On June 9 of last year, a private investigator visited Neal Harmon in his Provo, Utah office with unwelcome news: Disney, the second-largest media company in the world, was suing his company.
Andrew Zaleski is a freelance journalist based near Washington, D.C.
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Harmon always knew there was a chance he’d run afoul of big movie studios. As CEO and cofounder of VidAngel, Harmon leads a company whose mission is to police lewd content in blockbuster films: the sex scenes, the violent gore, the utterances of “motherfucker.” Until recently, VidAngel did this by buying up thousands of film DVDs and streaming them to its customers, who paid to access a digital version of the movie reshaped by whichever filters they selected.
Since its founding in fall 2013, VidAngel has enabled more than 500,000 people to filter close to 3,000 movies and TV shows. But by summer 2016, VidAngel was under fire—not only from Disney, but also from Lucasfilm, Warner Bros., and 20th Century Fox. The studios alleged that Harmon’s small startup was violating their copyrights as well as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act by offering cleaned-up versions of their films, and VidAngel has been fighting that legal battle for over a year now.
This fight might represent just another ho-hum episode of the long-running series, “Hollywood vs. the Digital Revolution,” but for one detail: Before Harmon donned his decency crusader cape, he’d made his name online—along with two of his eight Mormon siblings—as YouTube’s master of the gross-out infomercial.
The same year that VidAngel launched, Bethany Woodruff, a young woman with a British accent, was greeting millions of YouTube viewers from a bathroom stall while wearing a blue cocktail dress and a string of pearls around her neck. She was introducing Poo-Pourri, the before-you-go toilet-water spritzer that supposedly masks any odoriferous trace accompanying “a creamy behemoth from my cavernous bowels,” as Woodruff says in the video advertisement. Woodruff’s paean to Poo-Pourri, the collective work of Neal Harmon and his brothers Jeffrey and Daniel, has been viewed nearly 40 million times on YouTube. “For a while, people joked around that we were the Poop Brothers, or something like that,” recalls Daniel.
The Harmon brothers are synonymous with a handful of other viral video hits featuring products including the Squatty Potty, the Purple mattress, and the Orabrush (the 2012 ad for the latter, WIRED said, “reinvented the infomercial”). But in the back of their minds, a different idea was percolating: a filtering service that would locate the kind of grossness in which their video ads reveled and excise it from movies, along with other undesirable content such as excessive swearing or gratuitous sexuality.
Neal Harmon has made a niche for himself by figuring out how to playfully advertise things that are foul or weird, and then channeling the profits into a war to rid movies and TV of exactly those sorts of things. Now he’s locked in another war—an ongoing legal battle with the biggest movie studios in the US—to preserve families’ abilities to censor any F-bomb, boink, scary scene, or gory montage out of whatever video they’d like.
To some users of the service, he’s a hero. To the studios, he’s a pariah. But when he looks in the mirror, Harmon just sees a 39-year-old Mormon father raising eight children in the age of the internet.
“All I know how to deal with is, I have some children, I have a wife, and I’m doing the best I can to teach them based off of the experiences I’ve had,” he says.
Harmon’s twin impulses for creative marketing and censorial movie filtering have their roots in the Orabrush, the tongue-scraping toothbrush designed to make one’s mouth fresh enough for some steamy romance. (Or, at the very least, not send strangers in proximity running for a pair of nose plugs.) For eight years the inventor, Robert Wagstaff, had been trying to make his product a hit. After nearly a decade, all he had to show for his work was about 100 Orabrush sales. Then he met the Harmons.
In spring 2008, Wagstaff presented his product to a marketing class of MBA students at Brigham Young University. One of the students in the room was Jeffrey Harmon. Wagstaff was convinced that the success of the Orabrush lay in retail; Jeffrey disagreed, and said he ought to try selling it on the web. For $500, Wagstaff hired Jeffrey to produce a video ad for the product. Jeffrey turned to Neal—the two had worked together on business projects before—and they started scaling a video campaign.
Neal wasn’t exactly a digital media maven. He’d graduated in 2001 with a degree in American Studies from BYU and then gotten a master’s degree in instructional psychology and technology. He harbored dreams of becoming a professor like his grandfather, and even, he says, had a full-tuition scholarship to one of Penn State’s PhD programs lined up.
“When I was finishing my master’s I remember I walked outside the last day and said, ‘I’ve been stuck inside these buildings,’” Neal recalls. “But I’m an entrepreneur. I like movies.”
