BOISE, Idaho -- Much to the displeasure of the major studios, Albertsons is testing the rental of edited R-rated movies in 45 stores in the Salt Lake City area.
Video II, Sandy, Utah, which racks rental departments in about 1,000 Albertsons stores in 16 states, approached the supermarket chain with the concept, which has long had the support of video operators in the Salt Lake City area. The movies involved are those with scenes or words that can easily be cut to make them acceptable to a family audience, similar to the approved versions that are shown on airlines and television, said Glenn Dickman, president, Video II.
Video II has invested $50,000 to $70,000 in equipment to do the editing itself, Dickman said. Among the titles in the test: "Black Hawk Down," from which it took out about 100 profanities, and "Life as a House," from which it took out 60 words and a shower scene. They are clearly identified as "E-Rated," he said. The test will run through the summer.
"Video II came to us and wanted to test-market this in Utah because there does seem to be a demand for this product in the state of Utah," said Jeannette Duwe, spokeswoman, Albertsons. "So we agreed to take a closer look at it to determine whether it is something that we want to continue to offer in our stores in Utah, and whether or not it makes any sense to expand it beyond that. We are just taking a look at what kind of demand is out there," she said.
As to the possibility of legal action taken by the studios, she said Video II has agreed to accept all responsibility. Beyond that, Albertsons' main concern is customer satisfaction, she said.
"One of the things we did to protect Albertsons was to sign an indemnification agreement so that all of the liability would be ours, and that they would be held harmless," Dickman said.
Studio executives interviewed during the recent Video Software Dealers Association convention registered strong objections to the concept, but stopped short of saying they would take action against Video II, which is the largest customer so far to try renting unauthorized, edited versions.
"That company is now venturing into extremely dangerous territory," said one studio executive who asked to not be identified. "There have been other attempts to do this which have met with virulent opposition from the studios, and I can see no reason why the same won't be true in this case."
Another studio executive, speaking anonymously, noted the creative issues involved. "When a film is released in home entertain- ment, there is one version of the film. In very rare circumstances, there is a second version of the film released, and that version is almost always a director's cut. That is normally a longer version of the film that was released theatrically, and that is the director's vision, not someone else's outside the creative process," he said.
Home entertainment executives would not address the availability of edited versions for airlines and television as those are put out by other divisions in the movie studio structure. A number of studio executives approached by SN refused any comment.
John Mitchell, an attorney for Seyfarth Shaw, Washington, who has represented the Encino, Calif.-based VSDA for 14 years, told SN that edited versions raise a number of questions, including copyright, artistic integrity and customer confusion. "If I take someone else's creative work, alter it and redistribute it, there is a good argument that I have infringed the copyright, he said.
"From a purely artistic standpoint, there is also the question of the director and other artistic participants, and there work being altered by a third party to essentially misrepresent their work."
Mitchell wasn't sure whether there would be lawsuits. "I could see maybe a threatening letter. But leagal action raises other huges questions in terms of not just the legal merits, but also the politics. Which we have the government trying to pressure everybody into censorship, it's hard to take a hands off approach with customers who are acting as third-party censors, he said.
The current test at Albertsons was partially the result of frustration over getting studios to release the edited versions themselves Dickman said. He and others have been trying to get the so-called "airline" versions of R-rated movies released to the home video market for 15 years, he said. While studio home video executives may see corporate boundaries keeping them from this product, people like Dickman have stopped accepting their other arguments, such as those about artistic control.
"I don't buy that because you get on an airline and you see an edited version. You see it on a cable channel, and later you see it on a national television network. I know they use artistic integrity as a reason, but it doesn't seem to fit reality," he said.
There is customer demand for this kind of product in Salt Lake City and, Dickman believes, elsewhere in the country. Also, because Video II is buying about 135 additional copies of each title, this represents increased business for the studios, Dickman noted. Dickman acknowledged that he is taking a risk by doing this. "It could be very short-lived because we are the first national or corporate account to get involved with edited movies, and that has put it to the forefront of the agendas of the studios."
In the past, it has been mostly smaller independent video shops that have gotten involved in editing R-rated movies, such as Sunrise Video, American Fork, Utah, which took out some scenes from "Titanic" in 1998, incurring the wrath of Paramount. Another small company, Clean Flicks, Pleasant Grove, Utah, only stocks edited versions.