Inflight entertainment on planes: How airlines decide what to show you

Ever suspect that what you might be seeing on the infight entertainment screen on your next flight might be a vanilla version of what gets screened in the cinema? With content edited by prudish types who redact with relish? One cinephile who compared the run times of movies screened on airlines with the cinema version found that 14 per cent were shortened.

Delta Airlines was recently called out in a Hollywood backlash when it screened a version of the film Booksmart which cut the word "lesbian" and a same-sex love scene – pivotal to the plot. Olivia Wilde, the film's director, took to Twitter, accusing the airline of heavy-handed and unwarranted editing. Delta backed down, restored the love scene, and the same for the gay scenes in the Elton John biopic Rocketman.

The Middle Eastern airlines used to be more restrictive on content but airlines such as Emirates, Qatar, Etihad and Royal Jordanian offer a wide selection of top quality movies and TV.

According to an airline spokesman, Delta selected an edited version of Booksmart, adding that it sources its inflight content from a third-party editing company, and promised to try harder in future.

See: Delta backflips on sex scenes removed from inflight movies

So what happens to a film between the studio release and the time it appears on the inflight entertainment screen? For an insider's view of the process I asked Mark Horton, head of worldwide sales at Cinesky. Based in West Hollywood, Cinesky is a leading distributor of independent film to the non-theatre market, a category that includes airlines.

Do studios create sanitised, flight-ready versions of their releases or do airlines ask Cinesky to do the edits?

"We always create what the we call the 'airline edit' which is a version toned down to be suitable for family viewing. We will remove bad language and nudity, similar to broadcast TV.

But we will also watch out for content that may be upsetting for passengers inflight such as commercial airplane crashes, but you'd be surprised how many action films have a scene where a 747 will fall out of the sky!"

Why do airlines outsource the editing of what gets screened on their inflight entertainment systems rather than doing it themselves?

"Most airlines are very involved in the selection process of the movies and TV that are shown on their aircraft. However, because of the huge volumes of content they consume each month they outsource the work of researching and then licensing to third party suppliers who specialise in the inflight entertainment market - like Stellar Group in Sydney.

Airlines can choose almost every new release available and they play a range of movies from blockbusters, arthouse, family and international films."


What genre rates best with airlines?

"Romantic comedies are probably the most successful genre because they are entertaining and upbeat, but the big box office hits of the day will always get the most viewers.

Having said that, there are always hidden gems that get great ratings. Our most successful film recently was a small film called Five Feet Apart a romantic drama set in a hospital. We have had many airlines telling us that this was their top rated film of the summer, beating out the big budget superhero movies."

Are there any absolute no-go areas as far as content is concerned?

"Horror really doesn't work inflight, but besides that genre the airlines are keen to play as much variety as they can to cater for the diverse audiences on their planes. For example, most airlines are fine with gay themes.

We released the movie Carol starring Cate Blanchett, the story of a love affair between two women set in 1950s New York, and most airlines booked it. Of course there will be countries where there are more cultural sensitivities and it won't work. But in the main, as long as the movie is good quality, the airlines will book it."

What about airline disaster movies?

"The first movie to play on Virgin Atlantic was Airplane (AKA Flying High in Australia), a disaster spoof movie which told the story of a lovesick ex-Navy pilot who has to land a commercial aircraft after the pilots fall ill. So even airline disaster movies could work for some carriers, but generally they avoid them."

Which airlines tend to be more liberal?

"Qantas and Virgin Australia have always pushed the barriers. For instance they screened the gay film Holding the Man when it was released a couple of years back.

Typically European, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian airlines are less worried about sex and language but are much more sensitive to violence. In the US, Asia, Middle East and Africa it's the reverse – violence is okay but sex scenes are often cut.

The Middle Eastern airlines used to be more restrictive on content but airlines such as Emirates, Qatar, Etihad and Royal Jordanian offer a wide selection of top quality movies and TV."

Are there any airlines that stand out for their infight entertainment content?

"Emirates, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific are definitely leaders, putting a great deal of focus on the quality of the inflight entertainment content and the actual system onboard. All of these airlines are putting their money behind the various passenger touch points – comfortable seats, best quality meals, an expansive inflight entertainment package and top quality screens in the seats.

Some other airlines have taken a low budget approach by asking customers to bring their own devices, but with shrinking space onboard this is not a great experience for a passenger flying in economy."

Will we ever see 3-D on inflight entertainment systems or is that a technological bridge too far?

"Typically the airlines will adopt technology that is popular in the home so it's well proven and reliable before it's bolted onto an aircraft at 30,000 feet and the airline passengers are familiar with how it works. 3-D never took off because the payback to the consumer wasn't big enough after they'd shelled out for special glasses and TV sets.

Likewise, in the airline market, many airlines tested 3-D but the passenger reaction wasn't positive enough. However, airlines will continue to install better quality systems with higher resolution screens, which will mirror the experience in the home."

Got an all-time, go-to actor or director you could watch every time you fly?

"I love Hitchcock films – I can watch North By Northwest again and again when I fly. Rear Window, Notorious and Strangers on a Train are timeless classics. Of current directors, anything from Martin Scorsese, he's in a league of his own. I can't wait to see The Irishman, but The Departed is one of my all-time favourite films. I'm on the edge of my seat every time I see that film and I know what's going to happen next!"

See also: This is the future of inflight entertainment (and you may not like it)

See also: Expert reveals how to get the quietest seat on a plane