a sign on a hill with Hollywood Sign in the background

In the late nineties, a company called CleanFlicks began selling censored, family-friendly DVDs. Editors muted curse words and removed scenes of nudity and violence, making Titanic or Star Wars safe for movie night with even the most wary family. 

The Utah-based company was only doing at scale what nearby Brigham Young University and some local movie stores had begun doing for Utah’s large, conservative Mormon population. Mormons of all ages tended to avoid PG-13 and R movies as a matter of faith. The President of the Mormon Church, Ezra Taft Benson, in May 1986 gave the following advice:

Consider carefully the words of the prophet Alma to his errant son, Corianton, “Forsake your sins, and go no more after the lusts of your eyes.” (Alma 39:9.)

“The lusts of your eyes.” In our day, what does that expression mean?

Movies, television programs, and video recordings that are both suggestive and lewd. Magazines and books that are obscene and pornographic.

We counsel you, young men, not to pollute your minds with such degrading matter, for the mind through which this filth passes is never the same afterwards. Don’t see R-rated movies or vulgar videos or participate in any entertainment that is immoral, suggestive, or pornographic.

As this became a general principle among conservative Mormons, they sought edited copies of movies as a way to enjoy Hollywood without sacrificing their belief in avoiding the negative influence of its violence, profanity, sexuality, and downbeat messages. 

CleanFlicks quietly prospered and spawned imitators, mostly serving its early adopter Mormon customers, but always promising a solution for every mother and father who has ever worried about watching something inappropriate with their children. In 2002, it came to the attention of Hollywood. In response to Hollywood directors’ disapproval, the owner of several stores renting and selling CleanFlicks movies sued for the legal right to sell them. The Directors’ Guild and prominent directors such as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese countersued. 

The owners of services like CleanFlicks argued that Hollywood already sells censored versions of their films to airlines and television producers and that they bought a copy of each film that they sold. Directors countered that they made the decision on what to edit and who to distribute to (and that this was clear copyright infringement). CleanFlicks and co. cited the huge market for censored, family friendly versions of movies. The directors responded that censored versions of movies diluted their brand and forced movies to compete with alternate versions. What if fans began selling or distributing versions of films with alterations to their favorite scenes or deletions of their least favorite characters (as one Star Wars fan did by editing out the annoying Jar Jar Binks character from Star Wars Episode I)?

After a 3 year trial, a judge ruled the business of CleanFlicks and its competitors “illegitimate.” He ordered CleanFlicks and similar companies to hand their inventory of movies over to the Directors’ Guild and cease making edited versions of movies.

As the censoring services shut down, the more conspiratorial accused Hollywood of not wanting people to be indoctrinated by the values of their filthy movies. Most simply looked for a new way to get censored movies. Censored DVDs became a small black market, other companies defied the ruling as long as they could, people learned to edit movies themselves, and companies like ClearPlay offered DVD players that filter out inappropriate parts of movies and TV shows – something allowed by law. 

At the same time that Hollywood took on the companies created by the Mormon community’s dislike of PG-13 and R movies, however, they began eagerly hiring that community’s members as animators and filmmakers. 

Brigham Young, a university in Provo, Utah, owned and operated by the Mormon Church, has one of the best film animation programs in the world. Covered in a recent New York Times Magazine feature, the program has been lavishly praised by pillars of the animation world like Pixar president Edwin Catmull. Graduates of the program feature prominently in the animation of movies like “Brave,” student animation projects regularly win student Emmys and play at Sundance, and graduates are hired away before their graduation faster than Stanford computer scientists. 

Although the program, like the rest of the school, is open to all, it is unlikely to have more than a few non Mormon members anytime soon. The success of the program drives interest, but the strict university honor code, which forbids sex outside of marriage, drinking alcohol or caffeine, or swearing, almost invariably drives non Mormons away. 

Those religious requirements, however, help make BYU’s program a favorite of movie executives. At most schools, students own entire film projects. But BYU students cannot do film full-time as religious coursework is required. Therefore, students pitch film ideas, agree on one, and then divide and collaborate on the work. This mirrors the process inside the film industry, where the massive workload of an animated movie is divided among animators. 

The type of films the program produces show what type of movies this Mormon community wants to see: clean and full of uplifting messages. In one, a bloodthirsty pirate knits sweaters for his daughter. When his fellow pirates discover this, they mock him. But when the ship needs a new sail, his knitting saves the day.

The Times writer found the program genuinely full of students with a desire to reform the entertainment industry from within. Students cited the bad influence of movies like “Wedding Crashers” as something they wanted to change. They not only wanted to produce “clean” movies, they wanted uplifting messages. Even “Shrek” was viewed as too cynical. “Contrast that with a film like ‘Wreck-It Ralph,’” said one student. “That teaches you: Hey, you can be a better person. Here’s how!”

BYU’s animation program is only 13 years old, so graduates are still climbing the hierarchy in the filmmaking world. But due to BYU’s strong program, a very different culture is gaining influence in Hollywood. Although Mormon sensibilities about movies failed to disrupt Hollywood through omission and censorship, BYU’s graduates are poised to change Hollywood as major players within the industry. 

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google Plus. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.