariots of Fire. Not that that sequence is important to the plot, or anything.
In short, VidAngel is a bizarre collision of obsessive sanitizing and worldliness. It blends the worst elements of stifling fundamentalism on the one hand and desperate-to-please mainstream evangelicalism on the other. It offers some Christians the opportunity to ruin a good movie with laughably needless edits, while offering others the temptation to waste their time with frivolous trash in order to appear cool.
And I didn’t even get into the fact that they’ve been actively recruiting young people to join their team, repeatedly assuring everyone that they’re legal, while knowing full well they could still be sued and lose. Granted, I don’t know whether the work is supposed to be full-time or just part-time. If it’s full-time, imagine the shock of being a young person who’s turned down other opportunities to commit yourself to this company, only to face the prospect of losing your job. Maybe they should have watched the documentary Cleanflix first, a movie which is ironically in VidAngel’s library.
I believe VidAngel was founded with good intentions, and I believe it could be used to good effect by some people. But if they can’t decide what kind of a company they even want to be, and if they get sued out of existence by Hollywood in the meanwhile, maybe it won’t be such a bad thing. Better luck and better marketing next time.