As program manager for in-flight entertainment at American Airlines Inc., Robert D'Avignon faced a difficult choice this summer with the action thriller Mission: Impossible III: Book a blockbuster or risk upsetting passengers.
"We tend to be a bit more conservative," said Mr. D'Avignon, who decided against playing the film on overhead screens because it contained too much violence.
Nevertheless, the Fort Worth-based carrier deemed an edited version of the Tom Cruise film acceptable for viewing on its personal, in-seat screens.
More and more, airline officials are balancing their concerns about offending customers with conservative taste in movies against the desire to please others by offering a greater selection of films.
It's all part of a major shift in how airlines think about the $1.75 billion-a-year industry for in-flight entertainment.
Although financially struggling carriers had been reluctant to invest in entertainment since an industry slump began in 2001, airlines are now installing additional screens as part of a campaign to attract customers for their longer - and more lucrative - flights.
The trend is occurring even as many passengers bring their own movies onboard, running them on notebook computers, DVD players and video iPods.
Airlines are booking far more movies than they used to - including titles they wouldn't have considered before.
New video systems bring up to 15 or 20 choices to passengers who once had one, said Jeff Klein, president of Jaguar Distribution, a Los Angeles-based firm that brokers distribution deals between studios and airlines.
"It's allowed the airlines to pick films that probably may not have made it a few years ago, films that are maybe a bit edgier or cerebral or arty, perhaps foreign language films," Mr. Klein said.
This year, for example, airlines booked Transamerica, a lighthearted drama about a transsexual that contains references to sex abuse and pornography.
"That kind of film probably wouldn't have done very well before the in-seat video systems," Mr. Klein said.
Meanwhile, international films are becoming more popular on overseas flights.
"There's more and more viable content from new countries," said Rob Brookler, spokesman for the World Airline Entertainment Association, which represents 100 airlines and 250 vendors. "You need to provide content that's relevant to the audience that's flying."
In general, motion pictures are made available for distribution to audiences through what are known as windows, beginning with a period for theatrical release, followed by home video, pay television, network TV and station syndication.
Airlines are allowed to show films in a window about two or three months after they hit theaters but before the DVD release, Mr. Brookler said.
The selection process begins much earlier, about six to nine months before the theatrical release date, when airlines and their agents start getting advance-screening copies.
In choosing films, airlines avoid the obvious: plane crashes, terrorism, sex, profanity, racism, violence or anything that would make people uncomfortable, according to the airline entertainment trade group, which is based in McLean, Va.
But there are exceptions, including Air Force One, in which the presidential aircraft is hijacked. That film showed widely on airplanes, Mr. Brookler said.
No Michael Moore
American, the world's largest carrier, is particularly sensitive about what it shows on its overhead movie screens.
Mary McKee, American's managing director of in-flight products, said the airline avoids anything with anti-U.S. themes and even political films. "Michael Moore will not be shown on any of our flights," she said.
But American is adopting looser standards for its in-seat screens.
This summer, American said it would install personal entertainment systems in business- and first-class seats on 767 and 777 aircraft through 2007.
Both will offer multiple movies, plus other services such as television, music videos, news and music channels. American is also distributing portable DVD players in first class on some flights.
To fill all those channels, American is booking a more diverse mix of titles, including The Da Vinci Code, a controversial thriller which it will show after director Ron Howard makes edits this fall.
American doesn't charge its passengers to watch movies; those who don't have headsets can buy them for $2.
Ms. McKee said she isn't aware of problems with indecent movies that passengers may bring on the planes themselves.
Airline policies don't dictate what passengers watch, she said.
"People exhibit fairly good taste and they know their seatmate can see what they play," she said.
"We've heard no reports from flight attendants that someone is watching an inappropriate movie on their laptop."
As American books more titles each year, it also risks offending fickle airline audiences.
Ms. McKee said even the Will Ferrell holiday comedy Elf angered one passenger.
"It's actually a cute movie suitable for children and adults, and we got a letter from someone saying he was offended by the blatantly religious theme of the movie," she said.
"You're never going to be able to please everybody."
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