Unrated vs Clean: It’s Time to Demand Choose-Your-Own-Rating DVD Options

A few years ago a film came out that my wife and I had wanted to see, but we didn’t get around to seeing it in the theatre. So when it came out on DVD, I stopped by a local video rental and picked it up. In our family, we don’t watch R-rated films. Since I knew that this particular film had been rated PG-13, I hadn’t bothered looking at the rating on the DVD when I rented it, I just hurriedly found the title and picked it up.

Even though we both wanted to see it, my wife ended up watching the movie without me while I was at work. She called me, shocked, because the film contained a scene full of gratuitous nudity and explicit sexual activity. Embarrassed, I double checked that the film had been PG-13 using an Internet search. A closer look at the DVD container showed that the DVD contained an “Unrated” version of the movie. We had fallen for a bait-and-switch! The theatrical version had been rated PG-13, but it was not available to be rented on DVD. You could only rent the “Unrated” version.

That was our first experience with “Unrated” DVDs. A few years have passed since then, and releasing “Unrated” versions of films to DVD has become increasingly commonplace. We have had to be extra careful when renting films to make sure we are getting what we intended.

When DVDs were first being introduced, one of the advantages they offered was that filmmakers would be able to offer different versions of the film on the same disk, and that the viewer could choose which version they wanted to watch. You could choose to watch in widescreen or standard, dubbed in a variety of languages, or with commentary by those involved in making the film. Later studios were releasing “extended” edits with additional parts that had not been included in the theatrical release, for example “The Lord of the Rings”.

Early on in the push toward DVD technology there had even been some discussion of the possibility of DVDs carrying multiple edits of the film at different ratings, so that the viewer could choose to watch the PG edit, the PG-13 edit, or the R edit.

Why didn’t this choose-your-own-rating option materialize?

During the previous decade we saw the movie industry threaten and sue companies that sold sanitized, “clean” versions of their films and theaters that showed edited versions, like Brigham Young University’s Varsity Theater used to do. In explaining why, filmmakers often cited their artistic integrity to explain why they did not wanted edited, sanitized versions of their films available, even if there was a large potential market for it. The art and the message was more important than the profits. If people weren’t willing to see their art as intended, then too bad.

Of course, the “artistic integrity” argument was always suspect. After all, the studios were already producing sanitized edits for showing on airlines and also for later broadcast on television. Why weren’t these versions made available on DVD? The filmmakers insisted that the airline and TV edits were special exceptions. The DVDs however, had to stay true to the same artistic vision as the original.

But now the cat is out of the bag. The trend toward releasing “Extended” and “Unrated” versions of films exposes the “artistic integrity” lie. All along they have been doing exactly what they claimed their “artistic integrity” didn’t allow them to do. Releasing an “Unrated” version to DVD means that the theatrical version of the film _was_ an edited, sanitized version from which they purposefully cut out “art” to sell it to a larger potential market who wouldn’t see it otherwise.

This was always the case, of course, but as long as the only version available for home viewing was exactly the same as the version shown in theaters they could maintain the illusion that their refusal to allow the distribution of “family-friendly” edits on DVD was derived from a supposed “artistic integrity” that requires the DVD version to be “true to the original.”

Recently, there was another film released to DVD that we wanted to see. We don’t stop by the local video rental anymore, we have DVDs delivered by Netflix, so when I went to Netflix to add the film to our queue, I was dismayed to find that the DVD was “Unrated” even though the theatrical release had been PG-13.

However, as I read through the listing details I discovered something hidden down the page written in the description of the “other features” of the disc: “This disc contains both the theatrical and the unrated versions of the movie”. So, I added it to the queue.

When it arrived, neither the cover sleeve nor anything printed on the DVD itself indicated that it contained anything but the “Unrated” version of the film. But we popped it into the player just to check before sending it back unwatched. We were pleasantly surprised as the DVD menu prompt clearly asked us to choose to watch either the “Theatrical” or the “Unrated” version.

So now that both “Unrated” and theatrical versions of films are not only being distributed individually on DVD and Blueray, but even being distributed on a single disc with the option to watch the “Unrated,” uncut version or the sanitized PG-13 theatrical edit of the film, there is no reason why they shouldn’t also include the option to watch a PG-13 or PG edit of the film as well, especially since these edits are often already being made for airlines or TV anyway.

Admittedly there are some films that cannot be edited in this way without becoming incoherent. But the vast majority of movies could be edited to remove profanity, nudity, and violence without doing any more damage to their coherence than is already done when editing the film for theatrical release.

The “artistic integrity” excuse has been exposed as largely false. Every theatrical version is a sanitized version compared to the unrated version of the film.

Despite resistance from the music industry and “artistic integrity” complaints from musicians, technology and demand eventually forced the music industry to allow listeners to purchase individual songs they liked and make their own playlists instead of being forced to buy a whole album mostly full of songs they didn’t want just to get the one they liked. The industry could no longer force consumers to consume what they didn’t want because it was inextricably bundled with what they did.

Likewise, I expect that technology and demand are combining against the movie industry’s ability to force-feed audiences garbage they don’t want by bundling it with what they do. The movie industry is in financial trouble already. They need the money. And since they can no longer honestly appeal to their fake “artistic integrity” they have no excuse.

It seems like a prime time to flex a little consumer muscle and demand the choose-your-own-rating option for movies.

All it would take is for some large distributor such as Wal-mart to demand that PG-13 edits be made available, either as individual discs, or bundled as a viewing option on a single disc, for every movie that wants to be sold through their stores. This isn’t as far-fetched as some people might want you to think. Wal-mart is already known for frequently refusing to stock music with Parental Advisory notices unless a “clean” version of the album is made available. They wouldn’t have to stop selling R-rated movies, they would just have to demand that R-rated movies also have a sanitized alternative, or at very least that if they are going to release an “Unrated” version that differs from the theatrical version, then they also have to release a version edited to remove profanity, nudity, and graphic violence. And if the movie makers remonstrate, they can simply point out as I have that the movies are already basically doing this with theatrical alternatives to unrated versions.

It wont happen unless consumers demand it, though. So if this is something you support, consider contacting Wal-mart and other major distributors and asking them to pressure movie makers to make clean versions of their films available on DVD and pass the word on to your friends and family to do it too.

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