How Films Are Cut for U.S. Audiences

Clarisse Loughrey

It’s been a tough year for Wong Kar-wai fans. Not only has the UK release of The Grandmaster been delayed for over a year after its initial release in both China and the U.S., we’ll be getting the severely edited Weinstein release of the movie that’s been whittled down from its full 130 minutes to a measly 108. On top of that, because it was originally cut for American audiences – otherwise referred to by Hollywood as the “dumb-dumb masses”– we’ll be getting a bunch of explanatory title cards spelling out the story’s historical context and generally making us feel like giant, idiot babies.

It’s not the first time these shenanigans have taken place, and it’s guaranteed not to be the last time. Hollywood has a long history of ensnaring international releases, putting them through the meat-grinder of idiocy, and then chucking their mangled corpses onto screens from sea to shining sea. Just check out a few particularly miserable examples:


The Grandmaster isn’t the first time the Weinstein Company have been responsible for some of the most brutal editing jobs ever committed on international releases distributed in the U.S. We need only look to another feature in last year’s crop of box-office smashing Asian market releases: Bong Joon-Ho’s dystopian epic Snowpiercer. Here, even the American-friendly superstar appearances by Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton couldn’t save the picture from the vice-like grip of the editor’s room, with Harvey Weinstein himself demanding 20 minutes of footage be cut and opening and closing monologues added before the film would be allowed in U.S. theatres.

Bong refused to cut a single minute from the film, and with fans rallying around him with a Free Snowpiercer petition, the director’s original cut eventually found its way on to U.S. screens. Even Weinstein’s aborted attempt to gain revenge by allowing only a limited, arthouse release backfired when positive buzz called for a wider release to over 150 theatres. If only The Grandmaster could have been so lucky….


You’re probably already well aware that there’s approximately a kajillion edits of Blade Runner floating around the netherworld. The original test print, the Director’s Cut, the Final Cut. If that weren’t enough to send sci-fi fans into a spiral of obsession, a slightly altered version was also released to U.S. audiences as opposed to the rest of Planet Earth.

The edit essentially involved cutting out some of the film’s more gruesome moments, specifically Tyrell getting his eyes thumbed in by Batty (resulting in a decent splurge of blood), Pris holding poor Deckard up by his nostrils and Batty shoving a nail straight through his own hand. I’m not sure why, exactly, apart from some bizarre pretence that Europeans are on the whole a more bloodthirsty variety of people, a belief which possibly requires confusing Europeans for werewolves. That said, by 1992, the international cut had received an American release through the so-called “10th Anniversary Edition” and balance was once more restored in the world.  


So on top of all Americans being deemed as stupid and gutless, Hollywood also seems to think that they’re literally incapable of emotionally handling anything outside of a happy ending. No, really, don’t give them a happy ending and they’ll run out into the streets frantically screaming about their own doom and then take three days off work to hide in their basements and weep at their first taste of disappointment.

Good thing Lionsgate stepped in and made sure the ending of The Descent wouldn’t be leaving any Yanks traumatised. So instead of Sarah waking up back in the cave she thought she’d just escaped, the North American version cut out a minute before the actual end, just after she witnesses the ghost of her dead friend Juno sat next to her in the SUV. Like they always say, it’s always better to end on a dead friend than a dead you.


Feel pity for the poor digital artist who had to sit there and cut out clips of cloaked people and stick it over clips of people doing it like they do on the Discovery Channel, because that’s exactly what U.S. censors called for when it came to releasing that infamous orgy scene to American audiences. Or at least, releasing that movie without getting labelled with that damning, box office-ruining NC-17 rating.

Unsurprisingly, critics and cinephiles everywhere were horrified, not least because they were missing out on all the boobs, but because it just wasn’t really in Kubrick’s character to play safe. After all, A Clockwork Orange was originally given an X-rating. So now, all the naughty stuff is still there, there’s just some dude standing in front of the action like you’re the one jockey at a concert attended entirely by basketball players. Luckily enough for us Europeans though, we get the whole scene intact. Yipee?


While you might see this version referred to as The Director’s Cut or the International Cut, the edit of this picture which first found its way to French cinemas in 1996, after originally being rejected due to a disastrous reception at an LA screening, has always been maintained by Besson as the original and only intended version of Leon: The Professional.

