Sunday 26 January 2020

Show's over for Hollywood's dirty joke - Sony's 'cleaned-up' versions of biggest releases are sign that PG now rules silver screen


Sharon Stone in the infamous leg-uncrossing scene in 'Basic Instinct'
Sharon Stone in the infamous leg-uncrossing scene in 'Basic Instinct'
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Have you ever wanted to see your favourite dirty comedies without the dirty jokes? Sony Pictures is banking on the fact that you might. Last week it announced its new 'clean initiative' which will allow viewers to see certain releases without the lewd humour and for other releases, scenes of "graphic violence, offensive language, sexual innuendo and other adult content" either edited or removed. The programme will offer family-friendly versions of 24 films packaged with the unedited versions of those movies in Blu-ray releases and through various third parties, including iTunes.

The move has appalled some. The actor and comedian Seth Rogen, whose biggest films, including Knocked Up and Pineapple Express, were released through Sony, took to Twitter to vent his frustration.

"Holy shit, please don't do this to our movies. Thanks," tweeted the actor-writer-producer. Rogan's films have not yet been singled out for the treatment.

In fact, while it may smack to him of censorship, the move is broadly in line with trends in the film industry which has seen ever-increasing efforts to ensure that movies achieve the most family friendly ratings and classifications and thereby the largest audiences. Sony's 'cleaned up' versions of their films are analogous to the family friendly cuts you see in airline movies; tiresome perhaps, but nothing new. The only real change from standard film sanitisation is Sony's strategy of now offering these versions through streaming or with Blu-ray releases. There is a massive market for these cleaned-up versions and that has been taken over by third party distributors in a process that film writer Nick Shrager says raises issues "of unauthorised edits of copyrighted works - not to mention bastardised re-dos unsanctioned by the artists who actually made them." Moving this work in house is, from this perspective, merely a shrewd business move on Sony's part.

But it is also, undeniably, a sign of the times. The issue for many is not that films are edited for family audiences but what is edited. Violence has been on the rise in PG-13 films for over a decade but sex scenes are on the wane. There was a time, in the 1980s and 1990s, when the celluloid bonk ruled the box office. Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction were just two of the films of that era that were iconic, in large part, because of their sex scenes. A generation of teenagers grew up freeze-framing Tom Cruise's bum in Cocktail or Sharon Stone's uncrossed legs in Basic Instinct.

The rise of online porn has meant that teenagers now get their titillation elsewhere and, from a box office perspective, sex is seen as turning off an older audience. According to Vincent Bruzzese, a film research expert of Ipsos, a firm which analyses scripts for major studios, Hollywood isn't looking for sex scenes any more when pitching future blockbusters. He claims: "Sex scenes used to be written, no matter the plot, to spice up a trailer. But all that does today is get a film an adult-only rating and lose a younger audience." Fatal Attraction, he added, "would not get made in a million years today". Some of this stems from practical concerns.

From the filmmaker's perspective sex and nudity scenes require rehearsing, clearing of onerous no-nudity clauses (witness the uproar over Amber Heard's allegedly unauthorised edits to her movie London Fields last year - the actress was reportedly appalled at the graphic final cut for release), the development of chemistry between the actors, and a rating that potentially shuts out a young audience (even if the more restricted rating naturally acts as a type of lure to some young people). The current movie zeitgeist favours gun violence and action. In 2016 of the top 20 grossing movies worldwide, only three contained sex scenes.

Drama and CGI mayhem rule the day. The more graphic scenes have either migrated to television, where people can watch privately without the embarrassment of seeing such material in public, or to the darker recesses of the internet. Research shows that women make the majority of decisions for films that couples watch together and they tend to be more turned off by graphic or lewd content than their partners are. Films like Fifty Shades Of Grey have become the exception rather than the rule.

As much as it makes business sense for Sony to offer toned down versions of some of its classics, it probably also makes business sense for comics and artists to present themselves as bulwarks against this creeping sanitisation. It may also be that they simply think this is the wrong way to go. Seth Rogen, the actor who spoke out on the move this week, was extremely close to Amy Pascal, the executive who had to step down from her leading role at the studio, after emails in which she sharply criticised Angelina Jolie and others were released by hackers. Rogen loudly defended her after her departure and may feel that the studio now lacks the type of leadership she provided, which was characterised by a nuanced risk-taking and love for bawdy (and, to be fair, highly lucrative) comedy.

Rogen's alarm that his films might be next might also stem from the specific list of films that Sony has toned down. The films include all five versions of Spider-Man along with 50 First Dates, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, all the Ghostbusters films, Hancock, Moneyball, Pixels, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and White House Down. Many of these films have crucial elements of adult content. As the comic Amy Schumer recently pointed out to Jonathan Ross, there is such a thing as nudity which is dramatically called for.

On the one hand it's not difficult to see why a certain kind of audience might appreciate a slightly more family-friendly version of a comedy classic like Ghostbusters or the Spider-Man movies, which features a character kids already love, but some of the other choices in the sanitisation cull are downright head-scratchers.

Can you really appreciate Hancock, a movie about a foul-mouthed, sometimes inebriated superhero, without the substance abuse and swearing? And can you really say you have seen a movie like There's Something About Mary without the infamous hair gel scene? Whether lewd humour goes the way of the big screen sex scene remains to be seen. The studios know their business but they may be about to bring us into a brave new world of dirty jokes without the dirt.

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