Features

(Editing out) sex sells

National | To the dismay of Hollywood, a Utah video store owner cuts racy scenes out of hit movies

Issue: "Joe DiMaggio: In memoriam," March 20, 1999

The message on the simple marquee that stood alongside 100 East, a lonely two-lane highway stretch through American Fork, Utah, hardly seemed enough to agitate even a place as restless as Hollywood. Yet shortly after the words "Will edit your Titanic video for $5" first appeared on the sign outside Don Biesinger's Sunrise Family Video store 20 miles south of Salt Lake City, the outrage-and the requests for the removal of racy scenes from the video-came in torrents. When director James Cameron's Oscar-winning film was released on video last September, the store offered to trim a scene in which Kate Winslet appears nude and another in which an adulterous liaison between Ms. Winslet's and co-star Leonardo DiCaprio's characters is implied. Mr. Biesinger's store, at customer request, had similarly edited less-known videos for most of the past two-and-a-half years. But when Titanic (Paramount Home Video)-a video Sunrise neither sells nor rents-hit the shelves, Mr. Biesinger decided to advertise. The response, he said, could not have been more shocking. Two days after the video's release, a caller to a radio talk show in Salt Lake City informed listeners of Mr. Biesinger's service. "The next day" Mr. Biesinger, a Mormon, said, "we had four TV stations and a hundred people waiting in line for us to edit their videos. I was hoping we'd get a hundred people in here total, and we got that many in one day. I was really amazed." So far, he has edited more than 5,000 copies of Titanic. Mr. Biesinger's surprise, however, was Hollywood's ire. Paramount retained lawyers and demanded repeatedly that editing of the video cease. In a facsimile obtained by WORLD of a letter sent to Mr. Biesinger, an attorney for the studio wrote, "When Sunrise makes an abridged version of Titanic, it is infringing on Paramount's exclusive rights." According to the attorney, Richard Kendall, "Paramount's right to make different versions is something that it is free to exercise according to its business judgment," and "it is unlawful for Sunrise to attempt to override those decisions in the marketplace." The letter, Mr. Biesinger sniffed, represented only "a lot of opinion. They don't like it, but there's nothing they can do about it." Paramount, although it has hinted at legal action, has yet to proceed with any formal measure, nor even state directly that it intends to do so. Meanwhile, a second business, ATR Productions of Holladay, a Salt Lake City suburb, began offering "high-tech" editing of Titanic at twice Mr. Biesinger's $5 rate. "There is nothing illegal about editing customer-owned copies of this movie," said ATR's Walter Pera. "I have researched copyright laws and my understanding is that you cannot copy or edit a tape for distribution. That's not what I'm doing." Others, such as Arnold Lutzker, Washington-based attorney for the Artists' Rights Foundation, disagree. While Mr. Lutzker concedes the right of individuals to alter personal copies of Titanic, editing in the commercial arena, he says, may constitute an infringement of the studio's copyright. "If a guy pulls out a pair of scissors and snips a couple of scenes from a tape in the privacy of his home, or even if he asks a friend to do it, there's no law against it," Mr. Lutzker said. "But if that editing occurs as a transaction in commerce, then it becomes a legal matter." Regardless of the law, Hollywood director John Frankenheimer, whose credits include The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, went on the warpath: Those who cut nudity or implied nudity are "mutilating art," he said. Mr. Frankenheimer called for an industry boycott of Mr. Biesinger's store and said he will have what he refers to as a "Biesinger clause" in future contracts, stipulating that videos of his films are not released to Sunrise. "It's like being a museum curator and taking a Picasso painting of a nude and painting a bathing suit on it and trying to pass it off as a Picasso," said Mr. Frankenheimer. But Mr. Biesinger pointed out in a letter to Paramount that scenes from films shown aboard airplanes and on television also are edited, a practice that Mr. Frankenheimer also deplores but which he and the Los Angeles-based Directors Guild of America are virtually powerless to stop. Last year, Mr. Pera began editing other videos, as did Mr. Biesinger, including Columbia TriStar Home Video's Jerry Maguire. Neither Mr. Cameron nor TriStar responded to requests for interviews. "I really don't know what the big deal's about," Mr. Biesinger said. Movie companies are "actually selling more videos now because people know these videos aren't going to show anything that's inappropriate for their children. All we're doing is providing a service for our customers."

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