SALT LAKE CITY — In the heart of the conservative West, a mom-and-pop video store has dared to take on a cinematic giant in the name of family entertainment.
For $5, Don Biesinger has offered to snip three breathless minutes from the video version of "Titanic" for his customers, launching a test of wills against the distributor of one of the most popular films of all time. Now, this minor drama being played out in a small town in Utah may signal a broader experiment in the limits of tolerance, both of the viewing public and the film industry.
For Paramount Pictures, the issue is a simple copyright violation about unauthorized alteration of its films. But for people increasingly frustrated by the preponderance of R-rated films, it's a war over personal rights and morality.
When Mr. Biesinger took early retirement, he and his wife used his pension money to buy Sunrise Family Video, a small shop in American Fork, Utah. Well aware that his customers are among the most conservative in a state known for its conservatism, Biesinger doesn't rent out any films with ratings higher than PG-13.
While "Titanic" is rated PG-13, Biesinger knew he would have trouble cashing in on the film's much-publicized video release. He'd have to deal with some touchy morality issues.
"The problems were not only sexual, but sometimes there was violence, dead bodies and everything," he says. "We thought, 'Well, our customers have been saying they'd buy that movie if they could get the bad parts cut out.' "
Indeed, a recent poll for the Mormon Church-owned newspaper The Deseret News showed that nearly 60 percent of the residents of Utah County - which includes American Fork - would rent edited copies of popular films if they could.
One county's crusade
This is not the first time Utah County - a county of 300,000 just south of Salt Lake City - has been at odds with the film industry over family viewing.
The Varsity Theater at Brigham Young University in Provo had long been a popular place for students to see the latest movies - edited so they would not compromise religious sensitivities about nudity, profanity, and violence. Then, in 1994, the Mormon Church-run university was widely criticized for refusing to show an unedited version of "Schindler's List," and ultimately opted not to offer it.
The reaction died down, and BYU continued to show edited films - until the "Titanic" release. Soon after Paramount Pictures stopped a cinema in a nearby town from showing an edited version of the film, Brigham Young University officials got tired of fighting film companies and stopped showing edited films altogether.
Another Utah County college, however, has had greater success in showing edited films without repercussions. In Orem, Utah Valley State College screened an edited version of "Good Will Hunting" and plans to show a shortened version of "The Shawshank Redemption." Observers say the college has managed to avoid confrontation with the film companies because its distributor leases out movies edited for airline use.
Meanwhile, Sunrise Family Video is still waiting to see what action Paramount may take. Biesinger, who says he had no intention of flouting copyright and trademark laws, may be among the first to skirt them by editing cassettes. Biesinger knew he couldn't legally rent edited copies, but asked an attorney if he could offer an editing service for people's personal copies. (Sunrise itself doesn't sell or rent copies of "Titanic.")
"We figure they own the movies and can do anything they want with them, so we decided to go that route and put a little sign outside," Biesinger says. Within days, Sunrise Video was the talk of the town - and the country.
"We were getting calls from all over the nation asking us to edit copies," he adds. "Overnight, we tripled our business."
The shop, which has had to buy new equipment and hire additional personnel, has edited 1,700 copies of "Titanic" since its video release. It was enough to get Paramount's attention.
In a call with a Paramount official, Biesinger says he was warned not to sell any edited copies. "I said we don't sell any. Then he told me not to rent any. I said we don't rent any, either. So then he said, 'Will you stop editing the tapes?' I said, 'No, when a person buys a movie, it's his property.' "
For other critics of Biesinger's editing, though, the issue is not the violation of some law, but the violation of the film's artistic integrity. What's to stop corner stores from chopping up movies to the point that they're no longer what the filmmakers intended, critics ask. But Marianne Jennings, a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University in Tempe, says "Titanic" might not be the best place to draw this line.
"They act as if some artistic work has been destroyed," she says. "My children bought the video, and I said we could cut the whole dialogue."
While the issue is really personal censorship of offensive scenes, she says, the moral issues in "Titanic" go beyond the few nude scenes that are being cut. The message is that it's OK for a young girl to defy her parents and engage in a one-night stand, she adds.
What happens next
Paramount Pictures has been quiet, standing on its original statement that it will take "all necessary and appropriate action to protect our interests."
For their part, the Biesingers say they will wait until Nov. 1 and then begin offering editing services for other videos. And no matter what happens to Sunrise Video, there will likely be someone else trying to feed the public's appetite for family viewing.
Already, one Utah company that sells videos by telephone has negotiated ongoing rights to edit and release films.