What was snipped out, and the reason for the L.A. audience’s disdain, were the scenes which further developed the already uncomfortable undercurrent of paedophilia which runs through Léon and Mathilda’s relationship. Nevermind the fact it was an entirely intentional and a central aspect of the movie but why have subtlety when you can be unreasonably outraged and stuff? ARGH! Burn Paris!


Possibly one of the greatest travesties committed in the hands of U.S. distributors, Universal made the downright insane decision that a dystopian satire cannot be allowed to have a downbeat ending, just in case people were stirred enough to take action and change things in their lives. Urgh, imagine that. So they cut the beautiful, tragic image of a man who finds freedom from his imprisonment only in the recesses of his own madness so Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) could instead drive off into the sunset and live happily ever after.

Gilliam was obviously outraged at the decision and refused to sign off on the film being released, instead taking action by posting a full-page ad in Variety to urge Universal’s chairman Sid Sheinberg to release the full version of the film and hosting private screenings to critics and industry insiders alike, eventually resulting in the film winning Best Picture at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Gilliam getting his way, and the correct version of Brazil getting screened across the country.


From Cannes opener to the figure of ridicule, at least Grace of Monaco’s got some form of excuse up its sleeve, even if it’s about as lame as a faked sick note with backwards ‘R’s intact. Guess who was the cause of all the hubbub? Harvey Weinstein. In fact, if you’ve got a hubbub in the editing room, you can pretty much guarantee that you can trace the thing straight back to Weinstein's own greedy little hands.

Two versions clashed heads: the version of the movie released in Dahan’s native France, in which Kelly arrives in Monaco to an indifferent royal family, and the Weinstein cut which turned the whole thing into something as irresponsibly vapid as Sex and the City 2. Things got so heated, in fact, that Weinstein was reportedly close to dropping the film as close as two weeks before its premiere at Cannes. Unfortunately, he didn’t. The Weinstein cut opened the festival and the whole world laughed.


Hollywood makes absolutely zero sense. They’ll turn a 42-page book consisting almost entirely of drawings into a blockbuster trilogy (I’m referencing Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them if you’re wondering, and if you bought it on Red Nose Day in 2001 you’ll understand how it’s about as sturdy a decision as adapting a Tumblr post into a movie). Yet present them with an international release which both naturally falls into two parts and managed to break records in the Asian market, and the studios suddenly get cold feet. The result being poor Red Cliff’s 280 minutes stretched over two epic pictures getting condensed into a disappointing 148 minutes and America losing out on the full effect of what's been described as a kind of Lord of the Rings equivalent for Asian cinema.


If you're feeling kind, you can at least understand a small part of the motivations behind the U.S. edit of Cinema Paradiso, trimming its 155 minutes to a slim 124, considering it was cut after the movie proved to be a flop in its native Italy. That said, most people will point you to the even later released Cinema Paradiso: The New Version which first made it to DVD in 2002.

While the U.S. edit loses much of Tornatore's earnest romanticism in favour of staler, more popularist sentimentalism, this director's cut allows for a full sequence to be restored to the film in which Salvatore (Jacques Perrin)'s attempts the futile rekindling of the lost love of his adolescence with Elena (Brigitte Fossey).


Sam Peckinpah's revisionist western has always marked a turning point in the cinematic depiction of violence, but would you believe it was still ruffling feathers as late as its 1993 re-release? That's because Warner Bros. decided to submit the full 145-minute European release over the shorter, 135-minute version which had been doing the rounds  in U.S. cinemas back in 1969. The strange thing is, those crucial ten minutes aren't any more or less violent than the rest of the picture, consisting of a collection of disparate scenes including a flashback of Pike's lover getting killed and the raid conducted by Pancho Villa's men on Mapache. Yet, when it was re-submitted to the MPAA, and with Peckinpah's passing leaving it outside of the auteur's force of retaliation, the once R-rated flick got slapped with the NC-17 deathtoll.

The whole shebang became sort of emblematic of the problematic and ironic nature of the American censorship of cinematic violence, as summarised best by Peckinpah's own biographer David Weddle: "I guess the MPAA is saying that if violence is fun, children can see it, but if the violence is disturbing and forces us to examine our own motives for watching then the MPAA is saying children shouldn't see it."

Follow Clarisse on Twitter: @clarisselou

Unconventional by Tradition

Discover how urban creatives helped us design our new packaging.

Read more