A copy of this post can also be found on http://www.britflicks.com
The BBFC defines its purpose as being to protect children – anyone under 18 – from unsuitable material. This may be all well and good when it comes to films on general release, or on sale at supermarket checkouts. But over 90% of these films are American productions (some with English actors and storylines) and at least six% of the rest are French productions from either Pathe or Gaumont.
Basically British independent films don’t get a look in because UK distributors simply can’t afford the marketing spends which the multiplex chains demand before they’ll consider booking a film. The result is that these films only get screened in specialised cinemas and arts centres which under 18s don’t go to, and the DVD’s are mainly sold via the internet to 18+ credit card holders. In short the BBFC is not ‘protecting’ anyone from these films.
On top of that, when it comes to giving films 18 ratings the BBFC has a policy of not demanding cuts, and that this because of both European freedom of expression legislation, as well as UK public opinion – adults expect to be treated as adults. And when it comes to public screenings they don’t have any power either; local authorities grant licences for film screenings and they generally go along with BBFC ratings, but they’re perfectly happy to see unrated films shown at festivals, regular indie film nights and so on.
You could say that its powers only apply to DVD’s, rating such material in relation to the Mary Whitehouse/Daily Mail ‘video nasty’ moral panic inspired Video Recordings Act of 1984 and its amendments of 1993 and 1994. And under the VRA, material designed to ‘inform, educate and instruct’ is exempt, provided that it contains little sex and violence. In point of fact no one is actually obliged to submit anything to the BBFC – but you’d be in trouble with the law if you were breaching the VRA.
So how do you know if you need to submit or not? If, like me, you try contacting the BBFC they’ll tell you that it’s not their job to interpret the law; but if you send it they’ll classify it – and find a way of charging you for it even if it is clearly exempt. But, at the same time, they will tell you that a director’s or producer’s commentary, which you’d be forgiven for thinking was there to ‘educate and inform’, was actually a different version of the film which they’d have to classify at their standard rate of around £500 per hour.
And you better pay because you might be running the risk of a £5,000 fine, or two years in jail, maybe both.
But who enforces the VRA. Are you going to get in trouble with the police? No. Actually you’d only be in trouble with ‘Trading Standards’, and only then if someone had made a complaint. So I contacted a wide cross section of Trading Standards offices asking for clarification as to exactly what was exempt and what was not. And just about every reply said something different, but they all agreed that it wasn’t really their job, it was up to a judge to interpret the law.
This is a complete farce. You could say that BBFC ratings benefit Hollywood as audiences make decisions partly by classification, and the cost for them is a drop in the ocean.
But it’s really annoying if you’re an indie filmmaker who’s made a two hour long 18 rated film, and put a lot of effort into constructing a ‘DVD extras disc’ that’s full of the sort of added value that audiences look for, and your distributor tells you that they’re going to have to cut all the audio commentaries because each one is going to add yet another £1,000 onto the BBFC bill in order to protect people who aren’t going to see the film in the first place. This is nothing more than a punitive tax on indie filmmakers and distributors!
There are other parts of the world with more enlightened and more sensible policies. Films can be release unrated and treated as a ‘18’ in such as the USA, Norway and Germany. In Denmark an unrated film counts as a ‘15’, and Sweden is planning to introduce the same ‘unrated 15’ category within the next twelve months.
And then there are countries such as Canada, Austria and Malta which treat DVD’s exactly the same as CD’s, books, magazines and any other media, by not rating them at all.
On top of that, as in New Zealand recently, many media businesses have started complaining about how censorship and certification fees, just as in the UK, disadvantage niche markets. And it’s about time that more of us started complaining here as well