Combining their efforts, the two Harmon brothers came up with “Bad Breath Test.” The result was an early version of the mishmash of entertainment and information that made the Harmons geniuses of digital marketing. In the ad, a salesman talks to the camera while employing a number of props: a toothbrush, goggles and a lab coat, and a sponge soaked in brown gunk to represent the crud the Orabrush pulls from the human tongue. It’s quirky, and includes cheeky, winking references to why the viewer should care about bad breath in the first place. (At one point, Mr. Salesman demonstrates how to check for bad breath using a spoon. “If your breath stinks,” he says, “this is the only kind of spooning you’re going to be getting.”)
Jeffrey and Neal paid for some initial traffic, and the ad took off. To date it has racked up more than 26 million views on YouTube. It also made the Orabrush a retail success. In three years, by marketing on YouTube, Orabrush sold more than two million units; the product is now easy to find in the aisles of CVS and Walmart. Instead of reaping their profits from the ad campaign, Jeffrey and Neal joined Wagstaff as cofounders and took equity in the company.
The experience, and what came after it, was the Harmons’ crash course in digital advertising. Orabrush was a sponsor of the first VidCon in 2010, which allowed Neal to meet famous YouTube stars like the Vlogbrothers and devinsupertramp—and planted the first seeds of his future in the filtering business. “I became really good friends with some of these YouTube content creators,” Neal says. “I actually wanted to share some of their videos with my kids, but there were just a few things in their videos where I thought, ‘Uh, I don’t want my kids hearing that word right now.’”
In 2013, with their Orabrush stock vested, Neal and Jeffrey departed the company to take on the Poo-Pourri campaign. That’s when they brought on Daniel. The Poo-Pourri ad followed the same template as that for Orabrush: A single narrator shilling a product but doing so using dry humor. There’s no hard selling when it comes to poop-smell spray. If anything, the Harmons thought people would think the whole ad was a joke, which is why at one point Woodruff stops riffing about her tenacious skidmarks and little ass-tronauts splashing down into a “porcelain prison” and says, pointedly: “Yes, it is a real product, and yes, it really works.”
“We knew we wanted to talk very frankly about the problem from a comedic perspective,” says Daniel. “We thought a really nice way to do that was to have a British woman talking about poop.”
AdWeek featured the ad, titled “Girls Don’t Poop,” as one of the 10 most-watched YouTube ads of 2013. The three brothers were soon recognized as “pioneers of viral video” on YouTube. But another project was brewing in the background. While they were getting to work on the Poo-Pourri ad, the three of them also cofounded VidAngel.
“We started the ad agency to pay the bills,” says Neal. “And we started VidAngel because we wanted the product for our own families.”
Harmon is fond of quoting the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s an outlook that permeates his Mormon beliefs. It’s also how he tries to order his home of eight children.
“Children are like sponges, and they’ll just experiment with everything they hear,” he says. “If we’re going to model that within our home, we’re going to be kind to each other. The media we consume is going to represent that as well.”
Harmon figured VidAngel might be a good business. But his reason for starting the company was rooted in family more than anything else. He wants his children to be able to watch good films. Maybe they don’t need to hear every curse word. Maybe they’re too young to see a sexual encounter. One of his daughters, Harmon says, will filter out certain scenes that scare her in Jurassic Park.
You can press Harmon on specific examples, but you won’t get far. “The things that I filter the most are the things that I don’t want reenacted in our home, but I’m not going to give you my filter set,” he says.
In an attempt to make its point, VidAngel released a Harmon Brothers-style advertisement in 2014. In this YouTube video, a family of four wearing pearly white garments gathers on a couch in their pearly white living room to watch The Wolf of Wall Street, which includes 528 separate F-bombs. Then a gaggle of paintball-gun-wielding extras, each representing a different piece of suggestive content from the Martin Scorsese flick, fires thousands of paintballs at the hapless foursome. “Every word has impact,” the commercial says after the cannonade of paint ceases. “Protect yourself and your family.”
I admit to laughing my f&*@%ing a$$ off through the entire spectacle. But, it seems, filtering profanity doesn’t win the internet’s heart as readily as toilet talk.
When people heard a young British woman pushing a product that helps cover up the aroma that follows a nice bowel movement, they loved it. Hell, one commenter on that video censored herself: “I love how she talks. Like, it’s sarcastic but also not. I can’t explain but it’s fvcking amazing.” The VidAngel video with the paintballed family? “Grow up. They’re words,” wrote one commenter. “I let my five-year-old son watch The Wolf of Wall Street,” wrote another, adding, “he fucking laughed like hell.”
