VidAngel Launches New Platform Amid Studio Legal Battle (Exclusive)

VidAngel Screenshot - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of VidAngel

VidAngel isn't backing down after a court ordered it to shutter its family-friendly filtering services — instead, the company has revamped its operations to circumvent issues raised in its legal fight with three major Hollywood studios. 

Its new $7.99 per month service piggybacks on users' streaming accounts. Customers log into the VidAngel app, link it to their other accounts and then filter out the language, nudity and violence in that content to their heart's desire.

Before an official launch event Tuesday evening in Provo, Utah, VidAngel CEO Neal Harmon told The Hollywood Reporter that, while he maintains what they had been doing was legal, the company's new service aims to address concerns about streaming release windows and licensing fees.

"Out of the gate we’ll be supporting Netflix and Amazon and HBO through Amazon channels," says Harmon, adding that Hulu, iTunes and Vudu will follow. "The studios are getting their streaming fees and they’re getting windowing the way that they want it."

The old system drew the ire of Disney, Warner Bros. and Fox, which alleged it was essentially an unlicensed streaming service. Users would pay $20 for a film, filter a digital copy, watch it and then sell it back for a $19 credit, essentially having paid $1 to view a version of the movie that's been cleaned up to their tastes. 

The studios sued for copyright infringement, and U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte in December issued an injunction pausing VidAngel's service until the litigation plays out. VidAngel appealed the decision, and the 9th Circuit is currently mulling over the case after hearing oral arguments last Thursday. 

During the hearing, Disney attorney Donald Verrilli emphasized claims that VidAngel was illegally ripping digital copies of films in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 

While the studios have been criticized as being anti-filtering, Verrilli insisted they only oppose illegal filtering. He pointed to ClearPlay as an example of how to offer cleaned-up content within the parameters of the law. "There's technology out there ... that applies filtering to a licensed stream," he said. "It connects up with Amazon or Google ... who have actually done what they should've done and gotten a license for public performance rights."

ClearPlay, which filed an amicus brief in support of the studios, sells a player that lets customers filter Blu-ray and DVD discs — and filters digital films rented or purchased through GooglePlay. The company last week announced that some Amazon content would also be available through its service. 

Harmon says it remains to be seen if the studios will fight VidAngel's new platform, but his biggest concern is how Amazon and Netflix will respond. He says his company has reached out to the streamers, and he hopes they'll raise any concerns through conversation instead of litigation.

VidAngel will be filing a motion next week that asks Birotte to clarify whether the new technology is subject to the current injunction. Until he rules on that motion, none of the plaintiffs’ works will be available for filtering — even if they’re offered by Netflix and Amazon for streaming.

"The exciting stuff is Man in the High Castle and Stranger Things and Game of Thrones," says Harmon, noting that there's still plenty to watch while the litigation is sorted out. "We can turn around a new episode within a day for the hottest content." 

VidAngel enlists an army of content taggers across the country, who flag things like profanity and sex in content they're already watching. Harmon jokes that if Game of Thrones were filtered enough for his family to watch they'd be left with only the visually stunning opening credits, but VidAngel doesn't limit its customers to watching what its CEO prefers.

While the filters are faith- and family-driven, Harmon says they're not meant only for religious customers and children. Survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence, for example, can use the service to skip over scenes that may trigger memories of traumatic experiences.

"VidAngel’s philosophy is very libertarian," he says. "Let directors create what they want, and let viewers watch how they want in their own home. That kind of philosophy respects the views of both parties."

At least one director, Adam McKay, has expressed his concern over a different kind of content clean-up: Sony's recently announced "Clean Version" initiative. The program offers consumers access to sanitized airline edits of 24 films, including McKay's Step Brothers and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, as extras when they buy the theatrical version. A rep for the filmmaker says he "would not have agreed to this" — although Sony says it discussed the program with directors or their reps in advance — and the DGA tells THR it is looking into whether the initiative runs afoul of its contracts.

While airline and broadcast TV edits may be too stripped down for some viewers because "they have to assume a 6-year-old is watching," Harmon says Sony's decision to break from the pack and offer the cuts is big news for fans of family-friendly films. "We’re thrilled that they did it," he says. "It validates the marketplace."