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Sean P. Means: VidAngel's new world: Making movies, not filtering them

Published March 6, 2017 11:11 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Neal Harmon is not one for understatement.

"I think we're going to have the biggest premiere in Utah history," Harmon, the CEO of the Provo-based entertainment company VidAngel, told me this week.

The movie in question is a teen comedy filmed in Utah, "Tim Timmerman: Hope of America," which hits screens in Utah on Friday before a wider rollout to other states. It's the first movie Harmon's company is releasing theatrically under its VidAngel Studios banner.



Harmon is becoming a movie mogul, rather than a guy fighting moguls in court — a fight that, at the moment, VidAngel is losing.

VidAngel — which launched in August 2015 with a business model to stream filtered versions of Hollywood movies online to customers seeking to avoid sexual content, violence and profanity — kicked off this new phase, to distribute original content, in December. Dozens of companies, Harmon said, pitched their work, including the folks behind "Tim Timmerman."

The movie, filmed in Orem and Salt Lake City, follows Tim (played by Eddie Perino), the worst student-body president ever. Tim is a glad-handing, charisma-oozing slacker who spends more time hanging out with the stoner kids and plotting pranks against his rival school than he does with the actual mechanics of student government.

On the verge of being kicked out of student government, and with grades that won't let him into his preferred college, he embarks on a desperate plan to win a scholarship by teaming up with Sydney (Chelsea Maidhof), the selfless, hard-working student-body president of his school's biggest rival, to stage a charity formal dance.

Cameron Sawyer, the movie's writer-director, based Tim on his own experiences as student-body president at Orem High School, class of 1995.

"I only did it to pad my résumé. I didn't think there would be actual work involved," Sawyer said of his student government days. "They wanted to impeach me the entire time I was there."

Harmon thought the movie, which harks back to John Hughes' high-school movies of the 1980s, was a good fit for VidAngel.

"Our audience is very used to VidAngel's cheeky, funny culture and voice," Harmon said.

Travis Morgan, a producer on the film, was impressed with VidAngel's database of 1 million customers — about half of whom live in Utah, with the rest scattered through the Intermountain West, the South and elsewhere around the country.

"We would love for this to have a big splash in Utah and then go nationwide," Morgan said. "We're hoping to use [VidAngel's user base] as a springboard to drive enthusiasm."

Purdie Distribution, the Utah-based company that released such LDS-themed films as "The Saratov Approach," is also on the team releasing "Tim Timmerman." The company's president, Brandon Purdie, said he is impressed with VidAngel and the producers' collaboration.

"I've never witnessed a better partnership than VidAngel Studios and the 'Tim Timmerman' production team," Purdie said in a statement. "They are perfectly aligned in so many ways."

That partnership seems to be working. Harmon's prediction of a record turnout for a Utah-made movie is based on presale tickets from his customers, who "showed up and doubled the numbers we expected."

The good news comes as VidAngel is enjoined, by a court order, from practicing its original business of streaming filtered Hollywood movies. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by four major movie studios claiming VidAngel's service violates the studios' copyrights on films.

Harmon has appealed the ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. He vows to take it to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

"The reason I started VidAngel is because I have young children, and I want to filter content for them," he said.

There's a checkered history of such services, many of them begun in Utah County.

For many years, the Varsity Theatre at Brigham Young University had an arrangement where it could show R-rated movies in edited form. This became controversial when the theater was denied permission to show "Schindler's List" with the concentration camp scenes edited for nudity.

In 1998, Sunrise Family Video, a store in American Fork, made national headlines when it offered, for $5, to cut and splice customers' VHS copies of James Cameron's "Titanic" — in particular, the scene where Kate Winslet's character posed with one breast exposed for Leonardo DiCaprio's artist character.

The outcry from Hollywood filmmakers, led by the legendary John Frankenheimer ("The Manchurian Candidate"), eventually forced the store to stop. (The outcry also prompted the Varsity to stop showing edited films.)

But a cottage industry soon popped up, with stores burning DVDs with edited versions of other movies and renting them to consumers. The best known of these companies was CleanFlicks, based in American Fork.

When the Directors Guild of America threatened to sue CleanFlicks, an inventor linked to the company instead sued 16 directors — including such names as Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford and Martin Scorsese. The lawsuit argued that selling edited content was legal under copyright law. A judge said otherwise, and so did the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. CleanFlicks was shut down in 2006.

Devices to bleep content on the fly, however, were allowed. A law in 2005, the Family Entertainment and Copyright Act, said such devices were OK — but burning discs, which CleanFlicks did, wasn't.

VidAngel's case hinges on that 2005 law. Harmon's side argued that VidAngel's service is akin to those filtering devices. The trial judge didn't buy that argument.

My longstanding objection to all this editing and filtering isn't just that it damages the filmmakers' original intent, but that it frequently borders on the ridiculous.

Before the judge enjoined VidAngel from streaming Hollywood movies, some of the titles in the catalog included "Fifty Shades of Grey," "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "Game of Thrones." Harmon has argued that inclusion of such titles is proof that his service wasn't about making moral judgments for its customers — and that if they wanted to watch a sex-filled movie with the sex removed, even if there was nothing left except the credits, that was their choice.

But if customers of such services want to send a message to Hollywood, it seems silly to write that message on a $1 bill. Back when Sunrise Family Video was snipping tapes of "Titanic," they always did so long after James Cameron had gotten his money from the transaction.

Making and releasing movies like "Tim Timmerman" will send that message to Hollywood more forcefully. It may turn out that switching, rather than fighting, will be the best thing VidAngel could do.

Sean P. Means writes The Cricket in daily blog form at www.sltrib.com/blogs/moviecricket. Follow him on Twitter @moviecricket. Email him at spmeans@sltrib.com.

 

 

 

 

 

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