Photo Credit: Courtesy VidAngel
VidAngel CEO Neal Harmon

Imagine watching the best Hollywood has to offer without the immodesty, profanity, and gory violence. VidAngel, a company based in Utah, was founded to facilitate just that. Don’t want to hear a particular swear word? VidAngel allows you to filter it out. Don’t want to watch an immodest scene? VidAngel allows you to censor that as well.

Since August 2015, more than half a million American families have utilized VidAngel’s filtering service, the company’s CEO told The Jewish Press. In June 2016, however, four major Hollywood studios – Disney, Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox, and Lucasfilm – sued VidAngel for copyright infringement, and last month, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against the company, forcing it to temporarily cease streaming content.

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VidAngel, though, is not giving up. It vows to fight all the way to the Supreme Court, and raised $10 million in November to do just that. To learn more about VidAngel and the suit, The Jewish Press spoke with VidAngel CEO Neal Harmon.

The Jewish Press: For those unfamiliar with your company, how would you describe it?

Harmon: VidAngel allows families to watch popular movies and TV shows filtered on their favorite devices – iPhone, Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, etc. So you find a movie you want to watch, you buy it for $20, you set your filters, and then you watch it. Then when you’re finished, you keep it, or you can sell it back to us for a $19 store credit. So [essentially] you can stream a filtered movie for a dollar.

How does the filtering service work?

It’s seamless. When you filter language, VidAngel mutes the front-center channel of the audio so all that’s heard is the background sounds and music. When you filter violence or [immodest scenes], VidAngel simply skips over the scene. Most of the time you don’t even notice anything is missing.

So viewers can filter anything potentially inappropriate in the movie aside from the movie’s underlying moral messages?

Yes, it’s your choice what you filter. The filter setting can be very general. So, for example, you can filter out all potentially objectionable language, or you can just filter out [a particular curse] word. It’s your choice. And however you set your filters, that’s how the movie plays.

What made you think of starting VidAngel?

I’m a father of seven children and my brothers are young fathers as well. We love good content, and we asked ourselves: Why isn’t there a way to filter a movie or TV show online? We did some research and asked American parents if they would be interested in filtered movies and TV shows. About half said yes, so we started a business.

What is the motivation of people who subscribe to your service?

We conducted a study with The NRG Group, which segmented Americans into three different groups: highly religious, somewhat religious, and not religious at all. The highly religious people want filters for themselves and their children. The other two groups want filters for their children, but not necessarily for themselves.

You are Mormon, correct?

Yes, but we have customers in every one of the 50 states. Some of the largest usage of VidAngel is in Texas, California, and North Carolina. We started in Utah, so we obviously have a large group here as well, but we are not a Mormon – or even a religious – company per se. We are a company that believes families should have the right to choose what they watch and how they watch it in their own home.

Why are you being sued?

There were over a dozen companies started to filter content, and Hollywood successfully sued nearly all of them. As a result, Congress passed a bill called the Family Movie Act, which was signed into law in 2005. VidAngel operates under that law.

Hollywood, though, would like the law to be effective only for older [non-streaming] technology; they don’t want it to be effective for new technology without their permission. So that’s what the fundamental legal dispute is about – whether a family has the ultimate say on how things are filtered in their home on modern devices, or Hollywood does.

Hollywood claims you’re violating copyright law, but you try to bypass any copyright problems by selling the movies to your customers before filtering them. Your logic is that once a person owns a film, he can do whatever he wants with his own property – watch it, filter it, or smash it with a hammer if he so chooses. Is that correct?

Yes. And that’s what the studios don’t want to be possible. Their argument is that the disc we purchase and then sell to you is not authorized to be streamed on a modern device. They say we have to get permission from them. But the rub is they won’t sell us a copy [with permission to edit it]. The studios know we are willing to purchase a license and do it the way they say it has to be done, but they refuse to do it that way and instead are suing us.

The market for filtered movies is presumably huge considering the tens of millions of evangelicals in this country plus ordinary American parents who don’t want their young children exposed to certain images and language. With such a huge market to tap into, you would think Hollywood would want to work with you.

Still from VidAngel YouTube video
Still from VidAngel YouTube video

There are people in Hollywood whom I’ve spoken with who want to help. But the most powerful people in Hollywood are the directors, and the directors have never liked others filtering their work. So the hands of the people inside the studio are tied.

Two years ago, VidAngel produced a video of a family being shot by 3,192 paintballs that’s been viewed close to two million times on YouTube. Explain the video’s symbolism.

The video is meant to show the change in culture over the last 75 years. It juxtaposes a shock movie from 1939, “Gone with the Wind” – which was one of the first major cinema productions to have a profanity in it – with the shock movie of 2013, which was “The Wolf of Wall Street.” That movie has 798 profanities in it and all kinds of other things to shock viewers. So we visually depicted this change with paint balls.

We shot one paint ball at a boy sitting on a couch watching “Gone with the Wind” and then we moved to 2013 and showed a family of four getting shot with 798 paintballs each. It’s really quite the visual spectacle, but it brings home the point that our culture has changed tremendously over the last 75 years. And the final line of the YouTube video is, “Every word has impact.” The words we use and the words used in society impact our souls and society’s future.

In 1992, Michael Medved published a book, Hollywood Vs. America, in which he argued that Americans don’t really want to watch movies with immodesty, profanity, and gory violence – the proof being that these films do worst, financially speaking, at the box office. In other words, in making these films, Hollywood is not catering to the tastes of Americans but flouting them. What do you make of this argument?

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Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press editor and writer. He is also the author of two volumes of interviews (under the title “Movers & Shakers") and editor of "Perfection: The Torah Ideal."