An attraction or deterrent? A look at film classifications

In the summer of 2000, “X-Men” was released into general cinema viewing and became my first foray into the world of age-restricted films.

The film received a 12 rating for “sci-fi action violence”, which meant that only viewers who were the age of 12 years or more and, along with cage-fighting, melting men and super-power battles, that description was probably accurate.

This business of rating films affects almost every film that is out today, but what do those ratings mean to us, the paying viewers?

It is the job of the British Board of Film Classification to decide what rating a film gets and their official guidelines are updated every four years, in line with public opinion and research. The guidelines include language, sex and violence, but also such aspects as drug use, imitable behaviour and discrimination but it’s when the 18 certificate comes in is where it gets interesting.

Although the guidelines are set out clearly for ratings U to 15, the Human Rights Act (1998) is cited where the 18 rating is concerned, which states that adults should be free to choose what to watch with very little restriction.

This relatively uncensored rating guideline for the most extreme of films hasn’t always stood. In 1951, World War Two horror film “Revenge of the Zombies” was rated X by the BBFC (later to be replaced by 18), but was downgraded significantly for its 1999 video release as a U.

This shift started in the liberal decade of the 1960s as free-love spread over the Western world and can be pin-pointed to 1971 as controversial violent films “Straw Dogs” and “A Clockwork Orange” were passed with the top rating into public consumption — despite many thinking they should have been banned.

The 2000s have been another decade of relaxation of censoring, with the controversial releases of “Irréversible” and “Antichrist”, both featuring heavy sexual violence.


Over the years it has taken a lot more to shock an audience in the cinema. Photo: rpb1001

What has caused this drop in standards of the BBFC’s classification can only be speculated at. The BBFC’s FAQ page on the issue concedes that “it will be inevitable that public attitudes and values will change over time” and its guidelines are made through a “public consultation process” in order to follow these changes in opinion.

Of course, since the first ever moving image was shown by the Lumière Brothers in 1896 of an approaching train at a station, standards have changed as audiences have gotten used to seeing more and more shocking things.

Legend has it that the audience of that first 19th century film fled in fear at the moving train, but the closest we have to that today is the amount of cinema goers who left in distress during some of the Saw films’ premiers.

The difference in standards is staggering; from oncoming locomotives to painful torture scenes. Viewers seem to want to be shocked, to see new things, and what will shock an audience surely has grown. Film producers are continuing to try and up the ante to get more customers watching their products and to make more money.

This cycle of trying to shock audiences more and more has led to these lowering of standards of classification, it is obvious, but still the boundaries are still being pushed. However, it seems shock doesn’t seem to win audiences anymore.

The BBFC has encountered “heightened sensitivity” as pointed out in its most recent survey held in 2009 to raise issues such as knife crime, drug misuse and racism, so pushing these issues seems to go too far. This may be the end as we know it of audiences pandering to the shock tactics the cinema producers are using.

Consider the idea that the lower classified films indeed include more quality than those that are age restricted. The three top selling movies of the year so far: Avatar, Alice in Wonderland and Toy Story 3 — rated 12A, PG and U respectively.

Could the shock tactics be backfiring on the producers, creating a series of poorly constructed cinema filled with needless violence, gore, and sex? Are cinema goers looking for more substance to their films? Are they looking for quality acting and scripting over shocking cinema?

Once a cinema user reaches the age of 18, censorship doesn’t really have much effect on what they can watch, but according to BBFC research, 46% of us still specifically check what rating a film is.

It’s pretty clear that audiences won’t be getting terrified by a moving train again, but maybe the desensitisation of society has come to a halt and viewers don’t look for mindless shocks for their entertainment anymore.

Hopefully, this will leave film makers to concentrate on making great cinema once again rather than giving in to the shocks that audiences so often crave.

2 Responses to An attraction or deterrent? A look at film classifications

  1. Ed Cottingham says:

    Interesting article but I disagree with a few things. Firstly, I don’t think box office success should be equated with quality. Judging from the box office figures for this year, audiences really aren’t looking for any substance in film, let alone good acting or scripting.
    I would also say that there is more of a trend of films being watered down/ censored in order to gain a 12A classification so that it is available to a wider audience and will therefore gross more.
    And most of the works from the likes of Ford Coppola, Tarantino, Kubrick, Scorsese and the Cohen brothers are rated 18. Are they not makers of great cinema?

  2. Joel Murray says:

    Thanks for your comment Ed.

    I totally agree that some 18 rated films by directors such as those listed (I’m a big Tarantino fan) are definitely full of quality. I do think, however, that a lot of films out today which are rated 18 are so because of trying to make things so shocking as to get more viewers, and consequentially don’t have such quality (take almost every horror film as such).

    As for being watered down to be 12A, I think it is much more that film makers try to get away with as much as they can before it moves to a 15 as opposed to toning their content down. Unfortunately, you can get away with a lot before you lose your 12A rating.