In-Flight Movies Are Censored for the Most Bizarre Reasons
Outrage over edits to Olivia Wilde’s ‘Booksmart’ showcases the tricky dynamics of serving up in-flight entertainment
Those who paid money to watch Booksmart in theaters saw high school seniors Amy and Molly living a rambunctious teenage life, coming of age in a critically acclaimed movie.
If they were to watch the movie on a flight, however, viewers would likely encounter a different experience — and not just the tiny monitor perched at an awkward angle from the seat ahead of them or the absence of Dolby Surround Sound. Those are a given. But the plot, pace, and action in the movie are different, too.
Olivia Wilde, who directed the movie, watched it on a recent flight and encountered the alternate version of Booksmart — one stripped of anything deemed “controversial.” In an angry thread posted to Twitter last week lambasting the practice of in-flight entertainment edits, Wilde detailed how everything from same-sex love scenes (featuring no nudity) to the words “vagina” or “genitals” were either cut entirely or lightly censored from the screening.
Airlines have reacted to Wilde’s outrage. Delta announced on Friday that it would restore cut scenes to versions of the movie playing on its flights. “Studios often provide videos in two forms: a theatrical, original version and an edited version,” Delta spokesperson Emma Protis told the Hollywood Reporter. “We selected the edited version and now realize content well within our guidelines was unnecessarily excluded from both films. We are working to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
The airline also said it would be restoring cut sections — including same-sex love scenes — from the Elton John biopic Rocketman.
The controversies have thrown a spotlight on how in-flight entertainment is scheduled, programmed, and edited, not to mention the odd quirks of appealing across cultures when the average passenger plane can carry dozens of nationalities, each of which have different social attitudes and mores.
The first movie screened on a regular, scheduled flight was By Love Possessed, a schlocky drama about a passionate lover (Lana Turner) driven to kill herself, shown on a TWA flight in 1961. The screening deal was the result of lobbying by David Flexer, a Tennessee businessman who had investments in cinemas.
Nearly 50 years later, we’re confronted by a bewildering array of options to keep us entertained on flights through built-in systems.
“With Netflix and Amazon in this day and age, the airlines are looking for content they can use to wow their passengers,” says Jovita Toh, founder of Encore Inflight Limited, a Hong Kong–based company that distributes movies and TV shows to 128 airlines around the world. Her company provides monthly lists of new releases to content service providers, companies that program entertainment for different airlines based on the demographics of their passengers. Around 90% of airlines deal with content service providers, though a handful — including Virgin Atlantic — buy directly from distributors.
“The content service providers will have guidelines for each airline and will tell us what they’re sensitive to, and the distributor has the responsibility of taking out any sensitive content,” Toh says.
When Toh’s company brokers deals with movie producers, the contract will declare whether producers want a say in any edits — or if they will allow any changes at all. “Some of them are pretty strict and want their movie seen as it is,” she says.
There’s a sliding scale of social squeamishness: Middle Eastern carriers generally come down hard on portrayals of nudity, while European airlines are all for nudity but take a hard pass on anything too gory.
The industry’s standard agreement allows up to five minutes of cuts to a movie without any approval from its creators — which may explain why Wilde didn’t know about the cuts to Booksmart. Those edits will generally be made on the basis of local tastes and those of passengers likely to fly on an airline’s routes.
Middle Eastern airlines, for instance, will generally require blanket cuts to any references to pork or pigs because of religious sensitivities. There’s also a sliding scale of social squeamishness: Middle Eastern carriers generally come down hard on portrayals of nudity, while European airlines are all for nudity but take a hard pass on anything too gory.
It’s all down to the fact that we’re flying in close proximity to each other. Even in premium economy sections, the passenger on an American Airlines flight is just a foot and a half away from their seatmate. Peeking over their shoulder at what they’re watching is a sacred pastime during long-haul flights. And the fact that people from different cultures, as well as children, walk the aisles on any given flight means the chance of offending someone with what’s playing on screens becomes tricky.
Bans on other topics or visuals are more widely held: Just as traditional TV programming may be rescheduled in the aftermath of a terrorist attack, airlines generally shy away from any depictions of air crashes whatsoever. One Spanish-language movie, 2014’s Wild Tales, was the talk of the in-flight entertainment industry for its whipcrack humor until people realized one of the six standalone scenes in the movie was about a pilot who invites friends he hates onto his plane, then crashes it into his mother-in-law’s house. “This was during the Germanwings incident where a pilot took down a plane by suicide,” Toh says. A combination of cold feet and the producers landing on an Oscar shortlist and realizing they didn’t have to accede to editing the plane-crash tableau out of the movie, resulted in a standoff. “Every order was canceled,” Toh says.
Toh says distributors look for titles with widespread appeal, both to account for cultural sensitives and to keep business interests in mind. As a result, some of the more daring movies won’t even make it to the point of being sliced and diced by distributors.
And even those that make it through the cuts aren’t immune to criticism — especially given that the people behind the movie often fly on the same flights that are showing their handiwork. The airlines that screened Booksmart’s sanitized version got off lightly, according to Toh.
During a flight on a Middle Eastern carrier, the producer of Bollywood movie The Violin Player decided to check out their movie, which had been edited by Encore Inflight. Many scenes were taken out because they contained nudity, while the language was toned down to accommodate cultural sensitivities. “The producer really hated the edited version of it,” Toh says, “and insisted on taking it off in-flight completely.”