Filtering movies is fraught with philosophical and artistic debate. Should people watch films the way the directors made them? What gets lost if a person watching The Wolf of Wall Street doesn’t hear every “fuck,” or see every scene involving hard drug abuse, or watch actor Leonardo DiCaprio punch his character’s wife in the stomach? Sony announced earlier this summer that it would release “clean” versions of its films, but after several directors revolted, Sony backtracked, saying it would release filtered versions of films only with a director’s approval.
“Most parents get it,” Harmon says. “Our entire lives are about choosing what we’re going to expose ourselves to. For parents, filtering for their children what their experience is when they’re young, it makes sense.”
Today Neal is just an adviser to the Harmon Brothers ad agency, but he still employs some of the digital marketing tricks of the trade that he picked up. Considering the question of whether VidAngel ruins art is one such moment. In a Harmon Brothers-esque video, VidAngel employs comedian Matt Meese, speaking directly to the camera and using cheeky language, to make the point. “When a director makes a movie, he or she, if Hollywood let women make movies, has a vision for how that movie should be,” Meese says at one point. “But once that movie’s being watched in homes, the vision starts to change.”
Harmon’s customer base certainly agrees. When VidAngel was sued last summer, the company was already in the middle of raising five million dollars from customers in a mini IPO; they planned to use the money to grow the business. Using the Regulation A+ Tier II financing rules of the JOBS Act, VidAngel opened up its business to unaccredited investors, capping investments at $25,000 per individual. After VidAngel was sued, the ask to its customer base became about both growing the company and fending off the big studios in court. According to Harmon, 7,554 people invested a total of $10 million—money he says VidAngel will use to appeal its case to the Supreme Court, if necessary.
The studios make several arguments against VidAngel, but the main one is an appeal to the DMCA, which makes it criminal to crack encryption on copyrighted material. In order for VidAngel to actually apply any filtering to movies, it has to decrypt the video content encrypted on the thousands of DVDs it purchases in order to make streaming video files. The DVD player in your home is legally authorized for that kind of decryption. But the studios’ position is that VidAngel isn’t legally authorized to decrypt a DVD film to make it a streaming video file and then apply filters to its content.
Last December, the studios succeeded in getting a preliminary injunction in order to shut down VidAngel’s filtering service. Harmon called bull$#!+, appealing the decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The latest hearing took place in June.
Since then, VidAngel has made a crucial pivot: It replaced all of its DVDs with a monthly, $7.99 streaming service, which allows customers to connect their subscriptions to Amazon, HBO, and Netflix to their VidAngel accounts and filter video content that way. Movies from the four lawsuit plaintiffs are still unavailable, however, pending a different piece of litigation in the Central District Court of California that will determine if VidAngel’s new streaming service is also covered by the injunction.
“We are seeking a clarification that if the new business model and technology are substantially different, as we say they are, then using them would not be in contempt of the preliminary injunction,” says VidAngel’s general counsel, David Quinto. In other words, if the district court sees it VidAngel’s way, then the injunction wouldn’t prohibit the use of the new technology, meaning VidAngel could stream and filter movies from the studio-plaintiffs.
Still, if someone wanted to filter scenes in episodes of the latest season of Game of Thrones, they can use—and are using—VidAngel’s new system. According to VidAngel, GoT is the most-watched show on the company’s new streaming system, and viewers routinely filter out the word “fuck”; 80 percent of viewers filter out nude scenes.
Don’t mistake this pivot for some sort of surrender on Harmon’s part. If anything, it seems more like a dare—a challenge to the studios who protested over decryption and not getting their financial cut from streaming services to come up with a different reason to keep pushing the lawsuit.
“We hear through the grapevine in Hollywood that we’re probably accompanied by an expletive,” he says.
Harmon maintains that he’s not looking to subvert the art of film or use VidAngel to impose a vision of what kind of films should be made. We all get what it means to fast-forward through or skip certain scenes in movies. Harmon is basically saying: Why not make that easier using technology?
On August 24, the next beat in VidAngel’s legal saga dropped: The Ninth Circuit denied the company’s appeal of the preliminary injunction. While the Ninth Circuit ruling doesn’t affect VidAngel’s current streaming service, what VidAngel chooses to do going forward depends on how California’s Central District Court views that new service.
In a statement, Harmon reassured his users: “On the legal front, we are just getting started. We will fight for a family’s right to filter on modern technology all the way.” That might mean appealing the decision to the Supreme Court—a monumental move for a man who once served as “Poo Tech” for Harmon Brothers (a title he lists on his LinkedIn page). After all, in Harmon’s view, the decision to filter films shouldn’t have to go viral to get people behind it.
“Directors should be able to create what they want and present it how they choose in the public sphere,” he says. “And then individuals in the privacy of their own home should be able to watch however the bleep they want.”