Film Classification

Before a film can be shown to a paying audience, it is required by law that it is certificated by the British Board of Film Classification. This ensures, for example, that films which are of an adult nature are not shown to children. Distributors must submit their films to be watched by examiners who write reports describing each film and justifying the decisions they have reached. The cost to the distributor is roughly £9.50 per minute, so classification of an average film costs around £800 ± £1100. The British Board of Film Classification produces a set of guidelines which are easily obtained for your reference from the organisation's website ( The BBFC is not a separate entity from the film industry or a government department. It is a self-regulatory body as it is made up of film industry representatives. But despite this, this is the one area of film distribution over which the makers and promoters of a specific film have limited control. It is possible for a film to be targeted and promoted for a particular audience group such as 15 and over, only for the BBFC to impose an 18 certificate, although this is rare. The film certificate influences the marketing campaign of the film since this will need to be pitched at the age range indicated by the certificate. A distributor may indicate to the Board which certificate they are hoping the film will be awarded, for example, a PG certificate to allow a wider audience to see the film. The Board, in turn, might suggest cuts are made in order for it to get this certificate. Conversely, there might be times when a higher rather than a lower certificate will actually help to sell a film. For a thriller or a horror film to be rated 18 will do more for it than if it were to be awarded a 15 certificate. In 2008, 639 films were classified of which 7 had to make cuts - 4 at the 15 rating, 2 at 12A and 1 at PG. The BBFC's guidelines state that there are three main considerations for any film: 1 Legal (material may break the law²-there are several laws to do with obscenity, equality, incitement and the protection of children) 2 Protective (material is scrutinised for its potential to cause 'harm' though this is a huge area for debate²who decides who needs protecting from what?) 3 Societal (material is reviewed with broader public opinion in mind with particular regard to language). The second and third considerations are more significant in stipulating an age classification for a film. It is important to recognise that the BBFC make recommendations, but it is

possible for local authorities not to comply and either allow films to be exhibited to a wider age range than the BBFC recommends, or to deny younger viewers access in the locality, or even to ban a film from release in the area. This hardly ever happens, but a famous example was the decision of Westminster Council to ban the screening of David Cronenberg's Crash (1996), which was given an 18 certificate elsewhere. The BBFC's relationship with Government is known, rather misogynistically, as a 'Gentleman's Understanding' which means that Parliament observes from a distance and the BBFC regulates itself in accordance with the political climate established by the Government (stricter or more liberal depending on who is in power). During the New Labour Blair/Brown era, the BBFC has been more relaxed about material for the 18 certificate, but µtougher¶ when considering material for younger children. It is important to be aware of classification as an element in 'gate keeping' the distribution process. The classifications, as published in the BBFC guidelines, are as follows: U: Universal (suitable for all). PG: Parental Guidance (general viewing, some scenes may be unsuitable for young children). 12 and 12A: Suitable for 12 years and older. No one younger than 12 may see a 12A film in a cinema unless accompanied by an adult. No one younger than 12 may rent or buy a 12 rated DVD. Responsibility for allowing under 12s to view lies with the accompanying or supervising adult. 15: Suitable only for 15 years and over. No one younger than 15 may see a 15 film in a cinema. No one younger than 15 may rent or buy a 15 rated DVD. 18: Suitable only for adults. No one younger than 18 may see an 18 film in a cinema. No one younger than 18 may rent or buy an 18 rated DVD. R18: To be shown only in specially licensed cinemas, or supplied only in licensed sex shops, and to adults of not less than 18 years. (Source: BBFC guidelines)

Classification Case Studies - Spiderman (2002) & The Dark Knight (2008)
The BBFC announced in September 2000 that it would look at the possibility of making the '12' cinema category advisory, like 'U' and 'PG'. This was in response to complaints from parents - particularly whenever a new James Bond film came out - who felt that they were better placed to decide which films their under 12s could cope with.

In 2001 they carried out a pilot in Norwich. The outcome was that the public was only in favour of making the '12' cinema rating advisory if under 12s were accompanied by an adult throughout the film, and if consumer advice about the content of the film, for instance, 'Contains a single use of strong language and moderate violence' - was available on publicity material and was included in local cinema listings. The Board then carried out a national survey in May 2002 and got almost identical results with over 70% of people supporting the introduction of '12A'. Once the Board was satisfied that the film industry was including the Consumer Advice on publicity and that the cinema exhibitors were including it in cinema listings, the new category was introduced on 30 August 2002. Spider-Man had been passed '12' in April 2002, in spite of a request from the distributor for a 'PG'. The reason for the '12' was that the film contained a level of personal violence and a revenge theme that went beyond what was acceptable under the 'PG' Guidelines. The decision proved to be unpopular with the under 12s who had collected the merchandise, toys, lunchboxes etc, which were specifically marketed at young children. The BBFC received many letters from disappointed children questioning the decision. The distributor of Spider-Man, Sony Pictures, decided to re-release the film immediately after the introduction of '12A' so that young fans had the chance to see the film at the cinema. The decision to introduce '12A' had nothing to do with Spider-Man or the pressure from parents and children who wanted to see the film. The Board had announced its decision to consider changing the category in September 2000 because it recognised that children were growing up faster and that parents were better placed to decide what their children should watch. For the record, the first '12A' film was The Bourne Identity.

Much excitement and anticipation surrounded Christopher Nolan¶s The Dark Knight based both on the success of the previous film and the recent death of Australian actor Heath Ledger. But though there has been much critical interest in Ledger¶s final high profile performance some quarters of the British press focussed on something quite different ± the film¶s µ12A¶ certificate. The Dark Knight was submitted with a '12A' request which came as no surprise given the likely appeal of the film to younger audiences. It had also recently been awarded a µPG-13¶, (a near '12A' equivalent), by the American ratings organisation, the MPAA. Several factors were noted which supported a µ12A¶ certificate. These included the film¶s comic book style, the appeal of the work to 12 ±15 year olds, the clear fantasy context and the lack of strong detail, blood or gore. The BBFC was also careful to ensure that additional advice was available to parents and other moviegoers through the website including extended information about the film detailing how and why it was classified µ12A¶ and urging parents to think carefully before taking youngsters to see it. Films classified '12A' are, broadly speaking, the most complained about decisions. As is often the case such complaints about The Dark Knight focussed largely on the possibility of very young children seeing the film ± although many correspondents also cited what they believed to be brutal, sadistic and strong violence. Several noted in particular the focus on knife threat and violence perpetuated by the Joker character. Some complaints also linked the content of the film to concerns about knife crime. Everyone who contacts the BBFC gets a personal reply. But it is important to set the complaints in the context of the number of people who saw the film. In the case of The Dark Knight the 200 plus complaints are a tiny proportion of the five million people plus who saw it in the first two weeks after it opened. The introduction of the 12A classification demonstrates that the BBFC have become more careful with children's viewing, but the introduction of the R18 legalises forms of pornography that were previously banned completely.

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